In any city, a promising sign that you have arrived in a serious Cantonese food zone is 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 roasted 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 char 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 char 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 char 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 were part of our 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 hard. But it demands some workarounds that may make purists uncomfortable.
Such as ketchup.
The red color of traditional char 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 Gorgon- zola — 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 choice for char 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 many variations were made, with ingredients like plums and oysters, but finally long-cooked tomatoes became the default ingredient.
Since ketchup is so much more common than nan ru in American cupboards, and since it adds the right color, tanginess and sweetness (but no jarring tomato flavor), I choose to use it. Ketchup is also useful 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 in Asian markets, and can be used in this recipe instead.
AN IMPORTANT twist in this recipe comes from Phillips — adding a steam bath — as does the use of 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 char 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 char 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
By Julia Moskin
- 2 racks baby back or St. Louis- style pork spareribs, 5-10 pounds total
- Cilantro leaves and sliced green onions, for garnish
- 3 cloves garlic, smashed and peeled
- 4 stalks green onions, white and pale green parts only
- 3/4 cup hoisin sauce
- 1/2 cup ketchup, or 1/4 cup tomato paste or Chinese red bean paste (nan ru)
- 1/4 cup honey or light corn syrup, or more to taste
- 1/4 cup soy sauce, or 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
>> To make marinade: In a food processor or blender, mince garlic and green onions. Add remaining ingredients and process until well blended. Taste for sweetness; mixture should be like a sweet barbecue sauce, not candy. Adjust with more honey, soy sauce or vinegar.
Set aside 1/3 cup marinade for basting. Transfer remaining marinade to a container or pan large enough to hold 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.
Heat oven to 300 degrees. Line bottom of rimmed baking sheet (or two) with foil. Set an oven-safe wire rack in the pan, the kind you would use for cooling cookies.
Place empty sheet on bottom rack of oven. Add hot water until it comes about halfway up the sides. (Do not skip the water: The steam helps cook the meat to the right tenderness.)
When oven is hot, remove ribs from marinade and place on racks, meaty side up. Bake without basting, 1 hour for baby backs, 2 hours for St. Louis-style. Check water level occasionally to make sure it has not cooked off.
Remove ribs from oven and raise temperature to 450 degrees. Pour off any water remaining in baking sheet and return ribs to racks. (Alternatively, finish ribs on a medium-hot grill.)
Return ribs to 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 ribs carefully to make sure 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.
Use a big knife to cut between bones, making sure that each rib has meat on both sides. Mound on a platter, sprinkle with green onions and cilantro, and serve immediately. Serves 4-8.
Nutritional information unavailable.