Jiujiu’s Sichuan Tangcu Paigu (Sweet and Sour Spareribs, 糖醋排骨)
Not Your Strip Mall’s Sweet and Sour Pork
Everyone has That Dish they dream of reverse-engineering for themselves from a favorite restaurant or dinner party: Mine is this one, my dajiujiu’s 糖醋排骨 (tángcù páigǔ), or sweet-and-sour spareribs. I recall the vinegar-blackened, syrupy-sweet pork of a kind I’d never tasted in my mother’s economical, health-conscious cooking. I didn’t know ribs could be like this, glazed and decadent and sour-bright from the tang of aged vinegar.
You’d be at a loss to find a gastrique as storied as my jiujiu’s in Paris. By the time French chef Georges-Auguste Escoffier was writing about his caramel-vinegar sauce in Le guide culinaire, published 1903, Chinese legend had it that people in Wuxi, Jiangsu province, had been cooking Song dynasty-style sweet-and-sour spareribs for at least 700 years. In fact, sweet-and-sour flavors may have even been around in China 1,200 years earlier than the first French gastriques, by the time of the Tang dynasty.
Today, the Chinese American sweet-and-sour pork take-out staple reflects the coastal palates of Southeast Chinese immigrants who brought tangcu flavors over from provinces like Jiangsu, Zhejiang and Shanghai (province-level municipality). Because of this, I never parsed the secret of my uncle’s mystery ribs until recently, when I made this very involved duck à l’orange and learned about gastrique for the first time. One long dive down the Chinese internet later, and I finally knew the key to replicating his dish.
What emerged from Uncle’s wok that day disappeared nearly as soon as it hit the table. Once you make these Sichuan sweet-and-sour ribs—darker, louder and more intense than Chinese American or coastal Chinese tangcu paigu—you can count on the same.
Using Shanxi old mature vinegar for Sichuan sweet and sour pork
In Sichuan, tangcu paigu is usually a cold dish. It’s made from cross-cut pork spareribs from the middle of the ribs, where the most flavor is. Caramelized sugar coats each bite-sized rib piece in a thick syrup that, once cooled down, pulls apart like thin strands of candy floss. The trick to maintaining such a glossy syrup that is sweet without being cloying is in the sugar:vinegar ratio, about 12:10 by weight. There must be more sugar than vinegar to balance the sourness.
Traditionally, the caramel is made from rock sugar. By weight, it is less sweet than refined white sugars. For cooking, it lends a nicer gloss to the resulting sauce. If you don’t have access to rock sugar, I recommend using raw cane sugar.
As for vinegar: In the coastal regions, cooks often prefer milder rice vinegar for sweet-and-sour pork. But in Sichuan, tangcu paigu necessitates black vinegar. We’re very partial to Zhenjiang’s fragrant black vinegar, which is well suited for 凉拌 (liángbàn) cold dishes, dressings and flash-cooked preparations. But dishes cooked at high temperatures or for a long time (like steaming, soaking, searing/braising), like this one, can stand up to even stronger vinegars. Enter: Shanxi mature vinegar.
One of the four famous vinegars in China, northern Shanxi 老陈醋 (lǎochéncù) dates back over 3,000 years and is notable for five harmonious qualities: color, fragrance, acidity, viscosity and mellowness. It is shiny and dark brownish-red, delicate, sour, uniformly fluid, and sweet and fresh with a long, lingering taste that is not easily volatilized when cooking. Compared to southern Baoning and Zhenjiang vinegars, Shanxi old mature vinegar is more intense.
This particular sweet-and-sour spareribs dish, fried and caramelized and braised as it is, is therefore a great application for Shanxi mature vinegar. The Mala Market‘s new-to-us Shanxi mature vinegar is sorghum-based, and “distinct among the famous four [vinegars], it includes roasted grains, which darken the color and give it a slight tinge of smoke.” The handcrafted Ninghuafu brand mature vinegar is aged for a full 9 years, a mere blip of time compared to the company’s nearly 650-year history (Ninghuafu was founded in 1377).
You can also buy The Mala Market’s collection of three famous aged vinegars “from Sichuan in the west to Shanxi in the north to Jiangsu in the east” for a 10% discount.
Cooking tips and techniques
- Sichuan sweet-and-sour spareribs are usually blanched, cleaned, flash-fried, braised, then reduced in the thickened sauce. For ease of home cooking, I have developed this recipe for pan-frying instead of deep-frying, which is the traditional method. But you cannot skimp on any of the other steps.
- A smaller batch cooks better and faster. I find I can use up to 1.75 pounds of meat for the resulting sweet-and-sour sauce this coats, but unless you wish to deep-fry the ribs instead of pan-frying, or make this a two-pot cooking journey, that much meat requires much more water (depending on the size of your pot) and therefore much more reducing time at the end. I like to repurpose the extra sauce on vegetables instead.
