Chinese Spare Ribs Braised in Soy Sauce with Star Anise


Like many Europeans, I used to be convinced that quick stir-frying was the only Chinese cooking method. I still remember how surprised I was when several years ago I saw a three-hour recipe in a Chinese cookery book. Intrigued by the long cooking time and the unusual mixture of seasonings, I decided to give it a go as quickly as possible. Thus I discovered the slow side of the Chinese cuisine, tasted my first braised spare ribs and was totally seduced. Since then, every time I buy spare ribs, they end up simmered in soy sauce with garlic, star anise and cinnamon.

This is one of these dishes where fatty meat cuts taste incomparably better than lean ones and the more bones they contain, the better. In short, spare ribs are perfect here. No wonder in China fatty and bone-in cuts cost often more than the lean ones. The Chinese probably know better pork than any other nation since traces of pigs bred for meat there go back as far as 10 000 years backwards! The fork-tender meat (thank you, Karen, for this imaginative expression), covered in sticky, aromatic sauce is irresistible to any pork fan and softened, but still crunchy cartilage bits are a pure delight. The garlic cloves not only season the meat and the sauce, but they become so palatable, I keep on increasing their number each time I prepare the ribs.

I know this photo is far from being convincing, but making simmered spare ribs look appetising is apparently far beyond my photographic skills. Moreover, I only prepare it for dinner and artificial light photography is still a mystery to me, so I only hope you will believe me if I say the succulent result is worth waiting for not only three but ten hours.

I have found this recipe in the humble-looking “Le Tour du monde de la cuisine. Chine” (China (World Food)) by Annabel Jackson (I’m afraid no longer sold anywhere online), a book bought for a penny in a unsold titles’ department and which proved to be a source of many Chinese meals I have prepared.

UPDATE: Sylvia, from Peaches and Doughnuts, has just reminded me of the braised spare ribs she has posted ten days ago. Click here to see her wonderful, slightly different but also highly aromatic version.

TIP: Ask the butcher to cut the spare ribs in two (horizontally). They will be easier to handle while cooking and easier to eat. (If you have a cleaver and are used to handle it, you can do it at home too).

I wouldn’t advise replacing spare ribs with lean pork meat unless you buy tenderloin (not loin!). See here my light version of this dish prepared with tenderloin.

Even though this dish is time-consuming, it is very easy and practically effortless because once the meat starts to simmer, it can be left without stirring for two hours.

I usually serve these ribs with white rice or bread and with strong pickles. I have recently discovered that it tastes great with kimchi (click here to see the Radish Kimchi recipe or here to see the Easy Cabbage Kimchi or here to check the Easy Cucumber Kimchi recipe).

Preparation: min. 3 hours

Ingredients (serves 2):

600 g spare ribs (preferably cut in two, since shorter once are easier to simmer)

3 tablespoons dark thick soy sauce

1 whole head of garlic (or more if you are a big garlic fan)

2 tablespoons oil or pork fat

1/2 stick cinnamon

2 star anise fruits

4 tablespoons light soy sauce

175 ml water

2 tablespoons cane sugar (or 3 sugar cubes)

Marinate the pork ribs in dark soy sauce for at least 20 minutes.

Peel the garlic head, separate the cloves, but don’t peel them.

Fry the garlic cloves until they become golden.

Add the cinnamon, the star anise, stir fry for one minute.

Add the pork and let it brown a little.

Pour the light soy sauce, the water, add the sugar and let the dish simmer first uncovered for 30 minutes, stirring regularly, then covered for 1 1/2 – 2 hours (or more). The meat, gently pushed with a fork, should go  off the bones easily. When the meat is already soft, take off the lid, increase the heat, cook until the liquid evaporates and forms a thick sticky sauce.


60 Replies to “Chinese Spare Ribs Braised in Soy Sauce with Star Anise”

  1. Slow cooked braised meats are never a disappointment. I’m in the mood for some comfort food myself so I pulled braised beef shanks out of my freezer yesterday and am making mashed potatoes to go with it. Who needs fancy cooking every day. 🙂

  2. Fabulous Sissi! I’ve discovered that when it comes to rendering melt-in-your-mouth meat, it’s very hard to beat the low and slow method (low temp, longer cooking time) so the time factor, agreed, is well worth it. Although I usually do mine in the oven, the method I use is very similar to your delightful recipe. And, if you can believe it, lately I’ve been serving the ribs up over a homemade pickled red cabbage – so very much like your kimchi! :). I find the combination simply delightful. I really like your seasonal additions of cinnamon (yum) complemented by the anise… what a powerfully delicious combo. Love the photo too that showcases your moist and scrumptious looking ribs with star anise.

