Citizens, there can be no equivocation that for the Hegemon of History, the Emperor of Empiricism – YOUR TFD! – few moments prove to be as joyful as My sharing a unique recipe from one of the greatest culinary civilizations upon this planet Earth!
I speak of nothing less than the most sweet and savory dish of ribs from the Wuxi region of Jiangsu province of China known – unsurprisingly – as Wuxi spareribs! They have become a deserved mainstay of any Shanghai-style Chinese restaurant and are beloved for their glazing with a sweet and sticky sauce – these ribs will redefine your definition of what Chinese-style ribs are all about and I am proud to present them as today’s recipe for the benefit of TFD Nation!
Jiangsu cuisine (simplified Chinese: 苏菜; pinyin: Sū cài), also known as Su cuisine, is one of the Eight Culinary Traditions of Chinese cuisine. It is derived from the native cooking styles of Jiangsu Province. In general, Jiangsu cuisine’s texture is characterized as soft, but not to the point of mushy or falling apart. In addition, Jiangsu cuisine also focuses on heating temperature.
For example, the meat tastes quite soft but would not separate from the bone when picked up. As the style of Jiangsu cuisine is typically practiced near the sea, fish is a very common ingredient in cooking. Other characteristics include the strict selection of ingredients according to the seasons, with emphasis on the matching color and shape of each dish and using soup to improve flavor. The municipality of Shanghai was formerly a part of Jiangsu thus the great deal of similarity between the two, and Shanghai cuisine is sometimes classified as a part of Jiangsu cuisine.
Jiangsu cuisine is sometimes simply called Su cuisine, and one of its major styles is Huaiyang cuisine. Although Huaiyang cuisine is one of several sub-regional styles within Jiangsu cuisine, it is widely seen in Chinese culinary circles as the most popular and prestigious style of Jiangsu cuisine – to a point where it is considered to be one of the four most influential regional schools (四大菜系) that dominate the culinary heritage of China, along with Cantonese cuisine, Shandong cuisine and Sichuan cuisine.
Jiangsu cuisine actually consists of several other sub-regional styles, including:
- Nanjing style: Its dishes emphasise an even taste and matching colours, with dishes incorporating river fish/shrimp and duck.
- Suzhou style: The emphasis is on the selection of ingredients. It has a stronger taste than Nanjing style cuisine as well as a tendency to be sweeter than the other varieties of Jiangsu cuisine.
- Nantong style: The dishes emphasize a flavor of freshness on the ingredients which cover a variety of seafood, since Nantong is located at the intersection of the local Hao River, the Yangtze River and the Yellow Sea.
- Wuxi-style cuisine: Wuxi’s proximity to Lake Tai means it is notable for wide variety of freshwater produce, such as the “Three Whites” – white bait (银鱼; 銀魚; yín yú), white fish (白鱼; 白魚; bái yú) and white shrimp (白虾; 白蝦; bái xiā). In Wuxi, the common cooking method is characterized by the addition of sugar and soy sauce to many savoury dish often in the form of hongshao (红烧; 紅燒; hóngshāo; ‘red braised’). This often results in a fragrant, caramelized flavor. In addition, Wuxi cuisine often has sweeter versions of dishes found in its neighboring regions.
As further elucidated on asiaculturaltravel.co.uk:
Jiangsu or “Su” cuisine is heralded as one of the Eight Culinary Traditions of Chinese Cooking and its subgroup, Huaiyang, is even considered to be among the Four Great Traditions of Chinese Cuisine. It was once the second most popular style among the imperials and is now frequently served at state banquets.
With that in mind, you’re pretty much guaranteed to enjoy your stay in Jiangsu; or at least, your stomach is! This style of cooking places emphasis on presentation, meaning local specialities are as visually pleasing as they are mouth-wateringly delicious. Chefs train for years in order to perfect how to carve, sculpt, shape, and pair certain foods for the ultimate visual feast.
In terms of flavour, this style aims to draw out the natural essence of its ingredients through various cooking techniques, so seasonings and spices are used sparingly. This means that its signature dishes are sumptuously aromatic, slightly salty, moderately sweet, and glide across the tongue, leaving a strong sense of flavour without being oily or greasy.