- Add the vinegar in two applications: first while braising, to infuse the meat with the maximum flavor and color, and again while reducing the syrup, to infuse it with fresh fragrance and sourness. Vinegar’s aromatic compounds volatilize with heat and exposure while cooking, so the second addition of vinegar is crucial to replicating restaurant-quality results at home. The amount is divided accordingly, with two-thirds of the vinegar in the base of the braise and one-third in the final addition. Adding the smaller amount last also means the syrup reduces to the desired consistency sooner, without cooking out the flavor.
- Separating the sugar to add in two additions also boosts the flavor. Plus, if you accidentally overcooked the caramel before pan-frying, reserving some of the sugar for braising helps disguise any bitterness.
- You must blanch the ribs starting from cold water (see my beer-braised pork trotter recipe for a discussion on cold-water blanching re: the biomechanics of blood scum) and braise the ribs with boiling water for the cleanest flavor. Never add cold water while cooking! Chinese cooking techniques emphasize proper temperature control for the best results.
Sichuan Tangcu Paigu (Sweet and Sour Spareribs)
- 1½ pounds crosscut pork spareribs approx. 600-680 grams
- handful flour
- 6 fresh scallions, washed, divided: half tied into knot together, half chopped in 2-3 inch sections
- 8 slices fresh ginger, washed, divided
- splash Shaoxing wine or any liaojiu (rice cooking wine)
- 2 tablespoons caiziyou (Chinese roasted rapeseed oil), or enough to coat pan
- ⅓ cup rock sugar, divided approx. 70 grams
- ½ teaspoon whole red huajiao (Sichuan pepper)
- 1 whole dried chili
- 1 whole bajiao (star anise)
- 1 piece dried shannai/shajiang (sand ginger)
- 1 tablespoon light soy sauce (Zhongba preferred) approx. 16 grams
- ¼ cup black vinegar (Zhenjiang or Shanxi preferred), divided approx. 60 grams
- ~¾ teaspoon fine sea salt approx. 6 grams
- 4 cups boiling water, or just enough to cover
- 1 teaspoon dark soy sauce (Zhongba preferred)
- toasted sesame seeds, for garnish
Blanching and pre-cooking
- Clean the ribs by scrubbing in cool water with a handful of flour to remove extra blood and other particles. Rinse and scrub in at least 2 changes of water until the water runs mostly clear.
- Place the pork, 4 ginger slices, knotted scallion bundle and splash of Shaoxing wine in a pot of cold water, covered, and bring to a boil over low-medium heat. Once boiling, remove the lid and continue simmering 3 minutes on low heat, skimming and discarding the foam. Strain the blanched ribs with a slotted spoon and rinse clean in warm water, scrubbing off any scum. Set aside and let dry before pan-frying in next step.
Caramelizing the sweet-and-sour sauce
- In a medium* pot, dutch oven, or wok with a lid, heat about 2 tablespoons of caiziyou until smoking**. Over high heat, add the dried ribs and stir-fry rapidly until just golden browned on edges. Remove from heat and set aside the pan-fried ribs for the next step, keeping remaining oil in the pot.*Ideally all the ribs should fit in a single layer in a pot wide enough to quickly reduce the sauce at the end but not so large that it requires too much water to cover in the braising step. A wok is ideal.**If not using caiziyou, no need to smoke off the oil. Heat to shimmering.
- Reserve two spoonfuls, about 2 tablespoons, of the 1/3 cup rock sugar for later. Make the caramel by melting the remaining rock sugar in the remaining oil over low heat. Stir continuously until the melted sugar has turned amber brown and begins bubbling. Immediately add the ribs back in and stir-fry rapidly to stop the sugar from overcooking and get the ribs to take on its caramel color. Add the red huajiao, dried chili, star anise, sand ginger, chopped scallion whites, and the remaining sliced ginger, stir-frying until fragrant. Add the reserved two spoonfuls of rock sugar, soy sauce and 40 grams (two-thirds of the total amount, approx. 2½ tablespoons) black vinegar with just enough boiling water to cover the meat. Add dark soy sauce and fine sea salt to taste. Simmer over lowest heat, covered, 30-35 minutes.
- To reduce the sauce, remove the spices after cooking and discard. Check the ribs—if they are cooked through to your liking, you may also wish to remove the ribs to prevent overcooking. Boil the sauce on high to reduce to a thick, sticky glaze. Take care once the water content has nearly evaporated not to burn the caramelized sugars, which will turn the sauce bitter.Toward the very end, add the remaining 20 grams of vinegar (one-third of the total amount, approx. 1½ tablespoons). If you removed them earlier, toss the ribs back in to coat, garnish with toasted sesame seeds and serve immediately.