No Bones About It

“Why don’t they remove the bones before they serve the fish?” is a common question I hear from friends whenever we go to Chinese restaurants. In fact on one occasion after finishing a steamed striped bass at a popular Cantonese seafood restaurant in Chinatown a fellow diner jested that the remains of our dish looked like Felix the Cat had swallowed the fish whole and pulled out a completely cleaned skeleton with just the head and tail left on. So why do the Chinese like to keep the bones in the dishes they cook?

The answer is all about flavor. For millenniums Asians have recognized a savory taste sensation known as xian (鮮) in Chinese (umami in Japanese) that can enhance the flavor of any dish. Modern food technologists have identified three groups of compounds that are responsible for this sensation: glutamates, inosinates and guanylates. The most commonly known compound is none other than monosodium glutamate or MSG. Its use has been so abused that MSG has given this whole group of compounds a bad reputation. But many of these compounds occur naturally in our food and are not considered harmful.

Animal bones are the best known ingredients that contain high concentration of umami compounds. It is not surprising that every cuisine in the world uses bone stock to enhance flavors. Beef, chicken and fish bones are common ingredients for creating umami. Many vegetables such as soybeans, seaweed, mushrooms and radishes also contain these wonderful compounds. Indeed it was in 1908 that Dr. Kikunae Ikeda of Tokyo Imperial University successfully isolated MSG from kombu (kelp) and started marketing it as a flavor enhancer.

In Chinese cooking we go further and cook meat without removing the bone. This is often done for braising, stewing and steaming. The cooking process releases these umami compounds from the bone while the heat breaks down the meat. What’s more, the meat around the bone is perfect for long moist heat techniques. They often contain highly marbleized meat with connective tissues of collagen, which result in very tender texture when cooked.

To illustrate the important part bones play in Chinese cooking I’ve included a recipe for a classic dish you’ll always find in any Cantonese dim sum restaurant. It is steamed pork short ribs with fermented black beans. To make this dish be sure to ask the butcher to cut the pork ribs into one inch long pieces. That way the meat will cook evenly and the inosinate compound will disperse rapidly into the resulting sauce. The fermented black beans, which are really discolored soybeans after fermentation, further enhance the pork flavor as they also contain glutamate compound. This umami over umami is what creates the complex rich flavors making this dish so delicious. .

Well, make no bones about it, the Chinese do like their meat with bones.

  • Steamed Pork Short Ribs (豆豉蒸排骨)

    • Preparation time: 15 minutes
    • Slow cooking time: 40 minutes
    • 1 lb. pork short ribs cut into 1-inch pieces
    • 2 tablespoons fermented black beans
    • 6 slices fresh ginger root
    • 1 clove of garlic thinly sliced
    • 1/2 teaspoon salt
    • 1/4 teaspoon ground white pepper
    • 2 tablespoons cornstarch
    • 2 tablespoons Shaoxing cooking wine
    • Chopped scallion for garnish
    • Coarsely chop the fermented black beans. In a medium three-quart bowl mix all ingredients except for the scallion garnish. Marinate the meat for about 20 minutes.
    • Transfer the pork ribs into a 9 1/2 inch glass pie plate and steam over boiling water for about 40 minutes. Test a piece of the rib to make sure the meat is tender before removing from the heat. Serve hot on the pie plate garnished with chopped scallion, or transfer to a small condiment sized plate to serve as a dim sum item.
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22 Comments

  1. Posted November 1, 2011 at 12:37 pm | Permalink

    I will never understand why people freak out about bones.

    • Posted November 1, 2011 at 1:04 pm | Permalink

      I don’t understand it either. Meat around the bones are the best!

      • Tuyet Nguyen
        Posted November 1, 2011 at 11:33 pm | Permalink

        Agreed! It’s the same concept as buffalo wings. I don’t understand why one would choose to eat boneless buffalo chicken over regular buffalo wings. It’s more moist and has so much more flavor!

        • Posted November 2, 2011 at 8:57 am | Permalink

          You know… I never understand boneless buffalo wings. What’s the point?

    • Cory
      Posted March 27, 2012 at 4:17 pm | Permalink

      Well, you should and it’s silly not to. People haven’t had bones in their meat, therefore they freak out about it. It’s very simple. People are scared of bones in their meat when they aren’t used to dealing with them. Instead of learning how to deal with it, people usually just avoid things with bones.

  2. villainx
    Posted November 1, 2011 at 12:48 pm | Permalink

    Chinese folks especially like to gnaw on and pick around bones.

    • Bob
      Posted November 1, 2011 at 9:47 pm | Permalink

      And non-Chinese, too! I really find boned meat, especially fish, to be a big disappointment.

  3. Posted November 1, 2011 at 10:37 pm | Permalink

    fish bones are visually interesting on the plate! btw — kian, do you ever use the fish bones for broth? if so, i was wondering if you had any tips for making fish broth from the skeleton. :)

    • Posted November 2, 2011 at 8:54 am | Permalink

      I don’t usually use leftover fish bones from the table to make stock. But I do buy fish bones from Chinatown fishmongers for soup making. Fish heads are specially good for making sock or soup. Just add water, Chinese cooking wine, ginger and scallion to the bones or head to make a rich seafood stock. Throw in a small piece of kombu as well if you wish.

