Sichuan Spareribs With Mala BBQ Sauce (Mala Paigu): Cooking With Grace Young
Happy Year of the Pig!
I can’t help myself each year from trying to match a recipe with the Chinese New Year animal. Some years are a stretch—dragon, monkey—but pig, the meat supreme of China, has to be the easiest. Chinese spareribs are a pork dish I’ve never tackled, so I went whole hog, calling on Chinese food authority Grace Young for some guidance on Chinese BBQ and making oven-roasted Sichuan spareribs two distinct ways.
We have Grace to thank for this wet-rub rib based on Cantonese barbecue spareribs. She used Sichuan ingredients from The Mala Market to create the slightly sweet-and-spicy and wholly addictive BBQ sauce, then followed her tried-and-true method of making Cantonese BBQ ribs, which she published in her first cookbook, The Wisdom of the Chinese Kitchen. That Cantonese cookbook draws on her immediate and extended family’s recipes and memories and is a total treasure. For those who don’t know, she followed up that 1999 publication with two more award-winning cookbooks focussed on wok cooking, which is why she is known as a Wok Wonder Woman. The Breath of a Wok and Stir-Frying to the Sky’s Edge are both classics now, and both of them went into their 11th printing in 2018. That is an astounding accomplishment in the Internet Age.
After you make these ribs, head over to Grace’s Wok Wednesdays group on Facebook and cook through her books along with the very active wok enthusiasts there. Grace is the most generous of teachers and so supportive of other Chinese-food lovers, including me. If there was a James Beard Mentor Award, she would win that too. (2022 update: There’s no mentor award, but Grace was named the 2022 James Beard Humanitarian of the Year, for her unflagging “work to save America’s Chinatowns amid Asian American and Pacific Islander (AAPI) hate during the COVID-19 pandemic.”) She is our hero.
I’ll follow up Grace’s recipe in my next blog post with one I concocted for a type of rib more common in Sichuan, which is dry-rubbed and tea-smoked. Don’t even ask me to choose my favorite of the two styles, which is like asking this Tennesseean to pick between “wet” and “dry” Memphis-style ribs. We had a split decision in our house when we tried to choose faves. They are very different and equally good. (2022 update: I sadly never got around to publishing the dry-rub Sichuan sparerib recipe. But a good start would be using our Shao Kao BBQ spice blend as the dry rub.)
Grace based her Sichuan wet rub on 3-year Pixian doubanjiang, the fount of Sichuan umami. I don’t always bother to do this with douban, but for this recipe you’ll want to break down any whole beans in the chili bean paste with a mortar and pestle or under a knife, making for a smooth BBQ sauce. She then adds some sweet wheat paste, hoisin sauce, Shaoxing wine, Zhenjiang vinegar, dark soy sauce and ground Sichuan pepper, creating a sticky, thick mala glaze for the ribs. Brilliantly, honey is drizzled over the ribs to aid in the caramelization process. You’ll notice that unlike Cantonese ribs—which are traditionally colored with red fermented doufu or nontraditionally with red food coloring or ketchup—these are a deep reddish-black from the douban and red-brown hoisin.
I am providing both Grace’s instructions for cooking and another method I tried. After marinating and tenderizing overnight (or two), her very efficient ribs cook at 500 degrees for just 30 minutes before being quickly caramelized under the broiler. I expressed surprise that they could cook that fast, and she answered me with this:
“I realize you come from the land of barbecue. I think Americans like their ribs to be really tender. In contrast Chinese prefer the meat to be firmer. Interesting isn’t it?”
Right she is that I’ve spent a lot of time in the South and expect ribs to be cooked low and slow for hours on end. She said she wouldn’t mind if I baked them first, so I tried roasting them at 300 degrees for 2 hours, with water under the rack the ribs were on to steam them as they cooked, as suggested in many recipes out there on the Web. This didn’t really work for me, as they were kind of dry and not all that tender. Grace later agreed with this, as her own original recipe called for a pan of water to create steam in the oven but she has since abandoned that step as unnecessary and “fussy.”
So then I tried roasting them for only one hour at 375 degrees, in a method I copped from Serious Eats, omitting the pan of water but covering the ribs with foil when roasting, so they in effect steam in their own juices and don’t dry out. This totally worked. But after making these a few more times, I later revised this back down to 300 degrees and settled on three hours cooking time—two hours covered in foil, and one hour exposed to the heat—which results in truly tender ribs with a pleasing bark.
So you should choose your method of cooking—high and fast for that chew that Chinese people prefer or low and slow for extra tender— based on your desired mouth feel. Just don’t mess with the sauce! It’s perfect as is. In fact, I doubled the sauce from Grace’s suggestion for this recipe, both because I had a bigger rack of ribs and because I always double sauce recipes. I used the extra for glazing the ribs in the step between the low roasting and high-heat finish with a honey glaze. Either way, get ready to lick your fingers.
If you love these Chinese BBQ Sichuan spareribs, you’ll want to try my recipes for Sichuan-Style Shaokao (Chinese BBQ, 烧烤)!
Sichuan Spareribs With Mala BBQ Sauce
- 1 rack St. Louis-style spareribs (2½ to 3 pounds)
- 2 tablespoons sugar
- 2 tablespoons Pixian doubanjiang (chili bean paste)
- 2 tablespoons tianmianjiang (sweet wheat paste)
- 2 tablespoons Chinese dark soy sauce (Zhongba preferred)
- 2 tablespoons Shaoxing wine
- 2 tablespoons Zhenjiang black vinegar
- 2 teaspoons hoisin sauce
- 2 teaspoons Chinese roasted sesame oil
- ½ teaspoon freshly ground Sichuan pepper (see note)
- 2 tablespoons honey
- Cut the ribs into 2 equal pieces. Remove any visible fat pockets. Lightly score the ribs on the meat side and sprinkle sugar on both sides, using more on the meaty side. Set aside for 15 minutes.
