This is my version of a sweet-and-sour cabbage dish from north-eastern China (not to be confused with the more famous Chinese hot-and-sour cabbage). If you imagine this dish as Slavic cabbage rolls that have been gutted of their meat before being sent through the office shredder, you will not be too far off the mark. In its preparation, thin slices of cabbage and a little salt are first stir-fried aggressively in oil for two minutes, then covered to steam gently for five. Once the cabbage is removed from the wok, a simple sauce is made quickly there with stewed tomato, the squeeze of a mandarin orange, rice vinegar, sugar, and soy sauce, all thickened with a little cornstarch. It is a green vegetable with sauce prepared in less than fifteen minutes.
I shall leave you with the poetry of Henan-born Du Fu (712-770CE):
A poet should beware of prosperity,
Yet demons can haunt a wanderer.
Ask an unhappy ghost, throw poems to him
Where he drowned himself in the Milo River.
From ” To Li Bai at the Sky Send” by Du Fu, as translated by Witter Bynner in The Jade Mountain: A Chinese Anthology, New York: Alfred A. Knopf, 1929. Li Bai was also a poet of the Tang Dynasty, and a friend of Du. The drowned poet of the verse is Qu Yuan, who wrote centuries earlier during the Warring States Period.
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Here is a stack of black sticky sweet-and-sour ribs, not terribly different from those in the buffet tray. Proper Shanghai ribs would be short and straight, but mine are long and curvaceous tonight. I lacked the foresight to have them them sawed at the butcher’s, and I am irrationally scared of my whop-ass Chinese cleaver.
Wuxi ribs these are not, because I was in a hurry, and Wuxi takes a while. Nor are they the much-copied deep-fried ribs of Eastern China: these are a quick stir fry in only a few tablespoons of oil. I disassembled my baby backs the easy way, between the bones, and shallow-fried them like any bit of meat in a wok. (BTW, any such meat is improved by sitting a few minutes in a little salt and a splash of booze, then blotted and tossed with a big pinch of cornstarch). The black-like-tar sauce is the classic for deep-fried ribs, a simple sauce of asian vinegars, soy sauce, and sugar thickened with cornstarch, cooked in the wok after the ribs had been taken away. Scallion scatter on the platter.
These were good, but the best sweet-and-sour ribs I have ever had were made by my Shanghainese roommate one snowy afternoon in Newfoundland many years ago. As we say about all the good stuff in life, I wish I had paid better attention at the time.
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