Last week, I went to Choice Eats 2014 with a bunch of friends (I actually liked last year's better - with each restaurant/vendors' signs hang up, I could actually see where I was going. The signs play such an important role in a huge space full of people.) ANYWAY! It was a load of fun. We ate and drank so much, and we walked out of there completely stuffed. There was one particular dish that stuck to me, and I wanted more, a lot more. I had a spare rib that was super tender, juicy, and flavorful. And I knew it had to been a Chinese recipe because the taste was very familiar. Then, it hit me. It was táng cù pái gŭ (糖醋排骨)! Or as I like to call it Chinese Braised Sweet and Vinegary Spare Ribs.
The literal translation of the name is "sugar and vinegar spare ribs". A lot of people refer to this dish as "sweet and sour spare ribs" but I personally think that "sweet and sour" might be a bit confusing since the term is so widely used for another very popular Cantonese dish (like Sweet and Sour Pork). I didn‘t want you to think that these two dishes were "siblings" but they sure are "cousins" (who grew up in two different regions).
Chinese Braised Sweet and Vinegary Spare Ribs (糖醋排骨) was originated in the city of Wuxi (無錫) in the Jiangsu (江蘇) region. It's also classified as Huaiyang cuisine (淮揚菜). The dish is also known as Zhen jiang spare ribs (鎮江排骨) because it uses black vinegar that that made famous by the city of Zhen Jiang (鎮江), Jiangsu. Black vinegar is usually made from glutinous rice (sometimes millet or sorghum is used as well) with spices which makes the taste very unique. It's rich and often has a smokey flavor to it. When you look for it at the store, the label might have a spelling of Chinkiang vinegar instead of Zhenjiang vinegar. If you can't find anything that comes close to black vinegar, you may substitute for balsamic vinegar.
This dish is really easy to make. Within 3 hours, you'd be licking your fingers and munching on fall-off-the-bone ribs that are sweet and vinegary. I made a whole mess of them, and didn't want to share them with anyone else at all! That's how good I think they were. "But wait! There's more!" The ribs tasted even better the next day! So try not to eat them all right away (even though I know it's gonna be really hard to do!)
Start by searing the ribs to get some color on them, and that would start building flavor to the meat as well. Your cast iron pan would be perfect for the job! (Wait, what? You don't own a cast iron pan? That's crazy talk! Do yourself a favor and get a basic Lodge one. You'll be forever thankful.) Just remember that we're only searing here, not trying to cook the ribs fully. If you sear the meat for too long, you'll lose the good stuff - FAT. And losing the fat in ribs is like losing frosting on a cupcake. It will cost you at the end, and dry meat will change the texture of the ribs drastically which you won't be happy with after 3 hours of hard work!
After searing, let the sauce/marinate do its thing for the next 2 hours.
Look, how can you resist not to eat it all?!
Chinese Braised Sweet and Vinegary Spare Ribs (糖醋排骨)
Prep time: 10 mins Cook time: 2 hours Total time: 2 hours 10 mins
- 2 lbs spare ribs (baby back ribs, about 20 ribs)
- 2 cup black vinegar (such as Koon Chun or Chinkiang)
- 1 cup packed brown sugar
- 1/2 cup soy sauce
- 1 cup water
- 2 tbsp Chinese rice wine (such as ShaoXing)
- 3" section of fresh ginger, thinly sliced
- 5 garlic cloves, roughly sliced
- Prepare the sauce/marinate by cooking sauce ingredients together in a large and deep frying pan/chef's pan on medium-low heat (ribs will be added in the same pan later on). Stir occasionally until brown sugar has melted completely. When it starts to boil, turn down the heat to low and keep warm.
- Sear spare ribs on all sides, 1-2 minutes each side, preferably in a cast iron. Then transfer them to the pan with sauce.
- Cover with lid and let the ribs cook for 1 hour on low heat. (Sauce should already been thicken/reduced at this point, and will continue to do so. Adjust the thickness of the sauce by adding water a little at a time.)
- Uncover and check the ribs by moving them around with a tong. Continue to cook for 1 more hour with the lid on.
- Transfer the ribs onto a serving plate and pour some of the sauce on top, if you like. Serve immediately.
For a more intense and richer flavor, keep the cooked ribs in the sauce overnight (and in the fridge). The next day, simply reheat on the stove.