When Pigs Fly

Guides, reviews, histories, and travel tales from the barbecue trail.

The Complete Guide to Ribs of the World

[Photograph: Josh Bousel]

Ribs are central to barbecue, but they're also part of cuisine traditions all over the globe. The SE team wanted to stop and appreciate all the ribs out there, from Pinnekjøtt in Norway to Cantonese char siu spare ribs to baby-backs (I want my...). Here are the international highlights. As it turns out, the world is boned.

Pork Ribs

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[Photograph: James Boo]

American barbecue pork ribs: These might come to mind first when you think "ribs." Commonly prepared from meaty, fatty spare ribs or lean, tender baby back ribs, they're rubbed with a mess of seasonings and smoked for several hours over low, usually indirect heat. Flavor profiles vary according to the cook, as does the sauce type. As a barbecue freak, the ribs that have stood out to me use sauces sparingly, basting ribs with light coats for an extra blast of flavor.

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[Photograph: Food in Mouth]

Cantonese char siu spare ribs: Hacked into palm-sized hunks and oven-roasted, these spare ribs are an American favorite of their own, loved for their sweet, caramelized edges. Contemporary preparation involves a marinade based in hoisin, soy sauce, garlic, rice wine or sherry, and five spice. Many recipes, including Josh's take on char siu, add a few drops of red food coloring to get that iconic red glow.

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[Photograph: I-Hua Lin]

Pai guat (spare ribs with black beans): A dim sum mainstay. After marinating the rib hunks in a mix of black beans (or black bean sauce), garlic, ginger, rice wine, and soy sauce, they're steamed until tender and fragrant.

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[Photograph: Harris Graber]

Costillas: "Ribs" in Spain and Latin America. These can be prepared in a number of ways. One Mexican approach to costillas is to simmer pork ribs in a spicy salsa. Costillas (beef and pork) can also be grilled or braised, then shredded or chopped and served in tacos. (I've heard of deep-fried costillas in Puerto Rican cuchifrito joints.. can anyone verify?)

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[Photograph: Charles Haynes]

Bak Kut Teh (pork bone tea): This Chinese dish has become a staple in Singapore and Malaysia too, especially for breakfast. Recipes for this rich, slowly extracted bone broth vary. Some are more herbal and medicinal while others are purely savory. Cooks may add offal, chilies, or Chinese cabbage to their mixture of herbs and spices. In the end, the glory of dissolved collagen pooled around spare rib chunks remains the baseline of bak kut teh, which is now on the top of my many, many reasons to visit Southeast Asia.

Spuntature al sugo (ribs in sauce): An Italian dish centered on back ribs or "country style ribs" (cuts of loin that sometimes have bone attached), but these aren't limited to pork. The ribs are braised in a tomato-based sauce and reduced to a rich consistency. Pairs nicely with polenta.

Beef Ribs

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[Photograph: Josh Bousel]

American barbecue beef ribs aren't nearly as common as their porky counterparts, but in certain parts of the country (OK, maybe just in Texas, though I'm loathe to accept the Lone Star monopoly on all things beef) beef ribs are the sparingly seasoned, wood-smoked alternative to pork spares and baby backs.

Smoky, fatty, salt-and-pepper beef ribs (especially short ribs) can be an epiphany of barbecue if cooked long enough to break down their connective tissues into succulent juices.

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[Photograph: Chris Hansen]

Galbi (grilled beef short rib): Like char-siu ribs, these have claimed a beloved place in American immigrant cuisine as they have in their native Korea. The centerpiece of Korean barbecue, galbi, begins as the chain-link ribbons known as flanken-cut short ribs. After steeping in a marinade of soy sauce, pear juice, rice wine, garlic, sesame oil, sugar, and onion, the ribs are tossed on a charcoal or gas grill and cooked over direct heat. They're a great addition to the summer grilling menu.

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[Photograph: KayOne73]

Galbi Jjim (braised beef short rib): The Korean rib preparation is less common in the States but no less delicious. It involves heavier cuts of short rib cooked in a sauce not radically different from galbi marinade along with root vegetables and nuts. The result? A pot full of comfort food that will make your kitchen smell like meat-eaters' heaven for one night (and one morning if you end up with leftovers).

