Chinese 5 Spice Ribs

When you go to a Chinese restaurant and order ribs, what do you usually get?  What real question is, what do you want to get?  What are you hoping will be put in front of you?  In my experience, you usually receive a few pieces of overcooked and sometime tough ribs, with only a small amount of meat.  They are cooked in char siu sauce, or Chinese bbq sauce, which, while flavorful, gives the ribs that classic pink-red appearance. On a side note, I would love to tell you that the color is derived from a secret mix of peppers and spices, but really, it’s just red food coloring.

So, back to the real question, what do you want?  Speaking for myself, I want tender, fall off the bone ribs loaded with those classic Chinese flavors.  Cinnamon, fennel, allspice, Szechuan peppercorns, scallions, garlic, and some of the more pungent items, such as fermented black bean sauce, hoisin, and so on.  Char siu, in my opinion, is great for finishing the ribs, but should not be the flavor base.

I also do not want to discount char siu.  The red Chinese bbq sauce, when used correctly, is amazing.  Try marinading shrimp in char siu a few hours before cooking.  Use it to lacquer fish, chicken or duck.  It’s best used as either a finishing sauce, or as a marinade for quick-cooking items (like shrimp).  In the case of slow cooked ribs, if you must use it, wait until the very end and apply it as a finishing sauce only.

Point made.  So what then?  I am not Chinese, and have never worked at a Chinese restaurant, but I spent a great deal of time getting this one right, and feel confident that you will find it delicious, and a refreshing change from the ordinary.  My three base flavors are:

  • 5 spice powder
  • hoisin sauce   
  • plum sauce
Everything else I include is for subtly, balance and depth of flavor.  5 spice can be found at almost any grocery store, and includes the following powders, blended in correct proportion:  star anise, cloves, Chinese cinnamon, szichuan peppercorns, and fennel seeds.  It’s strong, unique, and lends itself perfectly for ribs.
Chinese 5 spice ribs
Prep time: 20 minutes
Cook time: 4 hours
Yield: 4-5 portions
2 racks st louis or baby back ribs, double cut
8 oz plum sauce
8 oz hoisin sauce
1 stalk lemon grass, smashed
2 whole heads of garlic, cut in half
3 bunches green onions, rough chop (save a few for garnish)
1 cup orange juice
1/2 cup brown sugar
zest of 1 orange
5 spice powder
kosher salt
4 dried szechuan peppers (hot chinese peppers)
1/4 cup light soy sauce
1 tsp toasted sesame seeds
2 tbsp sesame oil
vegetable oil
In a mixing bowl, toss the ribs liberally with 5 spice powder, the sesame oil, a little veg oil and kosher salt.  Sear in a heavy skillet and let drain.  
In a medium sized sauce pot, add the plum sauce, hoisin sauce, lemongrass, garlic, sugar, green onions, orange juice, orange zest, hot peppers, soy sauce and a small amount of 5 spice. Add about 1 cup of water.  Bring to a simmer, and with a whisk, thoroughly incorporate everything.  
Heat an oven to 300 degrees.  Place the seared ribs in a heavy (disposable is sometimes best) roasting pan.  Pour the liquid over the top and cover tightly with foil.  Cook for about 3 hours, or until ribs are very tender, but not falling apart. 
Remove the ribs and let them cool slightly.  Strain the cooking liquid and return it to a sauce pot.  Reduce until slightly thick (this shouldn’t take long).
Prepare a hot grill.  Quickly grill the ribs to re-char.  Glaze them with the sauce while grilling.  Cut the remaining scallions on a bias (chinese style).  Place the hot ribs on a platter, sprinkle the sesame seeds and scallions over the top.  Serve right away.
Best served with with Asian style finger foods.

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