In any city, a promising sign that you have arrived in a serious Cantonese food zone is a siu laap: a storefront dedicated to roasted and cured meat. For meat lovers, it is a beautiful sight: racks of mahogany-skinned birds, sugar-shiny slabs of pork ribs, and all that thrillingly saturated, sticky redness.
Siu mei, or “fork burned” meat, is a particular specialty of Guangzhou (formerly called Canton), the province that sent the first large group of immigrants from China to the United States in the late 1800s. Siu mei became a popular export everywhere Cantonese cooks went – especially cha siu, the juicy, red-tinged, salty-sweet pork that routinely tops bowls of ramen in Japan and fills banh mi sandwiches in the many Little Saigons of the United States.
Carolyn Phillips, a historian of Chinese cuisine, said siu mei was traditionally made by experts in the capital city of Guangdong, who hung the big pieces of meat on hooks in large coal- or wood-fired ovens so the heat could flow evenly around them. “Traditional Chinese kitchens don’t have ovens,” she said, “so the meat master would make roasted meats that couldn’t be cooked at home.”
In other words, siu mei is something food lovers buy, not make – much like charcuterie in France, pit barbecue in the American South and Central European deli meats like pastrami and corned beef.
Food writer Diana Kuan grew up in a family that ran Cantonese restaurants throughout her childhood, first in Puerto Rico and later in Massachusetts. She said that if siu mei has a fuchsia rather than a scarlet hue, skip it.
“My mother was terrified of the siu mei she saw when we moved to Boston,” she said. “Even in Chinatown, it was magenta, not red” – the sure sign of cutting corners with food coloring.
In “The Chinese Takeout Cookbook,” Kuan published a recipe for boneless cha siu, because it was on the restaurant menu every day, served on its own with rice and greens, or stuffed into fluffy steamed bao. But cha siu-style spareribs, she said, were a treat, reserved for special family events.
Just as I would not attempt to replicate pit barbecue in my New York kitchen, I did not think it would be easy to cook a credible version of Cantonese spareribs at home. Like everyone seeking a “best” recipe, I dreamed of recreating a version I loved in childhood. Spareribs, an old-school egg roll and chicken with cashew nuts (extra water chestnuts, no celery, please) was my standing order at Chun Cha Fu, a formal “Mandarin” restaurant we visited weekly when I was young. Those ribs were salty-sweet, juicy, tender but not falling off the bone, and crusted with a sticky exterior that can only be described as “candied meat.”
Replicating Cantonese spareribs in a modern kitchen is not difficult. But it demands some workarounds that may make purists uncomfortable.
Such as ketchup.
The red color of traditional cha siu comes from a creamy, funky bean paste called nan ru. Nan ru is tofu that is brined and fermented with rice that has been inoculated with a deep red strain of mold. Like Japanese miso, tofu-ru (the general term for aged tofu) can be ripened to many different levels of funkiness, and flavored with different grains and microorganisms, which turn colors – like the blue streaks in Roquefort and the green veins of Gorgonzola – as ripening takes place.
(If we are sticking to the delicatessen model, you might say that if siu mei corresponds to deli meat, Asian techniques for tofu correspond to cheese; the tofu is curdled, aged, flavored and controlled in many of the same ways.)
Tofu-ru, like miso, fish sauce and dashi, evolved over centuries in the interest of adding umami – savory and mouth-filling flavor – to the plain food that people ate for most of human history.
Ketchup has considerable umami, located in its saltiness and its concentrated, cooked tomato flavor. It might seem like the most inauthentic possible choice for cha siu, and it is true that tomatoes do not appear in the traditional sauces of Asia. But the story of ketchup does begin in East Asia, as a salty-sweet, umami-rich fermented fish sauce called by some version of the name “ke-jap.”
As the mother sauce traveled through different places and times, ingredients like mushrooms, tamarind and anchovies were deployed to imitate its satisfying umami; Worcestershire sauce and Indonesian kecap manis are both popular descendants. In the Americas, there were many variations, made with ingredients like plums and oysters, but finally long-cooked tomatoes became the default ingredient.Since ketchup is so much more likely than nan ru to live in the cupboard of an American home cook, and since it adds the right color, tanginess and sweetness to the dish (but no jarring tomato flavor), I choose to use it.
Ketchup is particularly useful in this recipe because it has plenty of sugar, which provides a desirable stickiness and caramelized edge when cooked. But if adding ketchup seems unbearable, nan ru is available online and in well-stocked Asian markets, and can be used in the recipe instead. Or you can make like many a commercial kitchen and add a few drops of red food coloring to your marinade. (Not too many.)
