Not entirely sure what the correct definiton of spare ribs is. They are a long cut from the lower portion of the pig, specifically the belly and breastbone, behind the shoulder, and include 11 to 13 long bones. They come as a sheet about a foot and a half long with a covering of meat on top of the bones as well as between them. Since the ribs are what are left after the loin is removed from the top and after the layer of fat and lean that will become bacon is removed from the sides of the pig's carcass how meaty or fatty or ‘spare’ the ribs are will vary widely. But however they come, they have a great affinity to being lavishly slathered with sweet and spicy sauces. They can only be eaten clutched in your hand, with the pleasure of gnawing on juicy bones while your fingers get covered in sticky stuff and half way up to the elbow in my case. Seriously good food.
Americans eat spare ribs with great gusto either done as a long slow barbecue or spiced with chilli and ketchup and roasted. The number of rib shacks in the states is probably unknowable. But for me the strongest association with ribs is for Chinese style. For many years I have split them, marinated them for a while in ginger, garlic, honey, five spice and soy and then simply roasted them in a hot oven till darkly shining and smelling amazing. Then I came across this version in Fuchsia Dunlop's book, Revolutionary Chinese Cooking, where they are boiled first then drained, then a little of the cooking water is returned to the pan with the ribs and a mix of sauces and spices and cooked down to a different dark shining pile. Then leave them to cool and eat them cold. With a pile of napkins nearby.
Spiced Spare Ribs
500g meaty spare ribs, cut into bite sized bits
2 x 30g pieces fresh ginger, unpeeled and crushed
4 spring onions, white parts only, crushed
1 tbspn shaoxing wine
2 tspn dark soy sauce
4 tbspn white sugar
1 tbspn chinkiang vinegar
1 tsp sesame oil
groundnut oil for cooking
Put the ribs in a pan of water and bring to the boil over a high flame. Skim then add one of the pieces of ginger, 2 spring onions, the shaoxing wine and salt to taste. Boil for 15 minutes until the meat is tender. Strain and set aside, reserving 200ml of the cooking liquid.
Heat 3 tbspns of oil in a wok and add the remaining spring onions and ginger and stir fry till fragrant. Add the ribs and toss for a f ew minutes in the fragrant oil. Add the reserved cooking liquid, soy and sugar then simmer over a medium flame. Spoon the liquid over the ribs until the sauce is reduced to a heavy syrupy consistency.
Add the vinegar and cook for another minute or two, until the flavours have fused. Off the heat, stir in the sesame oil and leave to cool before eating.
They were part of a feast we had Sunday night after seeing Thge Dark Knight at IMAX - let me recommend it as a brilliant way to see such a film. The whole meal was cold - though sadly the day had not turned out hot. As well as the ribs we had tipan, star anise chicken, steamed rice for gathering the juices, and salads of both spinach and aubergine. It was a quite splendid meal with an amazing range of flavours and textures and colour. And all of it prepared way in advance. Stress free and fabulous, a perfect way to end the weekend.