There's no question, food always tastes better when someone else cooks it for you. 

It helps to have a friend who is mad keen on cooking, especially on those days when not much goes right.  Everyone has these, I am sure.

One of those days when there's no milk for the morning tea, and the cat brings in half a mouse. 

And an old friend drops by with her new fella, the concert pianist, and there you are in a purple nightie, the one with the scottie dogs all over it.  At two in the afternoon.  And he was so cultured and talented and my, those scottie dogs really did stand out against the purple.

Things didn't get any better on this particular day when the phone rang.  And yes, I probably was in the shower and had just realised there was no conditioner.  Or towel.

It was a friend, making an offer I couldn't refuse.  Angie was coming over to our place and cooking dinner for the entire family.  

Within an hour she arrived, bearing pots and rice cookers and bottles of unusual Asian condiments.  She'd spent many years in China and loves that cuisine and loves cooking for others. 

Before long delicious smells were galloping around the house as interesting concoctions bubbled and boiled on the stove. I sat on the couch, sipping a rather fine wine, half-heartedly offering assistance which was waved away.  (Although she did put me on egg beating duty, which I believe I carried out with stunning ability.)

She was making her famous, signature dish, learned from The Criminal, a former boyfriend from China.  The relationship suffered from his frequent, unexplained absences - then she discovered he was spending time in prison. Crim he might have been, but the boy knew a thing or two about food.  This dish is succulent, morish, and utterly splendid.  She did something creative with prawns and squid but the ribs - as they do - really stood out.  It's even better if you can get someone to cook it for you in your home, but it is, I discovered, a pleasure to make.

The favour was returned - we were having friends around (not the concert pianist and his lady) but they didn't turn up.  And there was too much food for us.  So we packed it into bags and dropped it off at Angie's.  What comes around, goes around.  I must remember to throw out that purple nightie.

Criminally Good Spare Ribs

Most Asian food markets stock these ingredients.  The recipe is quite forgiving, so feel free to experiment.

  • 1kg spare ribs
  • 4 - 6 star anise
  • 1 cinnamon stick
  • 2-3 tbsp soy sauce
  • 2 tbsp sugar
  • ¼ cup Chinese cooking wine (Shaoxing is good, sherry can be substituted)
  • salt
  • 3 spring onions
  • 4 cloves garlic
  • 1 tbsp ginger, sliced fine
  • 2 tbsp peanut oil
  • 1 - 1½ tbsp cornflour
  • a little cold water

Separate ribs with a sharp knife and trim off any excess fat. 

Heat oil in a heavy skillet and add sugar when hot.  Caramelise, stirring constantly.  This takes about two minutes.   

While still hot, layer ribs in skillet and quickly brown them all over.  As they brown remove to a large saucepan and repeat until all are seared.  Add more oil if needed.

Slice spring onion and chop garlic.  Add this to the pan with ginger and fry for a few minutes.  

Add a little cold water - about a small cup - to loosen the juices off the pan.  Pour all this into the saucepan with the ribs.

Add soy sauce, cooking wine, star anise, and enough water to just cover the ribs.  Break cinnamon stick up and mix with other ingredients.

Cover, bring to a boil then simmer for about one hour.  Check the water level from time to time.  Add salt if required.

When reduced by half, mix cornflour with a little cold water and swirl this into the mixture, to thicken the sauce.  It should coat the ribs.

Serve with basmati rice and green vegetables - wash Chinese greens, toss into a hot pan with a little peanut oil, chopped garlic, and ginger until wilted.  Delicious.