Genius Recipes

These Sweet & Sticky Chinese Ribs Are Certified Genius

An easy-to-remember formula from the legendary Irene Kuo.

May 15, 2019

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Photo by Julia Gartland. Food Stylist: Anna Billingskog. Prop Stylist: Brooke Deonarine.

In the late 1980s, when I was an undergrad at the University of Southern California, I met Teresa C., a Hong Kong–born food lover and daughter of a Monterey Park Chinese restaurant manager. (Monterey Park, east of Los Angeles, is renowned for its vast array of Chinese eating options.) We hit it off in finance and statistics, and hung out a lot at her favorite restaurants where I gobbled up foods like Chinese-Islamic sesame bread with stir-fried lamb with green onions.

I’d become an adventurous eater but also wanted to become an adventurous cook. I needed a gateway recipe.

One day, I asked Teresa what her family liked to make—something easy. Her immediate response was: 1-2-3-4-5 beef, a shank simmered with rice wine, vinegar, sugar, soy sauce, and water. The “1-2-3-4-5” corresponded to a Chinese soup spoon ratio of ingredients in the order that she’d rattled off.

I memorized Teresa’s formula and tried out the recipe. It was tangy and umami-laden, unctuous and beefy. Its doability lifted the veil of mystery that I’d placed upon Chinese cuisine. I regularly threw it together and worked up the confidence to try more complicated foods like pot stickers and steamed bao from scratch. Eventually, I relegated the 1-2-3-4-5 recipe to my freshman-level cooking experiments and forgot about it.

A Classic Reminder

Earlier this year another Chinese-American friend, Jim Kuo, suggested that I make his mother’s 1-2-3-4-5 Spare Ribs. Jim is the son of legendary restaurateur and cookbook author Irene Kuo, whose tome The Key to Chinese Cooking is considered a classic. A mutual friend who knew that I’d adored the cookbook connected me to Jim a few years back.

An articulate man, Jim uncharacteristically described his mother’s recipe as a “dump dish.” As it turns out, like me, he had also been looking for an easy Chinese dish.

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Top Comment:
“I made these Keto friendly and GF doing the following: used gluten free soy sauce (there are many brands out there but I used San-J gluten free tamari), reduced the molasses to a teaspoon in a double recipe, added a bit of Chinese 5 spice, and substituted the sugar with natural erythritol (I used Anthony's brand). Because I doubled the recipe I thought there would be too much liquid, but the magic happens when you remove the lid, turn up the heat and cook the sauce down. Be patient and watch it happen...the ribs were gorgeous...beautifully glazed! I served with cauliflower egg fried rice, sprinkled with a generous amount of sliced green onion and some Sambal Oelek chili paste on the side for heat. Amazing.”
— Jane K.
Comment

“Many years ago, I recall asking my mother for an easy party dish that required little preparation and even easier cooking technique, and without hesitation, she suggested these ribs,” Jim noted. “Later, she demonstrated the recipe and I coined the term ‘dump dish,’ as she explained the technique of measuring the ingredients directly over the chopped ribs in a pan. She agreed in concept with the term ‘dump,’ but I think she was uncomfortable using such a colloquial expression herself.”

The recipe’s headnote does not include any clues about its origin, but Jim thinks it was something his mother grew up eating in Shanghai.

Photo by Julia Gartland. Food Stylist: Anna Billingskog. Prop Stylist: Brooke Deonarine.

Insider Family Tips

The recipe from The Key to Chinese Cooking was dead simple except for the part about chopping the spare ribs through the bone into small pieces. Jim pointed out that Irene always used a heavy knife to prep whole chicken and small-boned cuts of meats. But what happens to lingering bone bits?

Her tip to her son was this: Wipe away bone fragments with a cloth or paper towel, and as needed, snip off sharp edges where bones have splintered.

Knowing my cleaver limits and wanting to avoid disasters, I headed to my local butcher, picked out a rack of St. Louis–style ribs and had him saw it through the bone into narrow strips. Then it was just a matter of cutting the rib strips into individual riblets and adding everything to a saucepan. I chose a low 2 1/2–quart pan that would allow the riblets to evenly cook in one layer.

Photo by Julia Gartland. Food Stylist: Anna Billingskog. Prop Stylist: Brooke Deonarine.

The sherry, soy sauce, cider vinegar, and sugar lent an incredible combination of flavors: bitter, salty, sour, and sweet. The water facilitated initial cooking, but at the end of the line, the pork released its fat to gently fry the flesh and concentrate the seasonings around the dark-and-handsome riblets.

