I attribute my strong carniverous tendencies to my grandfather. He raised his 4 children on pork, and his grandkids were no exception to the rule. Most parents urge their kids to drink plenty of milk, to eat all their veggies and fruit, even resorting to tricks of the parental trade in order to get these things down their child’s unobliging throat. My grandfather, my yeye, in stark but delicious contrast, force fed me braised chicken dishes, glazed spareribs, steamed fish…much to my heart’s delight. Greens, to him, were an afterthought, something to add a bit of color and texture to, you guessed it, meat. And we never ate fruit since both he and my grandmother were both diabetic. Thus I grew up knowing my repertoire of meat, meat-products, and on the occasion, by-products.
There are some dishes that to this day, I still crave from my yeye’s kitchen. His edamame (we called it mao dou) always came steaming hot and salted, studded with peppercorn and star anise, in a huge gigantic metal bowl for me to pick through. For my birthdays, he would make me jiao zhi yu, a whole fish fried and smothered in a sweet and tangy garlic sauce. He would set the dish so that the head faced me, a portent of good fortune. Mostly I remember the very simplest dishes he made, for a weekday dinner, or a quick lunch on his break between work. Noodles with gravy, scrambled eggs with fresh tomato, a bowl of noodle soup. But mostly, he was famous for his meat dishes (and I mean famous, since he owned two successful restaurants).
One dish that was always a hit with my aunts, uncles and cousins was his Tang Cu Pai Gu, otherwise known as sweet and sour spareribs. Don’t let the seemingly mundane name, nor the overly sweet flavors those words conjure, scare you. “Sweet and sour” has become bastardized, a once tangy and savory dish in its native state, has been doused with pounds and pounds of granulated sugar, not to mention bright orange dyes, here in the U.S. throughout take-out joints and large Chinese restaurants.
The real deal uses fresh, small and tender pork spareribs, about 2-3 inches in length. Most of the fat is rendered out in the cooking process, leaving a truly lean and savory portion of meat. The sauce is what ties this dish together, a tour de force of glazes, if you will. It is reminiscent of those rich, caramelized sauces found in Vietnamese clay pot dishes, but with more vinegar, reduced down to a thick and syrupy tang.
More memorable than the taste was the way that Yeye served his spareribs to the family- piled up high in a large metal mixing bowl, set on the diningroom table, which was laid over with old newspapers. No need to say it was all a bit of a messy affair. But nonetheless, finger-licking delicious. When I visited him this year, he was once again busy in the kitchen, peeling garlic, rattling woks…this is how he keeps busy now at age 83. A little before dinnertime, the scent of vinegar and garlic lured me into his kitchen, and to my surprise, a wokful of ribs was braising on the stove. I remember asking him for the recipe, but he just threw out a listing of spices and herbs, and promised to let me watch in a few days as he recreated the dish again.
Just like when I was little, I laid out the newspaper on the table, in preparation for dinner with my grandparents. This dish will always be known as “Yeye’s Spareribs” because no one else can make them like he does. I always eat them with such intensity and gusto, letting my little pile of bones build up, never fully realizing just how much satisfaction and pleasure is written over Yeye’s face, as he looks on.
Tang Cu Pai Gu – “Yeye’s Sweet and Sour Spareribs”
Look for smaller ribs, as these will be more tender. Cut them up, between the rib bones, then across the bone again, to get small “riblet” pieces.
Chinkiang vinegar is a black Chinese rice vinegar that’s readily available at all Asian food stores.
1 1/2 – 2 lb pork ribs, cut into 2-3″ in length
1 1/2 cups beef stock or broth
1″ piece ginger, sliced into rounds
1/2 water, optional
1/2 tsp ground white pepper
2 whole star anise
1 tsp chicken stock granules or MSG, optional
2 Tbsp dark Chinkiang vinegar
3 Tbsp soy sauce
1/4 cup Shaoxing cooking wine
1/4 cup sugar
2 cloves garlic, smashed
1 scallion, cut into thirds
1. Place the ribs in a large pot, fill with water, and set over high heat. Let the water come to a boil, then turn down the heat to simmer for 1 hour (lid on of off). Drain ribs and lay them out on a large dish to dry up some more.
2. Heat the oil in a wok to about 350F. In small batches, fry the ribs, about 1 minute. Drain any excess oil on paper towels.
3. Pour the hot oil out from your wok, and give it a quick wipedown. To the wok, add all the ingredients for the Braising Liquid, except for the sugar. (You can add the optional 1/2 cup water, if you prefer more sauce.) Bring to a gentle boil, add the ribs, stir to coat, and turn the heat down to a simmer. Cover, and cook for about 10 minutes.
4. Stir in the sugar, cover again, and cook over low heat for another 10-15 minutes until the liquid has turned thick and glossy, like a glaze. Turn the heat off and transfer the ribs to a serving dish.