November 21, 2004

Steamed Ribs in Rice Powder with Sweet Potato

Fen Zheng Pai Gu Fan Shu, Steamed Ribs with Rice Powder and Sweet Potatoes

This is a Chinese dish I think might be hard to come by in America if you don't live in NYC or San Francisco, or have a Chinese mother. Lucky for you, I've got a Chinese mother and a food blog. You may have had steamed ribs with garlic and fermented black bean sauce before when you have Dim Sum, but this dish is a little different. It's called Fen (powder) Zheng (steamed) Pai Gu (ribs), which are steamed pork ribs that are coated and cooked in a broken rice mixture, or "powder" as the name suggests. The rice cooks as the ribs are steamed and soaks up the delicious marinade and rib juices. It's very rich and so tasty. Sometimes my mom makes it even better by steaming it with some sweet potatoes. The mixture of the salty and spicy richness of the pork ribs with the slightly sweet potatoes are a heavenly combination.

You will need a few special ingredients from your Asian grocery store.

broad bean chili paste

The first is Broad Bean Chile Paste. There are all kinds of chinese chile pastes made from beans but you want to find one that says it's made from Broad Beans. All my life I listened to my Mom complaining how there is not any good Broad Bean Chile Paste available, so she always used this brand in the picture above, but claimed it was not the real thing. My tastes have adapted to this brand of chili paste as my mom used it in everything she cooked (it's great with Mao Po Tofu). Well, the last time I was home she showed me that she found the real thing. Next time I visit her I'll take a picture of the label. The recipe should turn out just fine as long as you use any brand of chili paste that is made from Broad Beans. If you can't find Broad Bean Chile Paste look for a chili paste that is made from soy beans. If you can't find that, then use any kind of chile paste you can find (nothing too sweet), or if you don't like it spicy you can cut out the chili paste altogether, but then it won't taste as good.

coarse rice powder

The second special ingredient you will need is Zhen (Steam) Rou (Meat) Fen (Powder) or Rice Powder. Be careful as there other kinds of "Rice Powder" out there, one for your face, and one really fine rice powder to make desserts and used as a thickening agent.

steam meat powder, rice powder

The Rice Powder you will need is a coarse rice powder. The kind my Mom and I use comes in slender white boxes with red printing. The ingredients say Gulutamic [sic] Acid, Rice Powder, and Perfume. It's actually roasted dried rice, ground or broken up with spices like star anise and I guess with a little Glutamic Acid added in for some punch. I'm pretty sure your local asian grocery store carries Steam Meat Powder. If not, you can actually make this yourself with some uncooked rice and star anise. Toast them together in a dry pan until the rice is browned, being careful not to scorch the rice. Then grind up the mixutre in a coffee grinder or blender to the consistency of course sand (food processor doesn't work). But that seems like a lot of work, so print out this picture above and ask the asian grocer to help you.

The third special ingredient is not essential but will help in the presentation. Try to get some dark soy sauce from the asian grocery store. It will make the final color of the dish much deeper. But if you can't find this, regular soy sauce will do.

This is my Mom's recipe, or my adaptation of it. Nothing ever tastes quite as good as when Mom cooks it, but this comes pretty close when I make it. Again, my Mom doesn't measure anything, therefore neither do I. This is my best attempt to transcribe the recipe as I make it, but feel free to adjust the ratios to your taste.

1 1/2 - 2 lb of pork spare ribs or baby back ribs, crosscut into 1-inch strips.
2 large sweet potatoes, peeled and cubed into 1-inch pieces
2 packages of Zheng Rou Fen (Rice Powder) (about 1/3 cup if you make it yourself)

1 tsp of vegetable or cooking oil
2 cloves garlic, finely minced
1 1/2 Tbsps of dark soy sauce
1 heaping Tbsp of Broad Bean Chili Paste (or even more if you like it spicy)
2 tsps of sugar
1 Tbsp of sherry or chinese cooking wine

Most grocery stores now already have prepackaged crosscut pork spare ribs in the butcher department. If you can't find them, just ask your butcher to cut some whole spare ribs or baby back ribs for you crosswise (across the bones) into 1-inch strips. Rinse the ribs and pat dry. Trim off any excess fat and cut the ribs between each bone into bite size pieces. Place in a bowl.

pork ribs

Heat a small saute pan to medium-high. Add the oil and the garlic and cook until fragrant. Don't let the garlic burn or turn brown! Then add the Broadbean Chili Paste, the soy sauce, sugar and sherry. Stir while cooking for another minute or so until bubbly. Pour this mixture over the rib pieces and mix thoroughly. Let the ribs marinate, covered in the fridge for half an hour to an hour at most.

sauced ribs

Bring a huge pot (or wok) of water to a boil, fitted with a steamer basket (metal or bamboo, whatever you got) and lid. After the meat has marinated, sprinkle the rice powder over the ribs and mix to thoroughly coat each piece.

ribs and sweet potatoes before cooking

Place the sweet potatoes in the bottom of the steamer basket, then pour the rib pieces on top of the sweet potatoes. Steam for about an hour to an hour and a half, or until the ribs are tender. Remember to check your pot and refill with hot water as needed or else the bottom of your pot will scorch. You can just serve it in the steamer basket transferred onto a plate. It'd be really cute to get those individual bamboo steamers so each person can have their own serving.

cooked ribs and sweet potatoes

Posted by yi at November 21, 2004 5:01 PM

That looks delicious!

Posted by: Adam at November 24, 2004 12:51 AM

Rice Powder, that's really neat. You mention roasting in a dry pan. Could you saute in butter? Or do you think that might screw with the grinding process? We've got a lot of bitchen Asian markets around here. I'll see if'n I can't find some of that.


Posted by: Dr. Biggles at November 30, 2004 5:16 PM

oh god, yum! We get that, complete with sweet potatoes, at one little dim sum place here in Boston (it's actually in Newton) and at first I found it a little sketchy-looking (wasn't sure how to interpret the goopy-looking chunks) but I have come to love it and crave it. So glad to have a recipe now to make it myself. (btw, I have seen that brand of broad bean chili paste -- will have to try it. we latched onto another brand and have been loath to switch because it's so good, but want to see what others have to offer.)

Posted by: foodnerd at November 30, 2004 9:36 PM

didn't really know where to post this comment... just wanted to tell you i think your site is so pretty and the food pics looks great. i will check back often!

Posted by: megan at December 8, 2004 5:36 PM

Zhong Xing Yuan in Newton, MA, on California St. is a wonderful joint for taiwanese/chinese breakfast & dimsum. They have a huge following of chinese people that arrive from the suburbs all around east MA and the lines on Saturday are just hell. But I suppose its worth it if you dont want to drive to chinatown to get dou jiang and da bing and feng zheng pai gu.

Posted by: minhua at December 11, 2004 3:34 AM

Thought your illustrations and layout were great!!

Posted by: Mike Kottka at December 30, 2005 2:05 AM

I discovered your blog though a google search for BROAD BEAN PASTE w/ CHILI. This recipe looks very interesting - I have no experience with rice powder (and very little with Chinese cooking itself) but after your description of the product - I am very interested in trying this - and sweet potatoes as a bonus

Posted by: mb at March 10, 2006 11:37 AM

My wife is Chinese, and I've been learning to cook some of her favorites - this is one of them. She prefers beef ribs to pork for this, and we use butternut squash instead of the sweet potato, but it's pretty much the same dish. Great, homey meal :)

Posted by: Ian Liston at September 1, 2006 9:46 AM
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