The ingredients are usually seasonal and are chosen not only for their taste, but also for their unique medicinal properties. Since Jiangsu is a coastal province, fish and other types of seafood feature prominently, along with pork, lotus root, Chinese chestnuts, water bamboo, and water chestnuts. With all of this aquatic goodness, you’ll practically be swimming in scrumptious food!
There are four different regional styles of Jiangsu cuisine: Jinling, Suxi, Xuhai, and Huaiyang. The Jinling style originated from the provincial capital of Nanjing and is famous for its duck dishes, as well as its fine cutting techniques and delicate preparation. The Suxi style developed around the cities of Suzhou and Wuxi, and is distinctly sweeter than the other styles, with a strong emphasis placed on the use of seasonal vegetables.
The Xuhai style, which originates from the cities of Xuzhou and Lianyungang, is the least famous of the four and combines a perfect mixture of sweetness, sourness, bitterness, heat, and saltiness. Last but certainly not least, Huaiyang style is praised as the finest of the four and is centred on dishes from the cities of Yangzhou and Huai’an.
It is rumoured to have originated from chefs who worked for wealthy Qing Dynasty (1644-1912) salt merchants living in Yangzhou, proving once and for all that a golden key can open any door, particularly the ones to the best restaurants!
Legend has it that Wuxi spareribs was first prepared by a peasant known as Lu Xiaosheng, who made it at the request of his sick wife. Supposedly, after partaking of his sparerib dish, the wife made a miraculous recovery from her illness. Lu’s spareribs were so delectable that legend also has it that he made a fortune selling them under the brand “Old Lu Gu’s Gao Jian”. There is a restaurant still standing with the name “Lu Gao Jian” in the region, although I’m usure if this restaurant can claim a true unbroken lineage to the original dish.
These sweet and sticky ribs are the ultimate expression of Wuxi-style cuisine, at least in My inestimable and final opinion on the matter – they are actually not very difficult to make, but to make them well is to make them with ruthless authenticity in the proper Wuxi style, as TFD demands of all His loyal Citizens!
First off, the pork needs to shine in this recipe – please, don’t bother making these with anything less than a good heritage breed of pork ribs – I personally prefer Berkshire (aka Kurobota in Japanese) black pigs. These are pretty easy to find in most quality butcher shops, or you can order them online from here. Ceylon cinnamon is the actual type of cinnamon used in Chinese cuisine – it is more subtle than the standard version in your grocery store. Make sure it says whole CEYLON cinnamon quills when you buy it or grab a top-quality product from here.
Top-quality Zhenjiang vinegar is used in this general region of China and I have added a bit of it to my version of the seminal recipe, as I find it adds some needed complexity to the final product as opposed to just sweet – this is a good brand. Another way I add complexity as well as color to the final dish (it should be quite red as demanded by the hongshao style!) is to use some red yeast rice fermented bean curd juice – 紅豆腐乳/南乳 – as part of the sauce, you can buy it at any Asian supermarket or here on Amazon.
I also amp up the red color by using actual red yeast rice (红曲米) – it turns red because it is the product of the mold Monascus purpureus grown on rice, a method discovered more than a thousand years ago in China. In Chinese cuisine, it’s used as a natural coloring to give dishes a bright red color, such as Peking duck and Cantonese char siu. It’s available at Chinese grocery stores. It is an optional ingredient, but one I strongly recommend – you can buy some on Amazon here. Chinese dark soy sauce is NOT the same as ‘light’ soy sauce (aka the soy sauce you normally use for cooking) – this is my preferred brand.
Chinese golden rock sugar is a key ingredient in this and all ‘red-cooked’ meats in Chinese cuisine – it adds a glossy sheen that is simply unmatched, so please don’t substitute this ingredient – you can buy it on Amazon here. Lastly, this is the ONLY sesame oil I can endorse – it’s the best for good reason and you can easily buy it from here. Be CAREFUL to only add a few drops, or you’ll blow out the careful balance of flavors I’ve striven to achieve here!
Citizens, this is one rib recipe that doesn’t require a grill and that has a thousand years of Wuxi provenance behind it – I hope you see fit to enjoy this recipe with the greatest of alacrity! 😀
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