Hoisinful Nine Dragon RibsIn August 1972, I was 23 and a senior at the University of Florida in Gainesville. Don't ask why it took me so long to get to be a senior. My best friend, Kurt Westfall and I had just opened our first exhibit of photography, a two-man show, in Cedar Key, Florida. After the opening I felt like a rock star. I decided to go to the big city and make my fortune as an artist.
On the way back to Gainesville I picked up two hitchikers who told me that they were making an unbelievable $3.75 an hour working on the assembly line at Ford's Rouge plant in Dearborn, Michigan. I made a quick stop at my apartment, tossed my clothes and camera gear into the car, and drove them all the way to Detroit.
When we got to Dearborn, wouldn't you know it, the factories were all shut down to re-tool from one model year to the next, as was customary in August. They knew, but conveniently forgot to tell me.
After a few months I went to Chicago to see an exhibit of photography at the Art Institute of Chicago by my mentor and inspiration, Jerry Uelsmann. After one look at Chicago I decided not to go back to Detroit. Chicago was so much more beautiful and the arts and food communities were so much more vital (OK, Detroiters, send me your hatemail). I got a job at Foremost Liquors in Skokie and rented a room upstairs in a woman's home.
A few days after I started work I stopped at a Chinese restaurant, the Nine Dragon Inn. It was opening night and I was their first customer. Over the next few months I ate there often. I even kept a case of white wine in their walk-in cooler because they had no liquor license, and I hung around the kitchen watching them cook. I took friends, customers, and even my future wife there on our first date. The owners two young girls, Jean and Ada, found endless fascination in my beard, and played under the table while I ate. They called me something like toy-ya-ya, which I thought was a term of endearment, but I later found out meant something like "smelly feet".
I loved everything they made, but I especially loved their ribs. I have tried Chinese ribs many times since, but never found a restaurant that made them the same as Nine Dragon Ribs. The owners later moved to the west coast, and I have lost track of them. So I was forced to replicate the recipe, and I’ve come pretty close. I have never come close to the affection I had for Jean and Ada. Hopefully some day they will Google Nine Dragon Inn and find this article, and me.
The dominant flavor in this recipe is hoisin sauce. Called Chinese barbecue sauce or Chinese ketchup, hoisin sauce bears no resemblance to either, other than Chinese cooks use it a lot. This most excellent condiment is made from soybeans, vinegar, rice, salt, flour, garlic, and chili peppers. Wonderful, hoisinful stiff.
Yield: Makes two cups, enough marinade for two slabs of baby backs.
Preparation time: Making the marinade takes about 30 minutes, and marinating takes 3-12 hours
Cooking time: About 2 hours
1 cup or a 9 ounce jar of hoisin sauce
1/4 cup diced onions
1/4 cup soy sauce
1/4 cup rice wine or white wine
1/4 cup orange juice
1/4 cup rice wine vinegar
1/4 cup fresh ginger, grated
1/4 cup toasted sesame oil
1 tablespoon dry mustard
2 tablespoons sriracha hot chili sauce or another hot sauce
3 cloves of garlic, minced or pressed
1 teaspoon five spice powder
1/4 cup honey
Optional but excellent garnishes
2 finely chopped scallion whites
2 teaspoons fresh orange zest
2 teaspoons white sesame seeds
About the Chinese ingredients. If you have trouble finding them in your grocery store, try AsianFoodGrocer.com
1) Mix all the marinade ingredients together and marinate the meat in a large plastic zipper bag (you may have to cut the slabs in half) for a minimum of 3 hours or better still, all day or overnight.
Cooking option 1: Indoor method
2) Line a baking pan with heavy duty aluminum foil, enough to wrap the ribs completely later, but just use it as a pan liner for now. Place the ribs in the pan and bake in an indoor oven at 250F for 2 hours.
3) Pour a little marinade over the top of the meat, and seal the ribs in a foil pouch using the pan liner. Turn the oven up to 350F and bake another hour.
4) Open the foil pouch carefully so you don't get burned by the steam. Peel back the foil and place under the broiler for 15-30 minutes, until it browns and sizzles. Watch it so it does not burn. A lot of fat will render out at this stage.
5) Remove from the oven and pour the honey lightly over the meat side and spread it around with a brush or spoon. Put it back under the broiler for five minutes or until it bubbles.
6) Garnish with the scallions, orange zest, and sesame seeds. Cut into individual ribs and serve.
Cooking option 2: Outdoor method
2) Bake the ribs in an outdoor oven, preferably a gas grill, using indirect heat or over a pan of water, at 250F for two hours. Skip the smoke.
3) Wrap each slab in aluminum foil meat side up, pour a little marinade over the meat, and seal the ribs in a foil pouch. Turn the oven up to 350F and bake another hour.
4) Open the foil pouch carefully so you don't get burned by the steam. Remove the slab from the foil and place it meat side down until it browns and sizzles. Watch it so it does not burn.
5) Remove from the grill and pour the honey lightly over the meat side and spread it around with a brush or spoon. Put it back on the grill, honey side down, five minutes or until it bubbles. Don't let it burn.
5) Garnish with the scallions, orange zest, and sesame seeds. Cut into individual ribs and serve.