- Prepare the chili bean paste by putting it on a cutting board and mincing with a knife to break down any whole beans. Add it to a small bowl with the sweet wheat paste, vinegar, dark soy sauce, Shaoxing wine, hoisin, sesame oil, and ground Sichuan pepper and stir to combine. Alternatively, add all ingredients to a blender and blend until smooth. Add the ribs to a wide bowl or large zip-lock bag and pour about ⅔ of the marinade over them, making sure all spareribs are well coated. Marinate overnight in the refrigerator, or up to two days. Refrigerate remaining sauce.
High and Fast (Chinese) Cooking Method
- Allow ribs to come to room temperature. Preheat oven to 500 degrees. As the oven preheats place spareribs meat side up in a roasting pan or a sheet pan that has been lined with foil. Place the pan in the oven and roast 30 minutes or until spareribs are browned (a larger rack may take longer).
- Remove pan from the oven. Preheat broiler and transfer spareribs to a broiler pan. Using a basting brush, baste spareribs with remaining ⅓ sauce and drizzle them with honey. Place broiler pan 4 inches from the heat and broil 1 to 5 minutes, or until the spareribs are just caramelized. Monitor closely to prevent burning. Remove from the oven and set on a cutting board to cool. Cut the spareribs into individual ribs and serve immediately or at room temperature.
Low and Slow (American South) Cooking Method
- Allow ribs to come to room temperate. Preheat oven to 300 degrees. Line a sheet pan with foil, and place ribs on an oiled rack that fits inside the pan. Cover ribs and entire pan with foil and seal tightly. Roast for 2 hours.
- Remove pan from oven and remove foil, then return exposed ribs to oven for about 1 more hour. When they are good and tender, increase heat to 450 degrees, baste the ribs with remaining ⅓ sauce and return them to oven. Roast for about 5 minutes, watching to make sure the glaze doesn't burn, then drizzle honey on top of ribs and roast an additional 3 to 5 minutes, or until the ribs have a dark-brown, caramelized "bark." Remove from oven and allow to cool slightly before cutting into individual ribs. Best served warm.
You had me at ‘ma la spareribs’! I rushed out to get some ribs the moment I saw this recipe, and have just finished cooking them. Alas, the ribs available at my local store here in New Zealand are not the meaty St Louis-style, but even without the meatiness of the right cut of rib, the sauce was phenomenal and extremely ‘more-ish’ as they say here. I have since found a source of St Louis ribs, and will be making these again very soon!
Love to hear this, James! I really think less meaty ribs would be fine, as long as you have the more-ish sauce. Ha!
Oh my goodness, these were spectacular. I followed the recipe as written, but smoked them in a Green Egg Kamado oven for three hours at 225 f. with Hickory wood, then two hours wrapped in foil, then one hour back on the grill during which time I basted them with the sauce. Smoking them added a layer of flavor that enhanced the already dynamic sauce.
Oh, yes, I believe they would be even more profoundly delicious with your pro BBQ method. Love it. Thanks for letting us know!
We are making these spectacular ribs tonight for our friends! We love the low and slow method of cooking them and usually we end up finishing them on the grill if we pull them out of the oven early and hold them.
I actually made a separate finishing sauce based on the marinade and it is spectacular!
It includes more toasted ground Sichuan peppercorns, home made chili oil ( from the Mala market website), honey, Hoisin, fresh ginger, 1 small clove garlic, soy, black vinegar, black bean paste (3 year old), dark brown sugar, a bit of ketchup and some water.
Sounds odd, but really is delicious paired with these amazing ribs!
Thanks so much for sharing this bonus recipe for a complementary BBQ sauce! That’s a fantastic idea, because you can be left wanting even more of the delicious sauce when you eat these.
What is the flavor profile of the wheat paste and is there a substitute?
Hi Kim, thanks for reading and this great question!
Taylor actually wrote a whole blog post on this with key tips on substituting sweet soybean paste for the sauce. The sauce itself is dark, sweet, salty and fermented. You can try substituting hoisin sauce in a pinch, but this will be much sweeter and not quite the same. We definitely recommend the actual sweet wheat paste, as it’s used in many other Sichuan stir-fries and noodle dishes!
Im interested in the tea smoked version u mentioned using a dry rub which is closer to how we would normally do bbq ribs with sauce on the side or a glaze. Cant find a reference to it though.
Hi Rob, thanks for reading. Apologies for the belated reply. It appears that dry-rub rib post never did make it out of the larder, but here’s Taylor’s recipe for shaokao, a very Sichuan grilling style with one of our favorite products: https://themalamarket.com/collections/all/products/shao-kao-spice-xinjiang-bbq-blend
If you like dry rubs, you’ll love this!
This is spectacular. I came across this recipe and just had to try it. I’ve learned from some of the best smokers in texas and cooked >100 racks of ribs but was looking for something new. This was a huge hit with EVERYONE and offered a new range of flavors for the entire group. Great recipe and I’ll definitely be making a larger batch of it soon.
Thanks, Eric! That’s awesome! So happy to hear it. Sounds like you cooked it on a smoker or grill vs the oven, which probably made it even better.