I started my quest with a recipe from the invaluable Katie Workman, friend to frazzled cooks everywhere, who has a knack for making food that children like and that also tastes good to adults. Her recipe for Chinese-style ribs is so easy that I have made it countless times, simply baking the racks at low heat for tenderness, then raising the heat and basting them for stickiness. I serve them as dinner, not an appetizer, with freshly cooked rice and a bright green vegetable like smashed cucumbers or stir-fried bok choy.
But the dish needed improvements to get closer to my grail ribs. After some research and development, I decided to skip Workman’s step of cooking the marinade (life is too short, and none of the traditional recipes make you do it); added fragrant five-spice powder; and introduced an important twist to the roasting method.
That twist – a steam bath – comes from Phillips, as does the five-spice powder. (She does not endorse ketchup.) Ribs that are roasted start to finish in an oven usually come out gnarled and dry. To fix that, some cooks boil them before roasting, which completely denatures the meat. Bathing the ribs in steam by adding hot water to the roasting pan produced the precise texture I was after: tender and succulent.
Fatty-skinned birds like geese and ducks, and well-marbled cuts of meat like pork ribs, shoulder and belly, are used for siu mei because the fat continually bathes the meat as it cooks. When choosing racks for this recipe, whether baby backs or full spareribs, make sure the meat is well marbled with fat, and that there’s a substantial cushion of meat between the bones.
Other than red fermented tofu, most of the traditional ingredients of siu mei are easy to find in Asian markets (and many supermarkets). The alcohol used need not be rice wine: Vodka, gin or another clear spirit has the same effect of enabling the flavors in your marinade to penetrate the meat.
Many modern Chinese cooks use maltose instead of honey for cha siu, because it produces a high-gloss, lip-smacking exterior. But the taste is virtually the same: The flavor of honey gets lost among the strong tastes, leaving only sweetness and a little stickiness behind.
Phillips, who lived in China for two decades and is the author of the encyclopedic cookbook “All Under Heaven: Recipes from the 35 Cuisines of China,” said the goal for cha siu ribs is creating layers of flavors and textures. This recipe easily accomplishes that, with very little work and without a grill.
“You want them to be crisped on the edges and licked by the heat,” she said. “Then the sweet stickiness, and then juicy meat.”
Chinese-style barbecued ribs
Yield: 4-8 servings
Time: About 2 hours, and at least 4 hours’ marinating
3 cloves garlic, smashed and peeled
4 scallions, white and pale green parts only, plus additional sliced scallion for garnish
3/4 cup hoisin sauce
1/2 cup ketchup, or 4 tablespoons tomato paste or Chinese red bean paste (nan ru)
1/4 cup honey or light corn syrup, more to taste
1/4 cup soy sauce, more to taste
1/3 cup Chinese rice wine or vodka
1/4 cup rice vinegar or cider vinegar
1/2 teaspoon five-spice powder
2 racks baby back or St. Louis-style pork spareribs, 5-10 pounds total
Cilantro leaves, for garnish
1. In a food processor or blender, mince garlic and scallions. Add hoisin, ketchup, honey, soy sauce, rice wine or vodka, rice vinegar and five-spice powder. Process until well blended. Taste for sweetness; the mixture should be sweet like barbecue sauce, not candy. Adjust the taste with honey, soy sauce and vinegar.
2. Set aside 1/3 cup marinade for basting. Transfer remaining marinade to a container or pan large enough to hold the ribs, or to large resealable plastic bags. Add ribs and turn until well coated. Refrigerate at least 4 hours, and up to 2 days, turning occasionally in the marinade.
3. Heat oven to 300 degrees. Set up a rimmed baking sheet (or two) with an oven-safe wire rack that fits inside, the kind you would use for cooling cookies. Line the bottoms of the pans with foil or nonstick baking mats. Place the racks inside the pans and place the empty pans on the bottom rack of the oven. Pour in hot water until it comes about halfway up the sides of the pan. (Do not skip the water: The steam helps cook the meat to the right tenderness.)
4. When the oven is hot, remove the ribs from the marinade and place on the racks, meaty side up. Bake without basting, 1 hour for baby back ribs, 2 hours for St. Louis style ribs. Check the water level occasionally to make sure it has not cooked off.
5. Remove ribs from the oven and raise the oven temperature to 450 degrees. Pour off any water from the baking sheet and return the ribs to the racks. (Alternatively, you can finish the ribs on a medium-hot grill; see below.)
6. Return ribs to the oven and roast (or grill), basting 2 or 3 times with reserved marinade, for 20-30 minutes (less time for baby backs, more for spareribs). Watch the ribs carefully to make sure that the edges do not burn, and do not baste them too close to the end; they should be dry and sticky, not wet on the surface.
7. Use a big knife to cut between the bones, making sure that each rib has meat on both sides. Mound on a platter, sprinkle with scallions and cilantro, and serve immediately.