Sichuan Red-Braised Ribs and Radish (Hongshao Paigu, 红烧排骨)
Published Feb 13, 2020, Updated Jun 01, 2023
Instant Pot, Or Not
Tis the season for braises, soups and stews, and that’s as true for Chinese food as it is for Western cuisines. Americans tend to think of Chinese food as all stir-fries, all the time (Just try to find a braise or stew in a Panda Express!). But comfort food in Sichuan—especially in the winter, but even in the summer—almost always includes a long-braised meat of some kind, often with vegetables, in the kind of dish we’d call a stew. In fact, a popular type of homey Sichuan restaurant foregoes stir-fries altogether and offers only big cauldrons filled with various hongshao or “red-braised” stews and an array of cold dishes/salads to go with them.
These shaocai dishes are usually red-braised, or hongshao, which, in most parts of China, means they’re cooked with a healthy dose of soy sauce for taste and color. But in Sichuan the red color and flavor usually come from chili bean paste—and, preferably, the super-umami version of doubanjiang made in Pixian County and aged for years. I mean, if there’s anywhere you want the depth of flavor and funk that aged Pixian douban delivers, it’s in a braise, right?
A couple of springs ago when Fongchong and I were visiting doubanjiang makers in Pixian, the staff at one of them took us to a business lunch at a local restaurant. They stressed it was nothing fancy, but the casual countryside place with all-outdoor seating at big round tables turned out to serve home-style cooking at its best.
Our hosts had pre-ordered one chicken, and the restaurant had killed, prepped and cooked it for us before we arrived. It then came to the table in the form of three hongshao dishes and one cold chicken dish in red oil. The meal was rounded out with four different dishes of greens and one stir-fried meat, a twice-cooked pork in which the douban was swapped out for douchi, fermented black soybeans. They probably made that swap because all three of the hongshao chicken dishes made use of the local Pixian douban. And yet—they all tasted distinctly different! You can see in the photos that one featured meaty chicken and potatoes, another chicken offal and fresh green erjingtiao chilies, and the third boney chicken bits and wild Chinese celery (with the breasts going to the cold dish).
It was a feast; it was largely cooked ahead; and this one chicken fed seven of us! It was a lesson I took to heart on how to make a Chinese feast at home: Braises free the cook from an endless round of last-minute stir-fries while also stretching the food to feed more grateful mouths.
There are as many hongshao recipes as there are cooks, and you can never have too many in your back pocket. But this may be the red-braising recipe I pull out the most often. It’s the one I devised for chopstick-size pork riblets, one of our favorite family meats. We still love the classic Shanghai-style super-glazed red-braised pork belly I learned from Kian Lam Kho and the brothy beef recipe I use for hongshao beef noodle soup. But this one for pork ribs is the go-to. It’s based on the oldest, bestest Pixian chili bean paste, rounded out with brown sugar, black vinegar, red soy sauce and the sweet heat of ginger. The fermented fava beans and chili add depth of flavor and mild heat that dial up the umami without necessarily tasting like douban.
(Red-braised dishes are actually more brown than red, and I learned from Kian, who’s also known as Red Cook due to his expertise in hongshao, that that’s because Mandarin doesn’t have a stand-alone character for brown!)
I make this dish in the Instant Pot, but it’s easily converted to a stove-top pot, for those of you who don’t have or want to invest in an electric pressure cooker—or who plan further ahead for dinner than I do. You’ll just have to cook it for about three times longer. But I have become a real Instant Pot devotee because I like knowing that I can make a dish that tastes like it’s braised for hours in just a little over one hour while continuing to toil over my computer instead of the pot.
This recipe does not make a big batch of broth but just enough concentrated sauce to wet your rice or noodles. Add more water (but not too much) if you want it brothy. And add more spices (Chinese black cardamom, Sichuan pepper, star anise, etc.) if you like. Or mix up the vegetables. We like the daikon (or other white Asian radish) because its crispy texture and light peppery taste is a nice contrast with the pork. (In fact, Fongchong loves the daikon radish even more than the ribs.) But you could also use potatoes or turnips. And a handful of cilantro adds a fresh green accent, but scallions or green chilies would also fill that role.
Make this hongshao recipe your own!
If you love hongshao, try the original Classic Shanghai Pork Belly: Hongshaorou (红烧肉) or my family’s favorite Red-Braised Beef Noodle Soup (Hongshao Niurou Mian, 红烧牛肉面), also Instant Pot-friendly!
Sichuan Red-Braised Ribs and Radish (Hongshao Paigu, 红烧排骨)
- 1½ to 2 pounds pork ribs (one small rack)
- 3 level tablespoons aged Pixian doubanjiang (chili bean paste)
- 3 tablespoons Zhenjiang (Chinkiang) vinegar
- 2 tablespoons Chinese light soy sauce
- 3 tablespoons brown sugar
- 1 tablespoon toasted sesame oil
- 2 inches ginger, peeled and chopped in large pieces
- 1 Chinese black cardamom (cao guo, optional)
- ¾ pound daikon radish, cut in 1½ inch pieces
- 1 handful cilantro, roughly chopped
- Ask your butcher to cut a small rack of ribs vertically through the bone once or twice, to make ribs 2-3 inches wide. Or do this yourself with a cleaver that can handle bones. Cut between each rib to separate them. Bring a large pot of water to a boil and add ribs. After the water comes back to a boil, cook 3-5 minutes to dislodge the impurities that will gunk up your sauce. Remove the ribs and rinse well, then add to the Instant Pot or to your stovetop braising pot.
- Make your braising sauce by adding the chili bean paste, vinegar, soy sauce, brown sugar, sesame oil, ginger and ¼ cup water to a mini food processor or blender. Process until smooth, then pour into the pot over the ribs. (Alternatively, just add all the ingredients to the pot, as they will mostly break down during cooking.) Add enough water to mostly cover the ribs, about ½ cup to 1 cup. Add black cardamom or other spice, if using.
- Attach Instant Pot lid, make sure sealing vent is closed and set pressure cooker for 40 minutes. At end of cooking time, allow natural release for 10 minutes. Remove ribs, and set aside. Change setting from Pressure Cook to Saute and add the daikon radish to the sauce. Boil for 10-12 minutes or until done to your liking. Add back ribs to warm them up, then remove to a serving bowl. Garnish with the cilantro and serve.
- If making on a stovetop, bring sauce to a boil, then lower heat, cover pot with a lid and simmer at a low bubble for approximately 1½ to 2 hours. Check the pot occasionally to stir and make sure the water level is good. Add water if needed. About 15 minutes before ribs are done, add the daikon radish to the pot, return to a simmer and cook until soft. Remove to a serving bowl and garnish with cilantro.
- Serve with rice or as a noodle topping along with some of the sauce. The sauce is generally not that oily and does not require fat skimming.
Tried this recipe?