    1. Thank you very much, Kelly. I agree: the combination of a rather heavy dish with pickles (vinegared or fermented) gives a certain balance. I also remember it was the first time I used such a spice combination in an Asian dish and I really love it.
      I’m glad you like the photo because I have been waiting for a long time before posting this recipe because of the night photos I don’t like…

  3. Looks delicious Sissi! Your photos convinced me that I need to make this dish! I love slow cooked food and even more so if it has Asian flavors!

  4. This must be the recipe you mentioned that was somewhat similar to the one I posted. It looks amazing! I really need to try out this recipe soon! Mmmmm, i can almost taste it!

    1. Thank you, Sylvia. Yes, it’s the one! I think I have seen several similar Asian recipes online. (The night photos I’m really bad at stopped me from posting it earlier, but this time I thought I’ve had enough waiting…).

    1. Thank you so much, Amy. I sometimes have kimchi twice a day, it goes well often even with European food. I always buy dark soy sauce made in China, but have no particular brand… The one I wouldn’t advise you has a mention of “mushrooms”. It’s simply weird and really too strong (I have bought it once). Otherwise any Chinese brand will do. Now I use Pearl River Bridge brand.

  5. I disagree with you when you say the photo is not convincing. Its totally convincing. I’ve made fatty pork (not ribs) this way and I know what you mean. It makes me hungry thinking of it.
    Hope you had a good weekend

    1. Thank you so much, Mr. Three-Cookies, for the compliment. I really hate artificial light photos (I already struggle with the daylight ones, so imagine the ones at night…).

  6. “No longer sold anywhere online” – I love a challenge, so I tracked it down for you here – the seller is even located in Switzerland! 😀 By the way, if you’re ever searching for books which are a little bit rare, I really recommend a site called AbeBooks (.com, but they also have a .fr too) – you can find a lot of things there, as well as having the option to search for specific bindings, first editions etc.

    As soon as I saw the post title for some reason I was wondering if star anise would feature in it. I guess it must give a wonderful flavour and I disagree with what you say – I think the photo looks delicious – very inviting and really makes me imagine how great it must be to eat. I must disagree on one point though. My butcher only sells ribs which have already been cut in half horizontally and it really enrages me – makes me want to beat him about the head with the rack of ribs (but then he’s the same asshat who said that there was “no such thing” as pulled pork and I must be getting it confused with jambon, so I guess he he has a rib-whacking coming to be honest! :D)! I’m so fed up with these stumpy little rib pieces… for me, at least, eating ribs should be about grabbing hold of both ends and chewing away happily, instead of trying to eat it when it has a tiny piece of bone inside – personal preference of course though I guess.

    1. Haha! Thanks a lot, Charles. I know Abebooks, but have never bought anything there (the only internet source I use is amazon and its different sellers). By the way, I have bought this book for 5 chf (less than 4 euros), so it’s shocking to see it so expensive. It’s always the same with rare books.
      Thank you so much for the compliments. I hate making photos at night, so this is the reason why I waited so long to post this dish (I never prepare it for lunch).
      As for your butcher…. find another one! There are several exceptional butchers in Paris. (I think I have sent you the address of the one in XIIIth or XIVth arrondissement… but there are other “celebrities”). I can buy good seafood and free range chicken in several places, but when I want good meat, the only butcher I go to “steals” from me about two hours on Saturday, but the long trip is totally worth it. They are intelligent, flexible and have free range pork, free range lamb etc. and do whatever you ask them (something tells me yours doesn’t, he sounds like a typical basic French butcher, preparing meat in a basic way for old French ladies, cooking the same dishes for dozens of years).
      I don’t like here long ribs because of the frying stage especially. It’s extremely difficult to manipulate long ribs in a wok or pan.

  7. Yeah, I’m with Mr T. The photo has convinced me to make it tonight … now how convincing is that?
    Pork is such a sweet meat, esp with a little bit of fat, it’s so great for braising. My family loves doing it in sweet dark soy without the spices but my aunties throw them in and I just love it both ways. Sometimes, well, most times really, we use pork belly. The natural fats make the gravy all gooey and sticky …. oh yum! My tummy is rumbling just talking about it 🙂
    I’m glad you’ve discovered this and love it. I seriously think you should move to Asia with your love of Asian cuisine 🙂

    1. Thank you very much, Ping. You are so sweet… I have been waiting for such a long time with this dish because every time I took night photos I refused to post them (I never cook it for lunch). This time I have had enough of waiting. I also think I should move to Asia 😉 I already have some potential candidates (I can always dream, can’t I?).

    1. Thank you so much and welcome to my blog. I usually cook for two, so some recipes are for two. Some are also for one because there are some dishes I cook only for myself or only for my husband.

