A Trip to Vietnam Inspires Tender Pork Ribs
By DAVID TANIS FEB. 12, 2016
I love pork ribs, but when it comes to how best to cook them, I don’t necessarily take the expected approach.
Not all ribs must be baked or grilled or smoked. I have nothing against a good dry rub or barbecue sauce — they have their place. But the Vietnamese method of braising ribs to succulence is one well worth considering.
I learned this technique in Vietnam from a chef I met, who used it for larger pork cuts, like shoulder or belly. The meat is first bathed in a fragrant wet marinade, perfumed with lemongrass, garlic, ginger, shallots, fish sauce, sugar and five-spice powder. This traditional Vietnamese seasoning is praiseworthy for its perfect balance of salt, spice and sweetness. Five-spice powder (a mixture of fennel, star anise, cloves, cinnamon and Sichuan pepper) is essential — it adds aromatic complexity almost instantly.
In Vietnam, you must get to the market early if you want to buy meat. One memorable market I visited was run by deft, take-charge, bossy lady butchers. They had every cut of pork, from snout to tail, all broken down with big cleavers and spread out on an oilcloth-covered table.
Business was brisk. It was common knowledge that if you didn’t get there by 10 a.m., all the meat would be gone, perhaps already in somebody’s pot, cooking away. There was no real need for refrigeration. More freshly slaughtered meat would be brought in the following day.
My chef friend browned the seasoned meat in a large wok, then added the remaining marinade and a few cups of water. Leaving the lid slightly ajar, he simmered the pork slowly to utter tenderness. It was then ready to be sliced and added to noodles or other dishes. (Stored in its cooking broth, it develops even more flavor.)
Back home, I made a version of this dish for friends using baby back ribs. Instead of wok-braising on the stovetop, I decided to cook them in the oven slowly, in a tightly covered baking dish, for almost two hours. I held off on browning until the end, which I accomplished by simply removing the cover and allowing the ribs to caramelize.
The pan juices, defatted and reduced slightly, are delicious spooned on top of the ribs, along with steamed rice and an abundance of fresh herbs: cilantro, mint, scallions, basil.
And to Drink …
These ribs, with their spicy, herbal, slightly sweet marinade, call for a wine that will reflect and amplify those flavors without dulling or overpowering them. That means an aromatic, balanced white with lively acidity; herbal, floral flavors and no oak. I think first of a dry riesling, either from Germany or one of the lighter Austrian versions, which should pair beautifully with these ribs. Likewise, an herbal, peppery grüner veltliner, also from Austria, would be an excellent accompaniment. I would also consider the constellation of restrained sauvignon blancs from the Loire Valley, and perhaps even a pinot blanc from Alsace or Austria. Don’t despair if you prefer a red. A bright young cabernet franc from the Loire would be delicious, as would any good Beaujolais. ERIC ASIMOV
- 2 medium shallots, finely chopped
- 2 lemongrass stalks, tough outer layer removed, lightly smashed and very finely chopped (about 2 tablespoons)
- 2 tablespoons soy sauce
- 1 tablespoon fish sauce (such as Red Boat)
- 1 tablespoon hot chile paste (such as sambal oelek)
- 2 teaspoons kosher salt
- 2 tablespoons brown sugar
- 2 teaspoons Chinese five-spice powder
- 1 tablespoon grated garlic
- 2 tablespoons finely chopped or grated ginger
- 3 to 4 pounds baby back ribs
- 4 scallions, slivered or chopped, for garnish
- Cilantro and mint sprigs, for garnish
- Make the marinade: In a small bowl, put the shallots, lemongrass, soy sauce, fish sauce, chile paste, salt, sugar, five-spice powder, garlic and ginger. Mix well.
- Put the meat in a deep baking dish or roasting pan and add marinade. Using your hands, coat ribs well. Let marinate, refrigerated, for at least 2 hours and preferably overnight, well wrapped. Bring back to room temperature before proceeding.
- Heat oven to 450 degrees. Add 2 cups water to the pan, cover tightly with foil and place pan in oven. Cook for 30 minutes, then reduce heat to 350 degrees for 1 hour more. When done, the meat should be very tender, nearly but not quite falling off the bone. Remove cover and return to the oven for about 15 minutes until the ribs are nicely browned.
- Remove ribs from pan. Pour pan juices into a saucepan and skim fat. Reduce over high heat until somewhat thickened, about 5 minutes. Meanwhile, divide ribs with a sharp knife and pile them onto a platter.
- Serve family style with steamed rice and pan juices. Garnish with scallions, cilantro and mint sprigs.