It’s been nearly two years since we performed our survey of the Chinese takeout landscape in Maine, and sadly, the picture hasn’t improved. With a few exceptions (we’re hearing good things about Zen Chinese Bistro, for example), each bag of Chinese takeout seems to be more depressing than the last. For every new “authentic taqueria” that opens to much fanfare, the takeout Chinese places continue along in their horrifyingly cynical way, slopping gluey Lo Mein into a bag to sell for $18 while a barefoot 8-year-old girl somewhere just out of sight screams incoherently in Chinese.
During the first week of last year, we ran a brief series entitled “Chinese New Year,” detailing our efforts to learn how to cook Americanized, Western-style Chinese food right in our own kitchens. During our experiments with Fried Wontons and Steamed Pork Dumplings, we learned that even home cooks like ourselves with absolutely no root or training in traditional Chinese cooking can turn out results far, far more appetizing than the local takeout joint.
We wanted to start off the first week in 2013 with a bit of a “round two” of this series, adding a few more Chinese takeout classics to our arsenal. We’re starting with Chinese-Style Spare Ribs, primarily because they are one of our fallbacks when dealing with an unfamiliar Chinese restaurant menu. Even when they’re bad, they’re pretty good: Crunchy in some parts, chewy in others, and shellacked with a bright fire engine red, sticky sauce.
Unlike many of our bastardized Chinese-American favorites (I’m looking at you, General Tso), Chinese-style spare ribs can at least somewhat trace their lineage back to actual Cantonese cooking, where char siu is cooked hanging from the roof of a wood-burning oven. We’ve read plenty of stories about cooks using drapery hooks to hang the meat from the racks of their home kitchen ovens, but such elaborate preparation really isn’t necessary; you can achieve similar results simply by roasting your ribs in a pan, then cranking the heat at the end to get some crispy caramelization on the honey-basted marinade at the very end.
A final note or two about that sauce: For maximum Chinese takeout style, you can add a few drops of red food coloring to the marinade, which you should allow your ribs to soak in at least overnight, or even up to a couple of days. Most ready-made hoisin sauce already contains some red coloring, though, so you may find you like the natural color just fine. We didn’t add any, for the photographs on this recipe. Also, this recipe gets a lot of its flavor from a dry rub of Chinese five-spice powder. If you can’t stomach the idea of spending $8 on a tiny jar of spices that you will probably only use once, you can make your own by combining 1 teaspoon ground cinnamon, 2 teaspoons fennel, 1 teaspoon star anise, 1/4 teaspoon ground cloves, and 1/2 teaspoon Sichuan peppercorns, and grinding them together in a spice grinder or mortar and pestle.
Chinese Spare Ribs
Adapted from a recipe by Serious Eats; Serves 4 as an appetizer
- 1 tablespoon Chinese five-spice powder
- 1 full rack St. Louis-style spareribs, cut into individual ribs (about 3 pounds total)
- 1/2 cup hoisin sauce
- 1/4 cup shaoxing wine or dry sherry
- 2 tablespoons soy sauce
- 1/4 cup honey
- 2 cloves garlic, grated or minced
Sprinkle five spice powder over ribs, and rub spice into the meat until evenly coated.
In a gallon-sized Ziplock bag, combine hoisin sauce, shaoxing wine (or sherry), soy sauce, honey, and garlic. Squeeze the bag a few times to mix ingredients. Add ribs and mix until evenly coated. Seal bag, transfer to refrigerator, and let ribs marinate overnight, or even for a few nights.
When ready to cook, preheat oven to 375. Remove ribs from bag, and reserve marinade. Line a rimmed baking sheet with foil, set a wire rack in it, and spread the ribs evenly over the rack. Cover with aluminum foil and roast for 1 hour. Remove foil, brush ribs with marinade, increase heat to 450, and continue to roast until charred, glazed, and sticky, about 20 minutes longer, rotating ribs and basting with marinade once more during cooking. Let rest 10 minutes, then serve.