[FoRK] NYTimes.com Article: New York Barbecue: Ribs,
via the Far East
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Fri Jul 9 10:37:45 PDT 2004
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New York Barbecue: Ribs, via the Far East
July 7, 2004
By JULIA MOSKIN
IN New York, demand for great barbecue tends to outstrip
supply. A few weekends ago, thousands of 'cue-seekers
descended on Madison Square Park for the Second Annual Big
Apple Barbecue Block Party, hoping for a shot at Mike
Mills's Memphis baby backs and Ed Mitchell's North Carolina
The lines were epic. Some waited it out. Many fled to
nearby Blue Smoke, figuring that New York barbecue is
better than no barbecue at all. And quite a few - present
company included - hopped on the subway to Chinatown and
sated the craving with a huge pile of Cantonese spareribs.
New York does have its own thriving barbecue tradition,
but it's more about star anise than smoke. At places like
Big Wong King and Kim Tuong in Chinatown, pit masters turn
out hundreds of racks of magnificently glazed ribs every
day, with the moist meat, salty-sweet perfume and burnt
edges so beloved of barbecue fanatics across the land. And
at other Asian restaurants up and down the dining scale,
from Nam and 66 to Big Wong and Pig Heaven, chefs have
capitalized on New Yorkers' passion for Chinese spareribs
by developing their own styles. With judicious spicing and
steaming, a glaze here and a dry rub there, Asian ribs have
evolved into a hybrid Asian-American-New Yorkese barbecue.
They may not be authentic anything, but they might still
hold their own at the Jack Daniels invitational.
"I think the ribs here are as good as any I ever had in the
South," said Jason Washington, a construction worker
ordering takeout ribs at Kim Tuong on Chrystie Street last
New York's first wave of Chinese restaurateurs came from
Canton, where pigs are affectionately referred to as
"long-nosed generals" and roasting pork is a respected art
form. Cantonese cooking fell out of fashion in the 1970's,
when New Yorkers discovered "real" Chinese regional
cuisine, but the spareribs have endured. In Chinatown in
Manhattan, as in market streets in China, almost every city
block has at least one window full of irresistible
barbecued pork, ready to eat on the spot or to take home to
stir-fry with greens.
The best ribs are often the ones that came out of the oven
most recently, so popular places with a high turnover, like
the always mobbed Deluxe Food Market on Elizabeth Street,
are good bets. The Ollie's chain of Chinese restaurants,
which goes through more than a thousand pounds of barbecued
ribs a day, makes sure that they are fresh by doing two
large-scale roastings each day at a commissary in Flushing.
Each restaurant gets fresh ribs before lunch and dinner.
The traditional method for making Chinese spareribs calls
for marinating whole racks in rice wine, soy sauce and
sugar (or another sweetener), then roasting them in a hot
oven. The ribs are hung on hooks so that the heat can move
evenly around the meat. The sugar in the marinade
caramelizes during the roasting, creating a dark
reddish-brown crust, shiny as fresh lacquer, that acts as a
Pavlovian signal to barbecue lovers. (Red food coloring can
also play a part, but good ribs should be more brown than
The ribs at Pig Heaven, a Chinese restaurant on the Upper
East Side, have just the right balance between sweet and
meat. At Big Wong, a sugar syrup is brushed on the ribs as
they hang in the window, just waiting to be ordered, hacked
into small pieces and devoured with a stack of napkins at
The oven used in Chinese roasting looks very much like a
modern American barbecue "pit" - a metal box with heat at
the bottom. But the heat source is gas, with none of the
aromatic wood smoke that defines American barbecue. In
fact, smoke is the enemy of Chinese roasting; to prevent
it, and keep the meat moist, cooks keep a pan of water in
the bottom of the oven.
"The moisture makes the meat soft, so you don't have to
cook it as long as American barbecue," said Romy Dorotan,
the Filipino chef of Cendrillon, an Asian restaurant in
SoHo. Mr. Dorotan's ribs are marinated in the Chinese
style, then coated with an American-style dry rub and
cooked in a man-size Chinese roasting oven in the
His ribs differ from those in Chinatown because the spices
in the rub - ground star anise, fennel seeds, cardamom,
mustard, coriander, black pepper and some Sichuan
peppercorns (stockpiled before the ban against importing
them began to be enforced a couple of years ago) - toast
slowly at low heat and create a smoky-sweet crust. The meat
falls off the big bone into soft shreds, like American
ribs; Chinese ribs tend to be chewier, better for gnawing.
The same is true of ribs in Vietnam, where grilled baby
backs are everyday family fare.
"In Vietnam, people don't mind if the meat is not so, so
soft," said Mai Pham, the author of "Pleasures of the
Vietnamese Table," who grew up in Saigon. "In fact, the way
we cook ribs makes them more chewy, good for eating with
your fingers." Ms. Pham said that ribs adapt to the
different cooking styles of Vietnam: "In the south, we
marinate with more lemon grass and fish sauce; in the
north, the Chinese influence is stronger, and they use more
five-powder and soy sauce."
Steven Duong, the chef and the owner of the restaurants Nam
and O Mai, blends both styles to make his ribs; they are
deliciously infused with the freshness of lemon grass and
accented with nuoc mau, a caramel sauce. Nuoc mau literally
means "color water," but it provides more than color.
Caramel is as basic to the Vietnamese kitchen as stock is
to the French, and it is most often used in savory, not
"Caramel plays the same role in Asian barbecue as brown
sugar and molasses do in American barbecue; it's sweet and
smoky at the same time," said Bruce Aidells, the sausage
entrepreneur and author of the forthcoming "Bruce Aidells's
Complete Book of Pork."
Simon Nget, the owner and chef of the Saigon Grill
restaurants in Manhattan, uses applesauce and ketchup to
replace the traditional nuoc mau in his glaze. He has
developed a complicated but rewarding method for his
barbecued ribs. "I marinate them overnight, steam them the
next day and then put them on the grill and glaze them when
an order comes in," Mr. Nget said. His ribs, among the best
in the city, are a meaty dark red, striped with black char.
He uses spareribs, although baby backs are more
traditionally used for grilling in Vietnam.
Rib lovers fall into two camps: the sparerib people, who
like meat they can get their teeth into; and the baby back
people, who prefer a lot of crust and just a sliver of
tender meat. Baby backs do not come from baby pigs; they
are the smaller back ribs of mature pigs.
Mike Mills, the owner of the 17th Street Bar & Grill in
Murphysboro, Ill., and a legendary pit master who
specializes in Memphis-style barbecued ribs, says that he
eats Chinese spareribs whenever he can get them. "We don't
have too many Chinese restaurants in Murphysboro," he said.
"And I love that sticky sauce."
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