I first ate a variation of this dish in Shanghai. It was the first time I’d eaten ribs that weren’t covered in the sweet, smoky, southern barbecue sauce to which we in the West are accustomed.
The dish was a bit of a signature of the restaurant and a chef friend had taken me there to eat it. The ribs were served simply, fried and topped with spices, sitting on the plate. They were quite spartan, almost unappetising in their presentation. But they were delicious. The deceptively simple presentation hid the complexity of flavours and an interesting cooking technique.
The pre-poaching of the ribs renders a tender and full-flavoured dish with a somewhat gelatinous interior. The final frying then gives a crunchy exterior.
The ribs are poached in a master stock, which can be reused and replenished. The same master stock poaching liquid can be strained and kept in the fridge or frozen. Previously, I’ve taken the same master stock and a few days later poached chicken, which I have then served simply with rice. In fact, this recipe for ribs could work equally well with the pork replaced by chicken wings for a snack or chicken Marylands for something more substantial.
I get that deep-frying at home is not always ideal. The ribs – or chicken wings – could be reheated prior to serving on a hot barbecue instead of frying, taking care not to leave them on the barbecue too long. Pan-frying, or shallow-frying in batches, would also work. But deep-frying, if you can do it, will produce a more satisfying and even crust.
Usually when I am deep-frying at home, I use a deep saucepan. If I’m putting it on the stove, I stay with it. I don’t go outside to water the garden. I use a cooking thermometer, and take the oil to 180 degrees. In the absence of a thermometer, I put the oil on a moderate heat for a few minutes and then take a piece of white bread and drop it into the oil. If it slowly turns golden, the oil is ready. If it starts bubbling rapidly, the oil is too hot and needs to be cooled. For various health reasons, it is probably best to discard this bread, tempting as it might be to eat it.
I like to serve these ribs simply, with some slices of cucumber, some white rice, and maybe some soy and ginger. All of the lovely fried aromatics left in the pan are delicious spooned onto rice.
Hunan pork ribs with cumin and chilli
– 3 cloves garlic
– 3 spring onions, white part (reserve green tops for later use)
– 2 litres water
– 1 thumb-sized piece of ginger, thinly sliced
– 1 stick cassia bark
– 2 star anise
– 375ml light soy sauce
– 375ml Shaoxing wine (Chinese cooking wine) or medium dry sherry
– 2½ tbsp castor sugar
– 3kg meaty (“Korean cut”) pork rib
– 1 tbsp Shaoxing wine or medium dry sherry
– ½ tsp salt
– 1 tsp light soy sauce
– 1 tsp dark soy sauce
– 1 tbsp potato starch or cornflour
– 1¾ cups peanut oil
– 2 tsp minced ginger
– 1 tbsp minced garlic
– 2 long red chillies, seeded and finely chopped
– 2 to 4 tsp dried chilli flakes
– 2 tbsp toasted cumin seeds
– 3 spring onions, green parts only, finely sliced
– 1 tsp sesame oil
– ½ lime
Whack the garlic cloves and spring onion whites with the flat of your knife to bruise them.
Place all the ingredients (except the ribs) in a saucepan big enough to hold all the pork ribs. Bring the liquid to a simmer and add the ribs to the pot. Make sure they are covered with the cooking liquid; add a little extra water to the pot if necessary.
Simmer the ribs for one-and-a-half hours or until they are fork-tender but not falling off the bone.
Take the ribs out of the stock and refrigerate them for at least three hours, or overnight. Strain and reserve the stock for another use.
Mix together the wine, salt, soy sauces, potato starch and one tablespoon of water. Add the cooled ribs to this marinade. In a wok, heat the oil to 275ºC. Add the ribs (in batches, if necessary) and cook for two to three minutes until they are browned. Remove them from the oil and drain well.
Pour off all but three tablespoons of the oil in the wok. Over a high flame, add the ginger, garlic, chillies, chilli flakes and cumin seeds and stir-fry briefly, until they are fragrant. Return the ribs to the wok and toss them in the spice mix until they are coated.
Season the ribs with salt, mix through the spring onions and sesame oil. Finish the ribs with a squeeze of lime juice and serve with steamed rice.
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This article was first published in the print edition of The Saturday Paper on Sep 3, 2016 as "Hunan pork ribs with cumin and chilli". Subscribe here.