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Char Siu Ribs

Char Siu is a tradtional barbecue seasoning for pork in the Cantonese cuisine. It is characterized by a deep red colour and has a distinctive taste. Normally Char Siu pork is made with belly, loin or shoulder. The meat is marinated in a spice mixture and then roasted over fire. But here I to use the Char Siu seasoning with ribs which are prepared the classic low-and-slow way on the barbecue.

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Now what exactly is Char Siu? When I was researching recipes for it it turned out to be not easy. Most preparations use red food colouring to achieve the Char Siu look, and it is safe to say that food colouring is also used in most Chinese restaurants. Of course Char Siu is much older than artificial food colourings, so there must be a traditional ingredient that the modern preparations try to imitate or enhance.

It took me a while to find it, but finally I discovered a few traditional recipes that use a special ingredient I had already known, but never even thought that it could be used for this purpose: red fermented tofu.

Fermented tofu is a very special thing. If you think tofu is always bland and boring, go to a Chinese grocery and buy a jar. It is a flavour bomb and consumed pure it might even be too strong for you. It comes in two main varieties, white and red. White fermented tofu is essentially plain tofu in a strong brine. Red fermented tofu is made with the lees left over from making red rice wine.

The taste of white fermented tofu is smilar to mature blue cheese like roquefort but much stronger. The rice wine lees give red fermented tofu a deep and strong taste that is pretty much impossible to describe.

Char Siu seasoning always contains a sweet element. Usually Hoisin sauce is used, a concoction of many different ingredients. Traditionally it is made with sweet potatoes but essentially all commercial Hoisin sauces availabe here only contain sugar and other industrial ingredients. This is why I am not using it here.

In contrast to traditional Char Siu I am splitting off the sweet component and apply it as a final glaze like you might do for regular barbecue ribs. Char Siu recipes can be quite complex but don’t have to be. My version is fairly stripped down because I love my barbecue as basic as possible without bells and whistles.

I used baby back ribs here but of course you can use any other cut as well.

Ingredients (per rack of baby back ribs):

Marinade:

  • 2 tablespoons red fermented tofu
  • 1 tablespoon dark soy sauce
  • 1 tablespoon Shao Xing wine or dry sherry
  • 1 teaspoon Chinese Five Spice powder

Glaze:

  • Any leftover marinade
  • 1 tablespoon honey
  • 1 tablespoon dark soy sauce

Time needed:

  • Marinating: overnight (optional)
  • Preparation: 10 minutes
  • Cooking time: 6 hours

Preparation:

Mash the fermented tofu and mix it with the other marinade ingredients. Remove the membrane from the ribs and cover them with the marinade on both sides. There should be a bit more marinade than you need for the ribs. You can marinate overnight in the refrigerator but it is not strictly necessary.

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For the glaze add honey and soy sauce to the leftover marinade and mix well. Setup your smoker or grill for indirect heat. Cook the ribs for 5 hours at 100 degrees with little or no smoke.

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Apply the glaze with a brush and turn up the heat to 130 degrees. Cook for one more hour.

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Because of the long cooking time and the lack of artificial colouring the ribs may not look as red as the Char Siu pork loin in a Cantonese restaurant. But they taste at least as good.

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