Although Tong Chee Hwee's jasmine tea-smoked short-ribs of Wagyu beef, served at London restaurant HKK, elevate the Chinese takeaway favourite to another level, it is still a relatively simple recipe, albeit with more complex flavours and served with fine-dining flair. Michael Raffael reports
Almost everyone who has eaten in a Chinese restaurant will have tried Cantonese spare ribs glazed in a sticky, sometimes garish sauce. At HKK, Hakkasan Group's restaurant in the City of London, executive chef Tong Chee Hwee has reworked the well-loved classic, refined it, and created it with Wagyu beef.
It's nothing less than one would expect from the chef who, head-hunted by Alan Yau over a decade ago, created accessible Chinese fine dining. His ability to devise tastes and textures with a global appeal explains why the group's restaurants are as effective in Las Vegas as in Abu Dhabi, and is why Hakkasan will probably be a success when it opens in Shanghai this March.
However, there is another, more practical reason: Chinese cookery itself. In the first place it's pragmatic. The recipes may seem difficult from a distance, but up close, they tend to be quite simple and easy to replicate. A pot, a wok and a cleaver is usually enough.
Bar the price of the beef, which has a luxury brand image, there is nothing about Chef Tong's smoked short-ribs to frighten any European cook. It's true that few kitchens, other than Chinese ones, use turbo-woks, but that's not the point of his dish and owning one isn't essential. If there is a secret, it's in the dish's balance: succulent meat in just the right amount of sauce without a hint of drizzle or foam.
Planning According to Chef Tong, the restaurant serves approximately 70 tasting menus over one-and-a-half days. He prepares 750g beef for 20-24 orders, but the recipe can be successfully scaled up. As an à la carte order, the quantity serves three.
The stir-frying, poaching and smoking can be done ahead, but the glazing of the beef with its sauce is done to order.
HKK tasting menus and costing HKK runs a series of tasting menus for table sharing, from a four-course lunch menu (£28) to a 15-course banquet (£95). The short-ribs would figure on the eight- (£48), 10- (£72) and 15-course menus.
Wine Hakkasan Group wine buyer Christine Parkinson chose a Coonawarra Balnaves Cabernet-Merlot (2009) for wine pairing with this and the Rhug Farm lamb (the following course on the tasting menu), because of its "cedary- eucalyptus" notes and structured tannins that are ideally suited to the lightly smoked meat.
Red rice Hong qu mi or Hong Gu is a yeast-fermented rice that is often used as a colouring in Chinese cuisine. As with many exotic ingredients, there's the real thing and there's also a cheap version that's simply ordinary rice that has been coloured. There are two ways of using it: either add it to the poaching liquid and then strain the sauce after cooking, or boil the rice to extract the colour and then add this liquid to the sauce.
Yellow lump sugar The hard crystals of sugar can be replaced with golden granulated sugar in this recipe because it is used in the smoking mixture.
Black cardamom Sold in Oriental shops as Caoguo, its aroma is quite different from green cardamoms, although the larger pods contain similar-looking seeds.
Japanese yam (dioscorea opposita) Used in the garnish, this long and chunky yam has a texture similar to that of water chestnut. It's unique among yams in that it can be eaten raw; however, it does need to be soaked in a mild vinegar solution after it has been peeled and cubed.
To prepare, peel and trim the yam. Cut it into neat cubes weighing about 5-6g each. Leave in iced water. Add 2tbs rice wine vinegar or lemon juice.
HKK's sweet and sour sauce base This is made with 380ml rice vinegar, 480g Chinese sugar, 340g tomato ketchup, 335g (one bottle) OK fruity sauce and 300ml water mixed together.
For five tables of four, with portions of five to six pieces per table
750g Wagyu beef short-rib (trimmed and boned)
20g potato starch (fécule) for dusting
Sunflower oil for seasoning the wok
40ml light soy sauce
50ml HKK sweet and sour sauce
50ml Shaoxing wine
2 large black cardamom pods
20g peeled fresh ginger
20g spring onion
15g Chinese red rice
Either 10g salt or 10g chicken stock powder
To smoke the beef
25g yellow rock sugar
5g Jasmine tea leaves plus extra for garnish
200g steamed rice
Stage 1: Stir-frying Cut the beef into five steaks, each one roughly 3cm thick. Dust them on all sides with potato starch. Don't overdo this or the sauce of the finished dish will be claggy. (1)
Heat a few tablespoons of oil in a wok that has developed a non-stick patina. When it's very hot and smoking, discard it. Add the steaks to the pan and brown them lightly on all sides, turning once only. (2)
Stage 2: Simmering Transfer the meat to a saucepan. Add the soy, HKK sweet and sour sauce, Shaoxing wine, cardamoms, ginger, spring onion, red rice, â¨salt and enough water -at least 1.5 litres - to cover (3).
Bring to the boil and simmer for 1 hour. Remove the pieces of meat and reserve (4).
If necessary, reduce the sauce to about 600ml. It will be brown and lightly thickened.
Stage 3: Smoking
Take a small foil container or make one out of aluminium foil.
Put the broken-up rock sugar, tea leaves and rice in the container. Stand this in the base of a wok and heat it up (5).
The sugar will melt and then caramelise.
Place a rack for the meat over the smoking tea and rice. Lay the meat on it (6). Cover with a lid that allows the smoke to permeate the beef. Smoke for 10 to 15 minutes only (7).
You can prepare to this stage ahead of service.
Stage 4: Glazing and serving
Heat the wok again. For each portion, put one steak in the wok with about 100ml of the sauce in which the meat cooked (8).
Working quickly and cooking over a high flame, reduce the sauce until it coats the meat in a shiny glaze (9).
Empty the meat and remaining sauce into a bowl. Cut the steak on the diagonal into five slices. Stack it on the plate with a little sauce, â¨two or three deep-fried jasmine tea leaves, â¨cubes of Japanese yam and a sweet potato â¨crisp (see box).
WAGYU BEEF RIBSHKK buys bone-in Australian-sourced Wagyu beef short-ribs weighing a kilo each. After boning and trimming any fat on the muscle, they yield around 750g.
This cut may cost around £25 per kilo to obtain a regular and consistent supply, but if you look around it's possible to track it down for as little as £10.
SWEET POTATO CRISPS
These are an intrinsic part of the garnish and can be prepared in a large batch.
Ingredients 3kg Chinese sugar
1.5 litres rice wine vinegar
6 litres water
15 cloves garlic
25 bird's eye chillies
250g sweet potatoes
Prepare a marinade by boiling together all the ingredients except the sweet potatoes and then leaving the mixture to cool.
Peel and trim the sweet potatoes. Using a mandolin, slice them lengthways into wafers less than 2mm thick. Marinate these in the syrup for at least four hours, but it won't hurt to leave them for days.
Preheat the oven to 120Â°C. Lay the sweet potatoes in a single layer on prepared baking sheets. Let them dry out for 45 minutes.
When they are fresh from the oven they can be shaped like â¨tuiles, but will rapidly dry out and become crisp.