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As a die-hard barbecue lover, one might think my life has always been rich in pork. But the amount of pork I used to eat can't possibly compare to what it became after I married into a Filipino family. Every time I travel to my wife's home state of Texas, my Mother-in-law has somehow managed to prepare all of my favorite Filipino swine dishes...and that's a lot of swine.
Most everything she makes is traditional Filipino, which has made it easy to either purchase or learn to cook those dishes back at home, but one of her best recipes is also a bit of an outlier—fried crispy spare ribs.
These garlicky and tangy marinated pieces of pork are coated in cornstarch and fried until ultra-crispy, then served with a bowl of spicy vinegar. I haven't seen any Filipino family make something quite the same, neither have I come across it in a restaurant or in a recipe. So I've secretly watched how she's been making them, then just flat out asked before writing this in order to a) get her blessing to share the recipe, and b) make sure I got it right.
This Little Piggy
The crispy exterior is one big reason these ribs are so awesome. The ribs are cut into very small individual portions, creating a large surface area for the batter. It creates a meat-to-crust ratio that favors the crust. So my first challenge was getting the cut right. I shouldn't call it a challenge really, because all I did was walk into my butcher and have them cut a rack of St. Louis-style spares across the bone into roughly 1-inch strips. Then when I got home, I cut each of these strips between the bones, creating small individual portions.
The amount of meat on each bone varies widely, and one might make the mistake of discarding the less meaty ones, but those can end up being the best bits. So I say keep every piece, you'll be grateful you did in the end.
The More Garlic, the Better
Next I had to devise the marinade. Having lots of experience with Filipino cooking at this point, I was able to guess this almost straight off the bat. I sent my Mother-in-law an email asking if I had it right with the standard set of Filipino flavors—vinegar, garlic, and soy sauce. She responded quickly with an affirmative yes, but she also adds oyster sauce, mustard, and black pepper. As with all recipes I've gotten from the wife's family, this one came without quantities, merely the instructions, "the more garlic the better."
So I start off with a heavy rice-vinegar base. The standard Filipino vinegar is actually cane vinegar, which is more mellow than white or apple cider vinegar. Rice vinegar a good stand-in for those people like myself who are too lazy to take the 45 minute trip to the Filipino market to get the real stuff.
I then added a couple tablespoons of soy sauce and a teaspoon each of pepper, oyster sauce, mustard, and salt. Next I stirred in a full 2 tablespoons garlic to make good on the directions I was given.
I let the ribs marinate in this liquid overnight, but as with most acidic marinades, this one would probably be fine with just a few hours if you're pressed for time.
Before getting the recipe from the source, my wife and I debated how her Mom gets that incredible crust. I contended it was just coated in cornstarch, while the wife was certain that it was a mixed batter. It turned out we were both sort of right.
To get the proper texture for the exterior, the trick is to transfer a third of the ribs to a bowl without drying them off at all, then add in a couple tablespoons of cornstarch and toss to coat the ribs evenly: the cornstarch and marinade marry into a thick, paste-like batter.
Busting out my wok, placing it securely on a burner, and filling it with enough oil to submerge the ribs was the only real deviation from my Mother-in-law's process. See, frying is an outdoor activity at her home, and that's a practice my wife wishes I would pick up to avoid the inevitable fried food odor that can linger for days. This can be a good or bad thing depending on which one of us you ask—I'm sure my grease-covered walls and books probably would side with my wife, but they don't get a say now, do they?
I heated the oil to 375°F and then carefully dropped each little sticky rib into the oil. They quickly turned a light golden brown color. I kept cooking them until a little darker, giving the ribs enough time to cook through and for some connective tissue to break down. This took around seven minutes, and after they were done frying, I moved them to a paper towel-lined plate to drain while I worked on the next batch.
After finishing all the frying, I piled up those little rib nuggets next to a heap of garlic-fried rice, stood back to take a photo, and immediately realized my folly in creating a platter of nothing but brown food. No matter how good it smells or delicious it tastes, an all-brown meal like this just doesn't photograph well.
I did my Mother-in-law's recipe justice here by making ribs that matched hers perfectly. The marinade leaves the meat with a little tang, but most of the tartness and garlicky bite of these gets baked into the batter, which is super delicious and super crunchy (this is why the ribs with little meat on them can sometimes be the best). They aren't the easiest things to eat— some of them take a little work to get off the bone—but that's all part of the experience.