It was transformative to say the least—minimal-ingredient cooking at its best.

Bulletproof & Versatile

The genius of this recipe lies in its elasticity. For example, if you forget to have the butcher cut the ribs, they’ll be harder to stir in the pan. The meat shrinks up so much around the bone that they’ll resemble high-water pants. But even with an oversight like that, the ribs will still taste fine.

For the dry sherry, use a Fino or Amontillado style. You can also use Shaoxing rice wine, which wasn’t well known in America in 1977, when Irene’s cookbook was published.

Chinese dark soy sauce has a touch of molasses to impart a rich mahogany color to dishes. Pearl River Bridge is my go-to brand. When it’s not available, substitute a 2:1 ratio of full-sodium soy sauce (such as Kikkoman) to molasses.

Want a little heat? Add two or three dried red chiles or one sliced jalapeno to the seasonings, Jim suggested.

The sherry, soy sauce, cider vinegar, and sugar lent an incredible combination of flavors: bitter, salty, sour, and sweet. It was transformative to say the least—minimal-ingredient cooking at its best.

Cook the liquid down as needed: Keep it saucy when enjoying it over rice or let it concentrate and become glazy when you’re looking for the ultimate Chinese-style pupu-platter-ish spare rib nibble. A cucumber salad like this one by Naomi Duguid and Jeffrey Alford is a refreshing contrast to the rich riblets.

It’s hard to go wrong with these spare ribs, whether you’re a beginner or an advanced cook. It’s a keeper formula that I won’t forget ever again.

Got a genius recipe to share—from a classic cookbook, an online source, or anywhere, really? Perhaps something perfect for beginners? Please send it Kristen's way (and tell her what's so smart about it) at [email protected].

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Andrea Nguyen is a James Beard award-winning author, cooking teacher, consultant and editor. Her latest book is "Vietnamese Food Any Day" (Ten Speed Press, 2019). She edited "Unforgettable", the biography cookbook about culinary legend Paula Wolfert.

36 Comments

Mary June 9, 2019
Can these be served as an appetizer finger food or too messy?
 
Cheryl May 22, 2019
I made these with country style ribs and they were tough as rocks. :( I normally put my pork in a Le Creuset pan and bake them and they are fall apart tender.
 
Author Comment
Andrea N. May 22, 2019
I've never made this recipe with country-style ribs -- which have more meat on them than spareribs. I've only used spareribs as the recipe is for that. The two cuts are not the same. Sounds like you needed to cook them longer if you were using country-style ribs. I'd use the same amount of time as you would in your Le Creuset. Try the recipe again with spareribs so you get a sense of how the recipe works as originally written by Irene Kuo. Thanks for reporting on your experience!
 
Jane K. May 18, 2019
I made these Keto friendly and GF doing the following: used gluten free soy sauce (there are many brands out there but I used San-J gluten free tamari), reduced the molasses to a teaspoon in a double recipe, added a bit of Chinese 5 spice, and substituted the sugar with natural erythritol (I used Anthony's brand). Because I doubled the recipe I thought there would be too much liquid, but the magic happens when you remove the lid, turn up the heat and cook the sauce down. Be patient and watch it happen...the ribs were gorgeous...beautifully glazed! I served with cauliflower egg fried rice, sprinkled with a generous amount of sliced green onion and some Sambal Oelek chili paste on the side for heat. Amazing.
 
Author Comment
Andrea N. May 18, 2019
Wowza! This is amazing. Thanks for tinkering with the recipe and making it your own. Moreover, you’ve shared your adjustments and I’m thrilled to bits. This is what community cooking is about.
 
Ken K. May 17, 2019
Would this recipe work with back ribs? I bought some (on sale) the other day and then saw this article. And just to make it even more bizarre, I'm hoping I can make this with back ribs in my Instant Pot.
 
Author Comment
Andrea N. May 18, 2019
Not crazy. The back ribs will take longer because of their size. Someone else asked about IP experimenting with this recipe so scroll on down to check out my suggestion! Thanks.
 
Ken K. May 23, 2019
So I made this with back-ribs and they were awesome. I used half a rack of ribs for two. I cut the larger ribs in half, and let them simmer for about an hour, and another 10-15 minutes would probably be just right. The other half rack is in the freezer for the next time I'm in the mood for ribs... which may be pretty soon after how well these turned out! I'll try it with the instant pot next.
 
