Chichi's Chinese: Steamed Pork Ribs with Fermented Black Beans


I used to live in Southern California, in a region so dense with Cantonese restaurants that it was possible to go to a new one every weekend and still not exhaust your options for dim sum. Looking back at my tenure in California, I wonder if I should have made more of an effort to go to the beach on a sunny day instead of staying inside and eating dim sum, but that's the thing about sunny days. Too many of them and they lose their glamour.

We always ordered the steamed pork ribs with fermented black beans. (We, being my boyfriend at the time, whose talent for consuming prodigious amounts of pork was unmatched, even by yours truly.) No matter where you went, the wait to be seated at a table was something like an hour. Waiting was part of the fun. Or maybe we just enjoyed it because we are both delayed-rewards kind of people.

If you've ever visited a Chinese butcher, maybe you've noticed the oblong strands of pork ribs, which are just the ribs cut crosswise instead of lengthwise. I think this is brilliant. What you get is a chain of meat, bone, and cartilage that can be broken down further into nuggets of meat that require very little effort to make tender and delicious. Steamed pork ribs with fermented black beans make use of this cut, and some other braised preparations, too.

It took a while for me to stop and think about how very few steamed preparations exist for meat, comparatively speaking. Usually, we like our meat to be seared or browned or braised, but steaming meat? Try it if you haven't.

Steamed ribs are not fall-apart tender like braised or smoked ribs. The flesh has a bit of a bounce to it; not tough, just harder than stewed preparations. But the meat is juicy and fatty, and you get the pleasure of eating the cartilage and sinews—everything except the bones—all in one bite-sized morsel.

There's not a lot of preparation involved here. The night before, you toss the nuggets of rib meat with salt, soy sauce, and fermented black beans. (Fermented black beans are fermented and salted soy beans, common in several cuisines in China. They're instant umami boosters, kind of like anchovies.)

The day of, splash in a bit of rice wine and steam the mixture for 40 minutes or so. Porky juices pool at the bottom of the bowl. The beans give their saltiness to the broth and mellow into pleasant-to-eat tidbits. Besides smoking or barbecue, this steamed preparation is one of my favorite ways to eat pork ribs.

A note on garnishes: At dim sum joints, almost all iterations of steamed ribs with fermented black beans come with thinly sliced jalapeno and chopped cilantro. Still, I can think of any number of variations on the idea of something spicy and something herbaceous. (Bird's eye chilies, scallions, and basil, just to name a few.)