I feel like my dad's makes steamed spare ribs (aka "pàaih gwāt" in Canto) for us at least once a month at home, and I can't even begin to imagine or count how many times he's made it over his career as a chef.
Steamed spare ribs is a classic dim sum dish, and actually one of the easier dim sum recipes to recreate for your loved ones at home.
Before we get into the recipe, you might enjoy these interesting tidbits about our beloved past time, dim sum, and our favorite dish.
Dim Sum: A Touch of Heart
The way most of us pronounce "dim sum" in English is very similar to its Cantonese pronunciation, "dím sām", which roughly translates to "a touch of heart".
It's a reference to the delectable snacks that 10th century teahouses would serve to traveling merchants in Guangzhou, one of the largest international ports along the Silk Road.
Even though dim sum is widely considered to belong to Cantonese cuisine, it evolved from a wide range of influences, largely because Guangzhou was and still is a critical hub for Chinese trade and a melting pot of different cultures.
Why do we rinse spare ribs in water?
When dim sum restaurants serve spare ribs, their traditionally preferred look is much less light in color (vs the smoky, charred, dark look of a BBQ rib).
This is mostly an aesthetic choice, made to entice customers to order lots and lots of spare ribs from the carts of delicious foods.
The way to achieve this look is to rinse them in water for an extended period of time.
We talk about this in our video, but restaurants will use huge buckets or washing machines to rinse and dry large batches of spare ribs. Our friends over at Chinese Cooking Demystified have a great video on this.
Rinsing also helps wash away some of the taste of blood.
Be aware that the longer you rinse, you might be reducing the amount of available nutrients in your food (like iron).
Why are spare ribs red?
A common misconception is that the red juice that leaks out from meat is blood, but it’s not. Most of the time, the blood has already been drained by the time you buy it, and the red juice is actually a result of freezing the meat during transport.
When you freeze meat, which is about 75% water, the water inside the muscles expands into ice crystals which rupture the muscle cells, and when the ice thaws, it carries some myoglobin with it.
Myoglobin is an iron-rich protein that turns bright red when it’s exposed to oxygen. The purpose of myoglobin is to store extra oxygen in muscles that are used for extended periods of time.
Interestingly enough, this is why not all meats are red or dark. Beef and pork meat are red because cows and pigs stand and roam almost all day. In contrast, fish meat is mostly white, with some red meat around the fins and tail, because fish float in water and aren’t constantly using the bulk of their muscles.