Author Comment
Andrea N. May 24, 2019
This is terrific information, Ken. I was just eyeing some meaty back ribs that are on sale at my local butcher shop. I bet you could cook these partway then freeze them and finish them after thawing. Have a great Memorial Day weekend.
 
Amy May 16, 2019
How would this work in a crock pot?
 
Author Comment
Andrea N. May 18, 2019
I do not know but don’t see why it would not work in a slow cooker. I’m unfortunately not a slow cooker cook but you’re just simmering and then boiling off the liquid so the recipe is easy to tweak and tinker with. Go for it!
 
Eric K. May 15, 2019
DELICIOUS.
 
Lee A. May 15, 2019
I've made Mark Bittman's version of this recipe and it's delicious.
Do you have a recipe for the Chinese-Islamic sesame bread you mentioned? We used to get a bread that sounds like that at a Mongolian BBQ place in Los Angeles near LAX, and I've been looking for the recipe for years.
 
Author Comment
Andrea N. May 15, 2019
Why yes, I do have a recipe for that sesame bread! Here it is on my website:

https://www.vietworldkitchen.com/blog/2016/10/chinese-islamic-sesame-scallion-bread-recipe-zhima-dabing.html
 
lloreen May 15, 2019
We have celiac in our family and can't do soy sauce because of the gluten. Do you think it would work to add molasses to Tamari?
 
karadurbin May 15, 2019
My daughter has celiac and we use coconut aminos in place of soy sauce and it usually works perfectly.
 
Author Comment
Andrea N. May 15, 2019
I like Kikkoman's Gluten Free Soy Sauce as a GF soy sauce. You could use Tamari for the dark soy sub but definitely add some molasses. Glad you're interested in this recipe!
 
lloreen May 15, 2019
Thanks for the advice, Andrea!
 
Sasha A. May 15, 2019
Much like sherry as a substitute for Shaoxing cooking wine during a time when Chinese ingrediants were hard to come by in the US, the cider viengar in this recipe is likey a substitute for Chinese black vinegar.
 
Author Comment
Andrea N. May 15, 2019
The book was written in 1977 so the sherry was definitely a substitute for Shaoxing, which is still hard to find in some places, even where there are Asian markets. Irene sometimes liked cider vinegar. She calls for "Chekong" (Chinkiang) vinegar elsewhere in The Key. So interesting, right?
 
marsha May 15, 2019
I rrally want to READ THE RECIPE
But this extra verbage is not needed
 
Author Comment
Andrea N. May 15, 2019
Many folks like context and extra information on ingredients and technical explanation too. The recipe is simply a click away!
 
margaret May 16, 2019
Marsha - Please post how your ribs turned out. I'm sure they will be wonderful.
 
Cyndi May 15, 2019
Could you use this for a glaze for a pork tenderloin?
 
Author Comment
Andrea N. May 15, 2019
I don't see why not? You could sear the pork tenderloin, add the seasonings and cook the pork until you're satisfied. Then pull it and let it rest while you cool down the sauce (if needed). Then add back the pork and tumble it around. Great idea!
 
Suzanne May 15, 2019
Any chance this recipe can be adapted to the Instant Pot please?😀
 
Author Comment
Andrea N. May 15, 2019
Make it first in a regular pot to understand how the recipe works. Then for an IP, I would experiment -- x2 or x2.5 of the recipe because the IP needs about 1 cup of liquid to function. I'd try high pressure for 8 to 10 minutes, then depressurize naturally for 8 to 10 before releasing pressure and boiling off liquid. I'm just guessing here so please report back your experience to share!
 
Robert R. May 15, 2019
This would work with chicken thighs also, I would guess.
 
Author Comment
Andrea N. May 15, 2019
Thighs or drumsticks, I venture would work!
 
HopeinDC May 15, 2019
Hello! Jew who loves Chinese here! Can these be made with beef?
 
Author Comment
Andrea N. May 15, 2019
Try beef shank, which you'll have to cook longer so keep adding water to ensure moisture in the pan.
 
Rosalind P. May 15, 2019
Me too. Beef short ribs; even chuck stewing meat Just adjust the time. Definitely chicken thighs and legs. :-)
 
HopeinDC May 15, 2019
Thank you so much!
 
Author Comment
Andrea N. May 15, 2019
Exactamundo!!!! Go for it!
 
Trina W. May 15, 2019
Andrea isn’t by any weird chance related to a phong who went to manzano high school in Albuquerque No?
 
Author Comment
Andrea N. May 15, 2019
I unfortunately not related to Phong. Sorry!