  8. Like you, SIssi, I did not know that the Chinese used the low and slow technique for meats, and these ribs are a beautiful testament to this wonderful (and easy) cooking method! Thanks for your tips about the cuts of meats, that is why blogging is so wonderful that we can rely on the experimentation of others and rest assured with the final outcome! I am intrigued by the combination of cinnamon and the star anise with the soy, it must produce a wonderful aroma whilst cooking! And the flavours would be infused without overwhelming.
    Although I am seldom drawn to such rich meat dishes, I am quite drawn to this one (it could be that we’re bracing ourselves for the aftermath of hurricane Sandy, with high winds and torrential rains!).
    When we photograph ribs at work, my creative director always makes sure that there is a ‘torn’ piece so that we can see the meat, stringy and all. It makes for a slightly lighter part of the photo, but also provides incredible appetite appeal; it makes you want to dig in right away!

    1. Thank you so much, Eva. I sometimes crave such rich, heavy, fatty meals so much that I see ribs and simply cannot resist buying them…. (On the other hand this is not the worst for me because it’s so rich, I cannot have a lot. The worst are such things as pizzas, potato dishes… I could eat tons of these). When it gets cold and windy, as you say, such a meal is very welcome.
      Thanks for the photo tip. Actually I think my principal problem is the light (especially the artifical light because I don’t have a “studio”, and my photographic skills, not to mention the presentation… I don’t remember how many different presentations I have tried (with “torn” meat too) and everything was wrong… The ribs taste great, though.

  9. Braising meat like spareribs is the best way to cook. I agree with you that a leaner version will not give you the same result and it will be very disappointing. The fat especially pork is what makes the dish very flavorful especially with brasing. I am drooling looking at this dish, Sissi. Have a good week. 🙂

    1. Thanks a lot, Ray. I’m glad to learn you are also a fan of fatty braised pork dishes. Have a lovely week too.

  10. Hi Sissi! When cold weather comes I like to cook dishes like this. I don’t mind the long cooking hours as long as simmering. I let it simmer and look forward to the dinner time…while house is filled with the smell from the dinner. 🙂 I love Chinese braised dishes but I don’t have too many recipes. This sounds like a great recipe to try!

    1. Thank you, Nami. This is the only Chinese braised meat recipe I know, but maybe I also should look for new ones. I hate the dishes that require constant attention, so, like you, simmering for hours doesn’t scare me as long as I don’t have to stir constantly.

  11. Sissi, I do like your photo, I think you capture it pretty well. I’ve made short ribs before and I know how hard it is to make it look as good as it tastes and smells. I have some pork I was going to fix for dinner tonight I think I will try your recipe for it, see if it works for that. I have some mushroom soy sauce, will that work for the thick soy sauce? Or I have some thick sweet soy sauce should I use that instead? I do have the light soy sauce. and everything else. Yum, I can’t wait to see how it turns out. We had a cold front come in last night it is chilly only got to the low 70s, cool for us in Florida, so this is a nice meal for a cool evening!

    BTW I always feel like I write too long of comments, but here it seems like many of your blogging friends do the same thing…I love it…I feel right at home here!

    1. Lyndsey, I am really touched. You have just made one of the most precious compliments I have ever received. I am honoured that you feel at home here and that you feel like talking to me. For me such a thing as “a too long comment” simply doesn’t exist.
      As for the dish, I would advise the mushroom soy sauce because it’s the closest one to the “standard” dark soy sauce (the sweet soy sauce is a bit different and might make this dish too sweet). I really hope you will enjoy this dish as much as I do. (I hope the pork you have is fatty because lean parts such as loin or tenderloin became dry here… I know because I have tried these too).
      You are lucky to have such a mild climate… We have really cold weather this week. Thank you once more for your comment and for the kind words that are extremely flattering. I hope you will always feel at home here and say everything you wish to say. I’m always happy to read comments and to be able to talk to my dear visitors this way.

      1. Yes, I am using a fatty piece of pork that I usually cook in my slow cooker for pulled pork. Last week I did a lean cut in the oven timmed perfectly so it was done and still moist. (I tend to overcook and dry it out sometimes) 🙂

        Anyway it turned out so good and full of flavor…the hardest part is waiting for it to get done…it smells so good. Thanks for the inspiration!

  12. I love ribs with a dark sticky sauce Sissi…so my face lit up when I saw this photo. Is there a particular name for the dark, thick soy sauce? I’ve heard of the thick, sweet soy sauce in Indonesia called ketchup manis…but I don’t think that is what you’re calling for here. Can’t wait to give this a try!

