I’ve been going to Chinese restaurants with my parents since I could remember, and nothing they’ve ever ordered has been printed on the menu. I think the printed menu’s meant only for the non-Chinese patrons. 😉 (Don’t get me wrong, I love me some orange chicken, broccoli with beef and lo mein, but real Chinese food goes much deeper than that.) My dad rattles off dishes from a secret menu that doesn’t physically exist but is familiar to all the insiders. I’m not as cool as all that, so on the rare occasion that I go to a Chinese restaurant without one of my parents, I tell them, “I want, you know, the stuff that my mom or dad got last time.” Anyway, one of the tastiest “secret dishes,” from our favorite local Chinese place, is kabocha squash stuffed with spare ribs. I love it so much that my mom figured out how to make it. Today, for the first time, I successfully followed her instructions — yippee!
If you’re unfamiliar with it, a kabocha is a round Japanese squash with asometimes nubbly green exterior and cheery orange-colored flesh. It’s available at many farmers markets and grocery stores, and is almost guaranteed to be at any Asian market. I’m a squash fan in general, but the kabocha is my absolute favorite. It’s got a meaty yet fluffy texture, and it’s very sweet with a slightly nutty flavor. If you’ve had vegetable tempura, you might have had a piece of batter-covered fried kabocha and just thought it was a sweet potato. When I saw one on sale at Vons, I immediately thought of my favorite secret menu dish — the saltiness of the ribs goes perfectly with the sweet kabocha, and the juicy, tender meat is a delight with the smooth, fluffy squash. I called my mom to confirm the ingredients and instructions, then set about making it. It’s actually pretty straightforward; the only thing is, as with a lot of Chinese recipes, there are no exact measurements. So much of it depends on how big the squash is, how much meat you’re using and how salty you want the dish to be. I’ve tried to be as exact as possible, but just know that there’s some room for you to play around if you make this.
Kabocha Squash Stuffed With Chinese-Style Spare Ribs
- One small- to medium-sized kabocha squash*
- 1 to 1.5 pounds of pork spare ribs, cut into individual riblets**
- 1 tablespoon of rice wine
- 3 tablespoons of black bean sauce, availabe at Asian markets or in the international aisle of your grocery store
- 1 to 2 teaspoons of corn starch
- An old-school rice cooker or a lidded pot large enough to hold the entire squash, preferably (but not necessarily) with a steamer insert that doesn’t have a rod in the middle***
*Available at some grocery stores and many farmers markets
**At Asian markets, spare ribs are sold either in racks or already cut into individual riblets and packaged in a shrink-wrapped Styrofoam tray. If you don’t have access to an Asian market, you can buy spare ribs at your grocery store — just ask the butcher or meat department to cut the rack into half or thirds lengthwise (across the bones), and then cut between the bones into individual, inch- or inch-and-a-half long riblets.
***Every good Taiwanese girl has the old-school rice cooker, and I’m no exception. 😉 It is truly a wonderful gadget — not only does it cook rice, but it steams meat and veggies, and it can also make soups and stews. Alas, I realize many of you don’t have this specific rice cooker, and I’m unfamiliar with how other types of rice cookers work. My mom told me that you can also make this in a big pot, since essentially the rice cooker is just steaming the squash.
- Place the spare ribs in a large bowl, along with the black bean sauce, rice wine and corn starch. Add a dash or two of white pepper if desired, then, with your hands, work the condiments into the meat until all of the ribs are covered with a little sauce. Set aside while you prepare the squash.
- Wash the kabocha squash well (the skin is actually edible! It becomes very soft and smooth after steaming, so you’ll want to clean it well if you plan on eating it along with the flesh). Pat dry. With a sharp knife, slice off the top fourth of the squash. If the squash is very hard, you can pop it in the microwave for about a minute to soften it just a tad. I was able to cut it without doing that, though. Once the top is sliced off, you may have to use a paring knife to cut away some of the flesh around the rim so that the opening is wide enough for you to put the meat in later. Use a spoon to scoop out the seeds and the stringy parts of the squash. Don’t be afraid to scrape the inside of the squash; it’s very hardy.
- Totally optional, and just for show: Use a sharp paring knife to create “v” cuts all along the opening, so that the rim of the squash has a ridged border.
- Take the marinated ribs and place them into the hollow squash. Don’t be afraid to really cram the meat in there (OK, I can’t resist: That’s what she said); it’ll shrink a little during the steaming.
- Now, if you’re using the Tatung rice cooker, place the stuffed squash onto a rice cooker-safe plate or bowl, pour two cups of water into the rice cooker, and then set the plate or bowl onto the little metal stand (the one with the tiny holes all over it) in the rice cooker. Place the lid onto the rice cooker and switch it on. If you’re not using the rice cooker, place your steamer insert (if you’re using one) in a pot that’s big enough to hold the squash, fill the with an inch or two of water, set it over medium heat, and once the water starts to boil, turn the heat down low, put the squash in the pot, and put the lid on. Here’s where it gets a little tricky: Based on how long the rice cooker took, you’ll have to steam it for about 30 minutes. At the 30-minute mark, open the lid and check a rib to see if it’s done, and poke at the outside of the squash with a fork. It should feel soft, like you could stick the fork through it if you pushed a little.
- Once it’s done, remove the lid, turn off the heat and let the squash sit for 10 minutes or so. Then, while wearing oven mitts, transfer the squash onto a serving plate and serve!
This is excellent served with rice: Ladle some of the ribs over rice, along with the yummy sauce created during the cooking process, cut off some of the squash, and serve it alongside the ribs. Add a side of sauteed snow peas, and you have a complete, healthy, autumn-inspired meal.