Sweet and sour spareribs: Scented with memories.

I’ve been wandering many recipe roads in the past few days: researching school-days dishes from the ’40s-’70s, brainstorming a cooking course I’ll be helping with at Grand Cafe & Bakery in March that will include some homey, old-style preparations.

For people like me, reading about food, talking about it, writing about it, can be as satisfying as cooking, eating and serving it. On the other hand, just one taste of a well-prepared dish invariably catapults me into the kitchen.

At a memorial service for my step-sister last week on Maui (she succumbed to cancer), a friend served a vintage favorite — sweet-sour pork with pineapple. My mom and I were rushing off to another event but I took the time to nibble a bite of this dish. I HAD to; the scent was calling to me across the years from the cafeteria at St. Anthony Elementary School, a sweet-sour siren song.

Sweet-sour pork (and its cousin sweet-sour spare ribs) is not a pretty dish: a drab, mottled brown, odd-shaped lumps of meat in a thin gravy. But the smell of this marriage of pork fat, vinegar, brown sugar, shoyu and pineapple compels the mouth to water. This is especially true if you grew up, as I did, squirming the morning through in the confinement of an old-fashioned hardwood school desk while this particularly beguiling scent built and built and built as lunchtime approached.

Predictably, sweet-sour lingered on my palate for several days until I had to make it for dinner earlier this week.  Recipes in community cookbooks and from the files of the School Food Services program showed that Island cooks generally take one of two approaches to this family of dishes:

1. Precooking the pork by parboiling it or dredging and frying it before simmering it on the stovetop, then thickening the sauce slightly with cornstarch.

2. Or marinating the pork in the sauce before braising it in the oven.

Some recipes employ star anise or Chinese 5-Spice. Some versions don’t call for pineapple but do contain chunks of green bell pepper. Many older instructions call for Aji-No-Moto (a brand of MSG once so popular that it was familiarly nicknamed in ingredient lists as “Aji.”).

Here’s a recipe that allows you to choose your approach.

Sweet-Sour Spare Ribs (or Pork Chunks)

4-5 pounds pork spare ribs (with “soft” bones) or chunks of pork butt
Seasoned flour (optional, see below)
2 cloves garlic, crushed
2-3 inches peeled fresh ginger, grated or minced
1/2 cup soy sauce
1/2 cup brown sugar
1/2 cup white vinegar
1 (20-ounce) can pineapple chunks in juice
Cornstarch (optional, see below)
Sesame seeds for garnish (optional)

Approach 1, stovetop with thickened gravy: Lightly dredge the spare ribs or pork chunks in flour seasoned with salt and pepper. In a large Dutch oven, fry pork pieces in vegetable oil; drain fat. Add garlic, ginger, soy sauce, brown sugar, vinegar and pineapple juice; cook over medium heat, simmering 30-40 minutes or longer, until pork is tender; add pineapple chunks toward the end of cooking. Thicken juices with cornstarch, as desired (whisk in cornstarch, bring juices to a boil, turn down heat and serve).
Approach 2, oven with thin gravy: Marinate pork with ginger and garlic in soy sauce, brown sugar, white vinegar and pineapple juice for at least one hour, turning occasionally. Preheat oven to 325 degrees. Place pork mixture in a large, heavy Dutch oven and bake in oven 30 minutes; stir and turn meat; cook a further 30 minutes, until pork is all but melting. Add pineapple chunks toward the end of cooking time.
Serve hot with steamed rice; garnish with sesame seeds, if desired.
Makes 8-10 servings.