Tiki Week: Chinese Style Spareribs

J. Kenji Lopez-Alt

Chinese-style barbecue spare ribs are one of the few dishes on a pupu platter that actually have a legitimate lineage to traditional Chinese cuisine. They are a form of char siu, Cantonese-style roasted meats. You know, the ones that hang out in the windows in Chinatown?

The most common cut of meat used for traditional char siu is thin strips of fatty pork shoulder, but ribs are not all that uncommon, and make for perfect finger foods. Just make sure to lick'em clean unless you want to leave a greasy fingerprint on that Mai Tai you're sucking down.

The characteristic red hue of char siu comes from red food coloring, which you can add to the marinade if you'd like, but I prefer to go au natural. It's plenty pretty on its own.

Hoisin sauce—a fermented soy bean-based sweet and savory barbecue sauce—is the primary flavoring agent in the marinade, and gets spiked with five-spice powder, a balanced blend of star anise, fennel, cloves, cinnamon, and Sichuan peppercorn. You can buy it in bottles, or just grind some yourself in a spice grinder or mortar and pestle. The addition of honey (or more often in professional restaurants, glucose syrup) to the marinade gives the ribs their shiny, lacquered appearance.

Traditionally, char siu is hung from spikes on the roof of a wood-burning oven and roasted vertically so that the fat can drip down and baste it as it cooks. At home, you can get very decent results by just roasting them in the oven. I like to start them on a rack set in a baking sheet covered with aluminum foil to prevent excessive moisture loss, then finish them by removing the foil, cranking up the heat, and letting the sweet marinade caramelize on the exterior.

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