Chinese Soul Food | Steamed Spare Ribs with Rice Powder
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Steamed Spare Ribs with Rice Powder

Steamed Spare Ribs with Rice Powder

Recently, my friend posted a photo of fen zheng pai gu – steamed marinated pork ribs coated with rice powder – that his visiting mother had cooked. My immediate reaction was “oh, yum!” and “I loved when my mom would make this dish.” It turns out, that’s a common reaction: I did a search online for references to fen zheng pai gu and found many comments from people who also thought of their moms.

It’s like that scene in “Ratatouille” when the character Anton Ego, the restaurant critic, takes one bite of chef Ratatouille’s version of ratatouille and is immediately brought back to his childhood in his mother’s kitchen. It renders him speechless. Fen zheng pai gu has that effect.

This preparation can be applied to beef, pork ribs or pork belly. The meat is marinated and then coated with rice powder – it’s coarsely ground (uncooked) rice that’s lightly toasted in a pan with spices. You also can buy the rice powder in small packets at an Asian grocery store. It’s the Chinese Shake-n-Bake. Sort of.

The meat often is steamed atop thick slices of sweet potatoes. The juices from the marinated meat seep deliciously into the sweet potatoes.

I buy bone-in pork spare ribs that are labeled “for sweet and sour” and then cut them into segments. The marinade is basically soy sauce, wine, garlic, ginger and green onions. From there, you can follow your palate. Some common additions include Sichuan pepper or chili bean paste. You could add more garlic, if you’d like.  The recipe below is our family’s “classic” version.


Serves 4

1 1/2 pounds pork spare ribs (look for the “sweet and sour” cut)
3 tablespoons soy sauce
2 tablespoons water
2 tablespoons Shaoxing wine or dry white wine
1 teaspoon minced fresh ginger
2 cloves garlic, crushed or minced
2 stalks green onions, cut into 2-inch segments
1 packet (about 2 ounces) of steam powder (see Note)

Cut the spare ribs into segments (cut between the bones). In a bowl, combine the soy sauce, water, wine, ginger, garlic and green onions. Add the ribs and stir to coat. Cover the bowl and place in the refrigerator. Marinate for at 30 minutes and up to overnight.

When ready to steam: Set up your steamer with enough water to steam the ribs for 70 minutes (or remember to check the water level and add water as needed). With a slotted spoon or tongs, place the marinated ribs in a steam-proof dish. I use a pie plate. You can discard the marinade. Coat the ribs with the powder. Place the plate in the steamer and steam for at least 1 hour and 10 minutes. The long steaming time ensures that the ribs are tender.

Serve with some stir-fried greens on the side.

Note: There are different brands of steam powder and the boxes may not be decipherable. You may have to ask for help to find it at an Asian market. You will have better luck at a Chinese market. Alternatively, you can make your own: 1/2 cup long grain rice (such as jasmine), 1/2 teaspoon five spice powder. In a dry skillet over medium-low heat, toast the rice for about 10 minutes. Stir constantly. After it’s done toasting, set the rice aside to cool. If you have a mortar and pestle, pound the rice to break up the grains until you get couscous-sized grains. You also can use a spice grinder. But, you do not want it to be a fine powder. If you don’t have the small grains, then you don’t get the right effect. After you have roughly ground the rice, add the five spice powder and mix well.

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