The Song Dynasty of Medieval China was a turning point in food history. As farming productivity exploded, cities rose to dominance, and populations dramatically increased, so too did the quality of life and the quality of cuisine follow.
To put it another way, people had access to not only more food, but better food. Even poorer commoners tended to eat 3 meals a day and occasionally some snacks. Most remarkable though, was that for one of the first times in history, meat was being consumed across social classes. With prices low, and restaurants and street stalls serving conveniently sized and priced portions, everyone could afford some animal protein now and then.
And the most popular of all the meats? Then and perhaps now as well… Pork. So. . . we’re havin’ ribs.
I’ll admit, this recipe is inspired by the style of ribs you can get with Chinese take out in America. But taking all historical factors into account, that is the rise of meat and pork, the authentic black soy bean sauce, the dry rub spices made possible by recently opened trade routes, as well as the popularity of grills and barbecues for street food in Song cities, I see no reason to call this recipe inauthentic! I’ll stand by the assertion that these ribs could totally have been served from a stall on the Imperial Way, centuries ago.
The charcoal grill is of course the best way to go, but these ribs are delicious in an oven as well. To get started, we’ll need to whip up a couple things first: Some homemade Chinese Five Spice for a dry rub, and some Hoisin style, black bean sauce for a marinade. After that, all we need is ribs and fire.
CHINESE FIVE SPICE
5 Star Anise
1 stick Cinnamon
1 tbsp. Fennel Seeds
1 tbsp. Cloves
2 tsp. Dry Szechuan Peppercorns
In a pan, over medium-high heat, toast your spices, tossing constantly until you can smell their fragrance. Grind them up into a coarse rub.
Classic, easy, delicious. With the exception of the mouth-numbing peppercorns, these spices are all unremarkable on their own, but combined together transcend their parts into an amazing spice mix . This will be the primary flavor seasoning our meat.
BBQ BLACK BEAN SAUCE (Hoisin)
1 cup dried fermented black beans
4 whole dates, pitted
2 large cloves garlic, peeled
3 tbsp. honey
1/2 cup soy sauce
1/4 cup Chinese black vinegar
1 tbsp. Sesame Oil
1 teaspoon Chinese 5-spice
Another simple set of instructions: Soak the dates and black beans in water as hot as your tap will get, for about 20 minutes or until softened. Strain out the liquid, then mash or blend with all the other ingredients, adding water to adjust for thickness if necessary.
This thick sauce is salty, sweet, and simply tastes like China. Fermented black beans, actually soy beans and not black turtle beans which come from the Americas, are a a truly unique, pungent flavor. Here we are making them into a classic sauce with garlic, as well as adding some honey and “foreign” imported fruit (dates) for sweetness. This recipe is used as a marinade today, but it also make a great dipping sauce for just about anything.
To prepare the ribs:
1 rack of pork ribs, any style
3 tbsp. Chinese 5-spice
Whether making the ribs on the grill or in the oven, the prep is the same.
For extra crispy ribs, cut the rack into smaller, finger size pieces. I like cuts with 2 ribs each.
LIBERALLY salt both sides of the ribs, as well as dusting with a very generous amount of the Chinese 5-spice. Use your hands to really work the salt and spice into the meat, so it sticks. Next, place the ribs on a rack over a sheet tray, and let cure for 4 hours or overnight in the fridge.
When the cure is almost done, preheat your grill or oven to about 300F. Oil up the grate/rack you intend to cook on, and make sure its nice and hot before placing the ribs on it. If using a grill, make sure to place all the coals on one side and to cook the ribs over indirect heat, on the opposite side as your coals. Close the lid, and let cook for 1.5 hours.
Use a brush to baste the ribs in the black bean sauce. Don’t skimp! Close the grill or oven back up and cook for another 45 minutes. Baste the ribs with more sauce, and cook for a final 45 mins to an hour or until dry but tender. About 3 hours total cooking time.
Put one last coating of sauce, cover and cook 5 minutes. Remove to a plate to serve. Garnish with scallions for a final touch.
After that? Just make sure you’ve got plenty of napkins. These ribs are sweet, peppery, full of flavor, but most of all, MESSY!