  4. Ana
    Posted November 2, 2011 at 8:04 am | Permalink

    I make this dish all the time! Thanks Kian for covering it so more people can know the wonders of 排骨 paai4 gwat1 (Cantonese jyutping). I like to throw in a few sliced pieces of thai chilli pepper or jalapeno. It really gives it a great flavor.

    • Posted November 2, 2011 at 8:56 am | Permalink

      Ana, the extra chili would definitely add extra kick to this dish. Thank you for suggesting it.

  5. Posted November 6, 2011 at 9:09 pm | Permalink

    Ah… yes. I grew up eating the boneless pork chops and chicken breasts like a typical American white boy… now I’ve learned to love bones, guts and all of the good stuff. I wish we didn’t have this brainwashing/comfort-think going on in our country – we need to go back to the good stuff.

    • Posted November 7, 2011 at 6:36 pm | Permalink

      I am very glad of the current movement to eat “head to tail” in this country. We’ve been eating every parts of animals for the longest time. Waste not, want not.

  6. Jim
    Posted November 7, 2011 at 9:14 am | Permalink

    In South America, there’s a saying about meat that “The best flavor is close to the bone.” I knew it was true, but this blog entry adds a new layer of understanding. Thanks.

  7. VJBinCT
    Posted November 8, 2011 at 6:35 am | Permalink

    Koreans like fish bones, too. A few years ago I was in Seoul on business and, knowing I loved seafood, my hosts took me to a restaurant whose specialty was a very deep sea angler fish. This is an ugly critter, rubbery skin and a more than foot-wide mouth. This was hacked into pieces and cooked in a way quite similar to your pork ribs posted here. I ate the meat and skin off the bones and ended with a big pile of bones on my plate. (they were the size of chicken leg bones–damn big!) Then I noticed that none of my fellow diners had bones on their plates at all. Wow!

    And once in Shijiazhuang, at an institute which is one of my customers, we went to our favorite Sichuan restaurant there and instead of the usual fish soup, my host ordered something special. After the waitress scooped off the usual couple of cups of hot peppers, there was an attractive array of spiky things around the edge of the bowl. Crab, I thought. But it turned out to be duck’s heads, hacked in half through the top. Very nice looking, but there isn’t any meat to speak of on a duck’s head aside from the brain and the tongue. That’s probably the most usual dish I’ve eaten in my many trips to China.

    And referring to the commenter above who now appreciates all the bones, guts, and all, the steamed scallops served in Qingdao have the whole animal, not just the adductor muscle. Very good, and it’s a shame these parts are discarded here.

  8. Margaret
    Posted November 26, 2011 at 11:36 am | Permalink

    Steamed whole fish is the best! It tastes so good when you suck the fish meat off of the bones. I also like cartilage a lot…especially in chicken feet and on ribs. :-)

  9. Christine
    Posted December 2, 2011 at 10:00 pm | Permalink

    I cannot wait to make this!!! I LOVE this dish. I use to work in Chinatown in NYC and I love authentic Chinese cuisine!!! (not what most Americans like, lol). I’m so glad I found your website. I already made the red chicken tonight and it was delish!!!! I agree meat on the bones is the best, and dark meat chicken is the best too!!!!

    • Posted December 3, 2011 at 10:30 am | Permalink

      Hi Christine,
      This is a true Cantonese classic. It doesn’t have to only served at dim sum. I love to serve it for dinner as well. Enjoy!
      Kian

  10. Posted December 27, 2011 at 2:12 am | Permalink

    10 years ago I travelled in Malaysia and – as a Brit growing up on skinless chicken breasts in plastic packs – couldn’t understand why the chefs would cook the chicken pieces whole, hack them up with a cleaver and place bones and all on top of the rice. Didn’t they realise it’s not only annoying but also DANGEROUS to eat? However, I did also notice the dishes were always delicious…

    Now I wouldn’t bat an eyelid. Interesting post! Yum.

  11. Posted June 28, 2012 at 9:18 am | Permalink

    In addition to flavor, the Chinese also revere texture in a way that Western eaters often don’t appreciate. I love eating pork neck bones for the panoply of textures they provide. Stringy tendon, tender meat, gellied marrow, crunchy cartilage, it’s a textural delight.

    Also, the Chinese love bone marrow. Some of my favorite flavors are braking open chicken bones to suck out the marrow, sucking the flavorful liquid from a the porous surface of a braised meat dish or squeezing rib bones between my teeth to extract a paste of marrow.

  12. Posted November 8, 2012 at 1:52 am | Permalink

    My wife is Chinese, and she loves to eat fish with bones, whereas I am slightly lazy and like to not take very much time eating my food. After living in China a while though, I am finally getting used to eating fish that has not been filleted.

  13. Michael Ling
    Posted November 19, 2013 at 5:42 am | Permalink

    Chinese people like to keep the bones on because there is more flavor in the dish.

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