There are many battles I’ve chosen not to fight at Pok Pok. I don’t serve the herbaceous Northern Thai curries floating with hacked-up frog (I just use the legs).
I don’t offer up incendiary Southern stir-fries or luu, a soup of raw blood. But I will not change the way I cook these ribs. They represent one front in my offensive against the status quo.
When most Americans hear “pork ribs,” they imagine either the sauce-slathered, falling-off-the-bone version that’s the centerpiece of so many backyard barbecues or those you’d demolish at some great dive in Memphis, the meat coming away with a gentle tug of the teeth. These ribs, the kind you’d find at booze-heavy, grill-focused Thai establishments, are decidedly different.
Cut across the bone into pieces just a few inches long and marinated in a mixture of Chinese-influenced whiskey, honey, and ginger, they’re grilled over charcoal until they’re just tender — not spoon-tender, not falling-off-the-bone tender. Or to put it less generously, they’re too chewy. These ribs, to be clear, are not chewy. They just don’t disintegrate when your teeth hit them.
This is one of those moments when the preferences of Thais conflict with ours.
Westerners tend to prefer predictably tender meat to all else. Thais eagerly gnaw on bones, suck at gristle, and crunch through cartilage. They ruminate comically tough but incredibly flavorful strips of beef — called “crying tiger” in Thai, because (or so I’ve heard) not even a tiger could chew them. The fact that these ribs have some chew to them makes them vulnerable to criticism, but also makes them that much more welcome with beer. Still, customers occasionally put up a fight. Sometimes I’m tempted to just give in, to make them more tender. But sometimes I have to stand my ground and say this is what the food is.
If you don’t like it, tell you what, order the chicken wings. You’ll like those.
Sii Khrong Muu Yaang: Thai-style pork ribs
Recommended special equipment: A charcoal grill with the grates oiled.
Makes about 20 riblets (enough for 4 to 8 as part of a meal); the recipe is easily doubled
- 6 tablespoons honey
- 2 tablespoons Thai thin soy sauce
- 2 tablespoons Shaoxing wine
- 1 tablespoon finely grated ginger
- 1/2 teaspoon Asian sesame oil (look for brands that are 100 percent sesame oil)
- 1/4 teaspoon ground white pepper
- 1/8 teaspoon ground Ceylon or Mexican cinnamon
- Pinch grated nutmeg
- 2 pounds pork spareribs — ask your butcher to cut across the bone into 2-inch-wide racks (most Asian butchers sell them already cut)
- 2 tablespoons hot water
Marinate the Ribs
- Whisk 2 tablespoons of the honey with the soy sauce, Shaoxing wine, ginger, sesame oil, pepper, cinnamon, and nutmeg in a bowl until the honey has dissolved.
- Put the ribs in a large resealable bag, pour in the marinade, force out the air, and seal the bag.
- Put the bag in the fridge to marinate, turning the bag over occasionally, for at least 2 hours or as long as overnight.
- In a small bowl, stir together the remaining 4 tablespoons of honey with the hot water until the honey has dissolved. You’ll brush the ribs with this mixture when they’re almost finished cooking.
Cooking the Ribs on the Grill (recommended)
- Prepare a charcoal grill to cook at 200°F to 250°F. If your grill doesn’t have a firebox, which allows for easy indirect cooking, push the coals to one side of the grill and form them into a mound.
- Add the ribs, meat side up, to the area of the grill rack opposite the charcoal. Rotate the grill top if possible so the vents are directly over the ribs, open the vents, and cover the grill. Positioning the open vents above the ribs will pull the charcoal smoke toward them, giving the ribs an especially smoky flavor.
- Cook the ribs, flipping the racks over occasionally and rotating them 180 degrees when you do, until they’re a mahogany color with crisp, slightly charred edges, 2 to 2 1/4 hours, adding more charcoal as necessary to maintain the temperature. (Pinch a piece off the corner. The meat should be tender with a slight pleasant chewiness, not falling off the bone.)
- Thirty minutes or so before they’re done, begin brushing the ribs with the honey mixture every 10 minutes or so.
Cooking the Ribs in the Oven
- Preheat the oven to 250°F.
- Put the ribs on a foil-lined baking sheet, leaving at least an inch between the two racks. Bake for 2 hours, turning the rib racks over and rotating the baking sheet once or twice.
- Increase the heat to 300°F. Brush the ribs with some of the honey mixture and continue baking, brushing them every 10 minutes or so, until the ribs have a lacquered, mahogany surface and the meat is tender with a pleasant chewiness, not falling off the bone, 30 minutes to 1 hour more.
- Transfer the ribs to a cutting board, let them rest for a few minutes, then slice them into individual ribs. Serve them alongside a bowl of dipping sauce.