This is another one of my mom’s dishes. I grew up with this, but never really thought about how it was done. In college, I tried literally dozens of times to get this even close to right. Finally, with enough practice it just started happening. The keys are the ratio of soy to sugar and cooking the ribs for a long time.
Start with one rack of spare ribs or baby back ribs. Have the guy at the store saw the rack in half vertically so you end up with two racks each of which are only a few inches wide. When you get the racks home, cut them up into individual riblets.
You will also need one bunch of scallions, cut up into large pieces, several slices of fresh ginger, a couple of carrots peeled and cut up, and two or three pieces of star anise.
Heat up a medium sized soup pot (4-6 quarts will do). When it’s hot, add oil and 3-4 tablespoons of sugar. Throw in the ribs and stir them around so they are coated with the sugar and starting to brown. Then toss in the vegetables and stir some more. Let the whole thing saute for a minute or two. Grind some pepper over everything. I have to resist the urge to reflexively add salt to the saute. But a little doesn’t hurt.
Now combine about a cup of soy sauce and a cup of water. Pour this over the ribs. If there isn’t enough liquid to cover, add some more water. At this point you might have to add a bit more soy to balance things. You can also add red wine if you like that kind of thing. The soy to water ratio should be about 1-to-1, but it’s really more a matter of taste and discretion.
After adding the liquid, put 3-4 more tablespoons of sugar, scallions, ginger, and the star anise in the pot. Bring to a bubble, then turn the heat down and get things to a simmer. Cover the pot and go play Halo for a while. After an hour, check the sauce to make sure it’s salty and sweet enough. If too salty, add some water, or wine.
Now go back and play Halo for a few more hours, letting the ribs cook until they are infused with the sauce and the meat falls off the bone easily. In addition, the sauce should be a nice combination of “soy saucy” and sweet. The anise and the soy also combine into a sort of magical synergy that you don’t notice until you forget to use the anise and then you hate yourself.
It can take a few tries to get the seasoning just right, so experiment until you get it to where you like it.
Note: A stupendous variation on this dish is to use cut up pork belly instead of ribs. Make the pieces about the same size as the ribs would have been. Keep the rest the same. The result is great with almost anything, but is especially nice when stuffed into those folded steamed buns that you can buy at the store.
This recipe is a slight update to the one I posted at the old tleaves web site. In that version I forgot the star anise because I’m a moron. Also, at that time the pork belly + steamed buns would not have worked, because it would have been too hard to find those ingredients.