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’ve 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 Ms. 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 Ms. 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 that 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.
Ms. 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.
NYT > Food