    1. Thank you so much, Barb. I simply use the Chinese “dark soy sauce” (this is written on the bottle, there are two main kinds of CHinese sauces: light soy sauce and dark soy sauce and there is also mushroom dark soy sauce, but I’m not a big fan because its use is limited since it’s stronger and mushroomy). The Indonesian sauce is much too sweet in my opinion. Also the Chinese one is easier to buy I think.

  13. I think your picture is quite convincing. These look like long cooked short ribs should look like in my book but better. These are definitely fingerlicking ribs. I love recipes with black soy sauce and a whole head of garlic and being such a garlic lover, I guess I need to add even more garlic! What a perfect recipe for a fatty pork rib. I absolutely LOVE it!

    1. Thank you very much, MJ. Oh, yes! If you are a garlic fan like me, I advise doubling the amount. The pork ribs have such a strong aroma, two garlic heads will not change a lot, but eating the soft braised creamy garlic cloves is a rare pleasure.

    1. Thank you so much, Robert-Gilles. I would rather have it with shochu, preferably soba shochu 😉

        1. I suppose I am lucky because soba shochu is sold quite often in my two Japanese grocery shops (I think I have two different bottles at home now).

  14. Yes, there is so much more to chinese cooking! I wish people would learn to appreciate the delicate nature of our cuisine, like steaming and the very simple light flavours we use. This one is a classic, and every family has their own version of this. My mum is a big big fan of slow-cooking because the meat becomes very tender and moist and it’s easy to feed the whole family, and tastes even better the next day as leftovers. slow-braised pork belly in the same sauce you used above will be just as delicious!

    1. THank you so much, Shu Han for the kind words. I really appreciate your approval and am proud you feel it can be labelled as Chinese. I still must discover more steamed dishes because (as you might have noticed) in European cuisines steamed food is usually tasteless, without seasonings and reminds strict hospital diets 😉 I regularly prepare dumplings and recently aubergine with Sichuan sauce, but I must work on meat and fish recipes.
      Thank you for the pork belly tip. I will try it next time.

  15. Braising food makes it so soft and with such a profound taste! I am sure these ribs tasted like this judging from the ingredients and way of cooking!

  16. Sissi don’t fret about the picture! It does the job perfectly well and in case anyone had any doubts left then reading your expertly written post crushs them immediately. I cannot wait to get settled into my new home (and the weather there to get a bit chillier than the 26C it is now) to try this!!!

    1. Thank you so much, Maria. You are very kind because I struggle a lot with both the photos and texts… English is not even my second language…

    1. Thank you so much, Karen and thanks again for teaching me this expression that makes one instantly hungry 😉

  17. Sissi, these Chinese spare ribs look so impressive, and incredibly succulent, moist, and so delicious. Love the simple process of the slow simmering, and the combination of the star anise and cinnamon stick, the two soy sauces…the only thing I would cut down is the cane sugar; 1 Tbsp would be sweet enough for me. I can imagine the aroma of the slow cooking is so enticing, that I’m so craving this wonderful dish! The presentation is so pretty, as well:)

    1. Thank you so much, Elisabeth. Of course everyone can adapt this recipe to her or his preferences! I recently add more and more garlic because I love fishing out the extremely soft cloves or spread them on the ribs…

  18. Great minds think alike Sissi, my husband just got some ribs and I am planning to make ribs myself – sometimes next week. I am not sure what type it will be, probably tomato based.

  19. Dear Sissi,

    There are so many ways to slow braise spare ribs and this is one of my favourites. Star anise, cinnamon and cloves is such a classic combination of flavours and my other favourite cut of meat for this recipe is the more decadent pork belly. I think you would fall in love with the food in the Far East because you come up with some beautiful Asian recipes.

    1. Thank you so much, Chopinand. I’m glad to hear you also like this mixture of flavours. I must try it with pork belly one day too. Thank you for the compliment. I greatly appreciate it especially from you. (And yes, I’m sure I would love the food in the Far East).

  20. Hi Sissi

    Your recipe sounds fantastic and have just tried cooking it tonight… I’m just wondering why my sauce doesn’t reduce though, it’s been 2 hours and I’ve opened the lid and it seems like there is even MORE liquid than when I started!
    Do you fully cover the pot or should you leave a little gap so the liquid can evaporate? Thanks !

    1. Hi, I think meat’s juices might have slightly increased the volume of the sauce, but you shouldn’t worry. As I have mentioned in preparation time, it takes minimum 3 hours, but I haven’t specified because it’s different every time and it probably depends on the pan (it does reduce in my wok, but maybe the lid is not so tight?), on the stove, etc..
      Anyway, if the meat is already falling off the bone when touched with a fork (this is important), take off the lid, increase the heat a bit to medium and wait (but watch closely and stir delicately, otherwise it might burn). It will eventually thicken. Good luck! Let me know if you have other questions.

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