If you’ve ever been to China you’ve probably eaten the classics like gong bao ji ding (Kung Pao Chicken) or Peking Duck, but one of my absolute favorite dishes actually hails from a small little town called Shanghai. These Shanghai style sticky spare ribs are sweet and savory and basically like meat candy on a bone. Now, traditionally they would use pork, however I got a great deal on lamb and figured it would be just as delicious. I was wrong, it’s more delicious! If you don’t like lamb then you can just sub pork in this recipe, but I highly recommend trying lamb if you can find it on sale.
The recipe for these Shanghai style sticky spare ribs was actually taught to me by a Chinese chef at one of the most popular rib joints in the historical French concession of Shanghai back in 2015. It’s kind of miraculous it has taken me this long to put the recipe up on the site, but now that it is I expect it to be quite popular. Even more than my current #1 Chinese recipe of garlic pork string beans (which I ate multiple times a week when living in Beijing).
Some other delicious and authentic Chinese recipes include northern style Walnut Chicken, Cantonese style black bean shrimp, and my favorite lunch dish – cold sesame noodles! Give them a try if you love Chinese cooking!
Shanghai Style Sticky Spare Ribs
The first thing you’ll need to do is prep the meat. This step is super easy. If you are using pork you’ll want to trim off the silver skin (the white part against the bone) but if you use lamb then you can leave it, it is much thinner than pork and just melts in the cooking process. But you can also trim it off if you want as well.
Cut the short ribs into individual lengths. You don’t need to be super careful with this step…in China they just hack it up with a cleaver. You are basically just looking for easy to pick up with chopsticks bite size ribs. This recipe calls for about 3 pounds of short ribs or 1.5kg roughly.
One of the most important parts of this recipe is the marinade. In a bowl add two tablespoons of Soy Sauce, 3 tablespoons of Shaoxing wine, a tablespoon of rice wine vinegar, an inch of finely sliced ginger, and 3 cloves of sliced garlic.
Place the ribs in the marinade and add some chili flakes. This ingredient isn’t mandatory, so if you don’t like chili flakes just leave them out. I personally feel they add a little something something to the dish so I use them.
Mix everything together in the bowl. Cover with a lid or plastic and place in the fridge for 1 hour. Letting the meat rest in the marinade is important, so don’t just go cooking them right away.
Cooking The Shanghai Style Spare Ribs
In a pan on high heat add a bit of neutral oil. When hot use tongs to move the ribs from the marinade directly to the pan. You don’t want to pour everything in at once or the meat will not brown, but it is okay if a little liquid trickles over as you move the meat. Toss the pan a bit to shake up the ribs, and let them cook until just browned on all sides. DO NOT get rid of the marinade, we will add it later.
While the short ribs are browning (or marinating if you have time) finely slice two stalks of lemongrass. Now, this is NOT part of the traditional recipe, but I think it adds a lot. I know lemongrass is a more South East Asia ingredient, but it plays nicely with these Shanghai sticky ribs. Using it is completely up to you however.
Directly onto the ribs in the pan add a tablespoon of sugar along with the lemongrass. As you can see in the picture I used powdered or confectioner’s sugar, but regular sugar works just as well. Note that the more sugar you use will not only make the ribs sweeter, but also more sticky. I think one tablespoon is a good amount, although the recipe I got in China was probably closer to two. Toss the pan to mix everything up.
One of the most popular ingredients in Chinese cooking is Dark Soy Sauce. This is different than Japanese style soy sauce, and is used more for color and depth of flavor rather than saltiness (although it does add that salty, umami aspect as well). Measure out a tablespoon of your preferred dark soy sauce brand and add it to the leftover marinade.
Into the pan pour all of the marinade along with two cups of water. Stir everything around, and when it starts to bubble reduce the heat to medium-low. Cover the pan and let simmer for about a half hour. Take off the lid, raise the heat back to high and reduce for a few more minutes to really bring the sauce together.
The thickness of the sauce is up to you, but I like it when it resembles the picture above. Shanghai style sticky spare ribs traditionally have a nice caramely red-brown color and the smell should permeate your kitchen in a positive way. You’ll have to trust me when I say that writing out this recipe even a few days after making the dish makes me want to go back in the kitchen and cook another batch of these tasty ribs.
The best way to serve Shanghai style sticky spare ribs is with some simple white rice. Of course, I garnish with a bit of white and black sesame seeds for presentation. Enjoy!
Shanghai Style Sticky Spare Ribs
- pan or wok
- 1.5 kg Spare Ribs I used lamb because it's delicious, but this recipe works with pork (which is traditional) as well.
- 2 tbsp Soy Sauce
- 3 tbsp Shaoxing Wine can substitute Sherry if you need to
- 1 tbsp Rice Wine Vinegar
- 1 inch Ginger finely sliced
- 3 cloves Garlic minced or thinly sliced
- 1 tsp Chili Flakes optional
- 1 tbsp Dark Soy Sauce Chinese style
- 1 tbsp Sugar
- 2 cups Water more or less, just to barely cover the ribs in the pan
- 2 stalks Lemongrass finely sliced
- Sesame Seeds for garnish
- 1 tbsp Neutral Oil for cooking
- Begin by trimming all the ribs. Cut off the silver skin if you are using pork (or just want to) and slice the rack into individual ribs.
- In a bowl combine the soy sauce, shaoxing wine, rice wine vinegar, ginger, garlic, and chili flakes (if using). Add the ribs and mix everything up. Cover with a lid or plastic and place in the fridge for 1 hour to marinate.
- In a hot pan or wok add the oil and let come to temperature. Using tongs move the ribs from the marinade directly into the pan. When moved, add the dark soy sauce to the leftover marinade. Shake around to brown all sides of the ribs. When browned add the lemongrass and sugar and mix. Then pour in the rest of the marinade.
- Once the pan begins to bubble, reduce the temperature to medium-low and cover with a lid. Let simmer for 30 minutes. After 30 minutes remove the lid and raise the temperature back to high for a few minutes to further thicken and reduce the sauce.
- Serve the ribs with some white rice and garnish with a sesame seeds for presentation. Enjoy!