Sticky pork ribs aren’t just ribs—they’re sticky, sweet, Asian-inspired ribs that will make you glad that you’ve got napkins. You might have to step out for a few ingredients—kecap manis, tamarind paste, Chinese black vinegar—but we swear that it’s worth the trip.
This is a wonderful way to serve ribs at your next barbecue–it has the sweet and sour flavors that work so well with pork. The sweetness comes from maple syrup and sweet soy sauce, and the sourness comes from Chinese black vinegar [Editor’s Note: Not familiar with Chinese black vinegar? Not to worry. See the LC Note below.] The great thing about this dish is that you can prepare everything the day before, which means you also derive maximum flavor from the marinade, which works just as well with chicken drumsticks or wings.–Pete Evans
WHAT ARE KECAP MANIS, TAMARIND, AND CHINESE BLACK VINEGAR?
This Asian-style slathering sauce draws on ingredients that aren’t exactly pantry items for some of us–that is unless you frequent Chinatown–and we make no apology for that. The resulting ribs, having been grilled low and slow until tender, are well worth the time it takes to ogle all the lovely ingredients that some of us don’t shop for nearly as often as we’d like. For the uninitiated, we offer a cheat sheet to the shopping list you’ll need:
Kecap manis is a sweet, thick, syrupy Indonesian soy sauce of sorts. It approximates ketchup in consistency. To make your own ad hoc version, gently simmer equal parts soy sauce and brown sugar or molasses until the sugar dissolves.
Tamarind is derived from the pod of the tamarind tree and lends an eye-twitchingly tart note to marinades and sauces. You’ll find the concentrate in tubs or jars. You can instead purchase a block of tamarind paste, which looks like–and is–essentially a mass of pods mushed together and make your own concentrate by pouring a little boiling water over a chunk of the block, stirring and mashing it with a wooden spoon until it’s the consistency of a very thick soup, and then straining it several times. It should have the viscosity of something between a paste and kecap manis (or ketchup). You’ll need to fiddle around with the proportions. Best to start with too little water than too much.
Chinese black vinegar is an inky black, aged vinegar made from grains. It has a complex taste, similar to balsamic vinegar. (You can rely on balsamic as a substitute when you’re in a pinch.)
Sticky Pork Ribs
- 1 cup maple syrup
- 1 cup kecap manis (sweet soy sauce; see LC Note above)
- 1 tablespoon tamarind concentrate (see LC Note above)
- 4 tablespoons oyster sauce
- 1 1/4 cups Chinese black vinegar (see LC Note above)
- 2 cinnamon sticks
- 3 star anise
- 4 1/2 pounds pork ribs (you can use spareribs or babyback ribs), membranes removed* (see * Note)
- Combine all the ingredients except the ribs in a nonreactive bowl and stir well. Place the ribs in a large container (a glass baking dish or nonreactive roasting pan will do nicely), dump the marinade over the top, and turn the ribs to coat. Cover and refrigerate at least overnight and up to 18 hours.
- Set up an outdoor grill for indirect-heat cooking over medium-low heat, leaving half of the fire bed free of coals.
- Remove the ribs from the marinade and place them in a heavy flameproof roasting pan. Reserve the marinade. Cover the pan of ribs with aluminum foil and place it on the cool part of the grill. Close the lid on the grill and let the ribs cook for 30 minutes. Carefully uncover the pan of ribs (don't put your nose too close to the pan in anticipation—trust us), turn them, and brush them with some of the reserved marinade. Recover the pan, close the lid on the grill, and cook the ribs for another 30 minutes or so, until the ribs are caramelized and lightly charred and tender as can be.
- Meanwhile, discard the remaining marinade or transfer it to a small pan, simmer gently until thickened slightly, and pass it on the side for at-the-table slathering. Pile the ribs on a platter or onto a sheet of parchment paper placed on an outdoor table. Dig in.
*How to remove the membrane from ribsTo remove the membrane or silver skin from a rib, use the tip of a small knife to loosen a corner and then grab the membrane with a paper towel and slowly pull it off.
Recipe Testers' Reviews
We love these ribs. They are a great departure from traditional barbecued ribs. The ribs definitely “fall off the bone” and the flavors are delicious–tangy, sweet, almost exotic, and certainly unique. Most of the Asian ingredients are fairly easy to find in a supermarket, but a trip to a specialty market may be needed for a few of them. I used a combination of rice and balsamic vinegar in place of the Chinese black vinegar.
The marinade was quite liquidy. That was fine for marinating overnight, but I found that it didn't adhere very well when I tried to brush it on the ribs. I then reduced it a bit and it worked fine. Since you're using indirect heat on a grill, which more or less simulates an oven environment, you could make these ribs in an oven just as easily. You might lose a bit of the smoky flavor you'd get from a grill, but these ribs are so flavorful, I don’t think there would be much of a difference in the overall wonderful result.
Maple syrup and tamarind are just two of the unlikely flavors that constitute the savory, sweet, sticky sauce that coats these tasty ribs. I got baby back ribs and asked my butcher to cut them cross-rib up the middle into two separate racks of mini-ribs. Once home, I carefully separated the rib portions with a sharp knife. This added about five to ten minutes to my preparation time.
Your results may vary, but the ribs weren’t quite ready after an hour. If this happens to you, just remove the foil and keep an eye on them to prevent scorching until you get the right color.
Originally published June 13, 2012