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[Photograph: Marcos Lana]

Asado de tira (barbecue beef ribs): Prominent in Argentina, this is something of a parallel to Korean galbi. Cut flanken style and dressed in little more than salt, beef short ribs are thrown onto the parilla (no, not that parilla), grilled over charcoal or wood coals and served with a spicy chimichurri.

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[Photograph: Julio Lopes]

Costelas de boi (spit-roasted beef ribs): Part of Latin America's churrasco tradition, you might find these at a modern Brazilian churrascarias. They traditionally consist of full racks of beef long ribs rubbed with coarse salt and skewered on upright metal stakes to roast above live wood coals (you may recognize this style from Kenji's piece on Colombian llanos barbecue). Served without sauce, these costelas are quite similar to the salt-and-pepper long ribs found in the smokehouses of Texas.

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[Photograph: Kerry Saretsky]

Pot au Feu (pot on the fire): A classic one-pot meal, this French comfort dish combines bone-in cuts of beef, beef marrow bone, root vegetables and the cook's bouquet garni into a slow-cooked stew that's especially comforting on a winter's day.

Lamb and Mutton Ribs

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[Photograph: j_bary]

Lamb rib kebab is prevalent (among other places) in the Bukharan restaurants of "Queensistan," New York. An import from Central Asian cuisine, these fatty chunks of lamb rib are skewered, grilled over charcoal, and served on the bone, sometimes with a topping of fresh onion. If you can get behind the triple threat of smoky, gamy and greasy, you'll like these. They go well with a plate of plov (rice stewed and seasoned in meat stock). Or lamb fat kebabs, but that's a story for another appetite.

Cumin lamb ribs and lamb kebabs: Sizzling across the border in China, these ribs are even bolder than their Central Asian counterparts. Xinjiang cuisine comes to mind at first mention of this specialty, but cumin lamb has a place in other regional cuisines as well, reaching as far as Dongbei. Cumin seeds and dried chili flakes crust these fried or charcoal-grilled ribs and kebabs, clearing the way for each bite of lamb with a punch of aromatic spice.

Nyama Choma (charcoal-grilled ribs): The translation is "red meat roasted." A favorite among meat eaters in Kenya, the phrase extends to the grilling of offal (such as tripe, stomach and intestine) but among the most popular choices today are goat, beef and lamb ribs. Contemporary recipes marinade the meat in lemon juice, garlic, coriander, pepper and other spices and grill them over live coals. Nyama choma is often served with a relish of onions, tomatoes, chilies and cilantro that isn't too far from Mexican pico de gallo.

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[Photograph: Nesrin Özay]

Kaburga dolmasi (stuffed ribs): This is how you turn an entire rack of lamb or sheep ribs into a cooking vessel. The rack is cut open and stuffed with uncooked rice, minced onion and other seasonings, then sewn shut. Browned then slowly roasted until the meat is well-done, the rice inside the rack becomes a savory pilaf. Once done, the strings are cut, pilaf excavated, and the meat is pulled from the rack to create a hearty pile of rib meat over rice.

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[Photograph: Robyn Lee]

Pinnekjøtt (cured, dried lamb ribs): A Norwegian preparation of lamb or sheep ribs that's often served at Christmas dinner. The ribs are brined, air-dried, and sometimes smoked. In the cooking stage, the ribs get soaked in water then steamed, traditionally over water and birch twigs. The resulting ribs aren't terribly funky, but they are very salty, with a bit of chew to their tenderness.

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[Photograph: Wikicommons]

Tabak maaz (fried ribs): A specialty of Kashmir that typically involves a yogurt-based marinade and two cooking steps. First, lamb ribs are cut into pieces and par-cooked in a a solution of milk, water and spices (including but not limited to cardamom, fennel, turmeric, and dried ginger). The par-cooked ribs are then pan-fried or deep fried in ghee (clarified butter) and served when their edges are browned and crisp.

More Bones to Pick

This ad-ribbed whirlwind tour has spanned five continents of cuisine, but it is quite far from a world index of ribs. Got anything to add, Serious Eaters? What delicious rib dishes have you encountered in your travels abroad? Let us know in the comments!

About the author: James Boo has been a Serious Eats contributor since 2010. Working as a freelance journalist, he is also the founder of Real Cheap Eats and a documentarian. Check out his food-and-travel blog, The Eaten Path, for more journeys to the real meal.

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