By Kim Latimer
My egg rolls and chicken chow mien have a long-standing inferiority complex. Another dish has always stolen the show—the bon bon spare rib. These plump, lightly coated, crispy pork short ribs are typically seasoned in Chinese spices and spritzed with lemon. True to their name, the ribs do go down like candy when paired with local craft beer but you’ll only find them here in Thunder Bay.
Oh, the bon bon spare rib. It’s sacrilege to order Chinese without them. And this Chinese-Canadian was created right here in Thunder Bay in 1946 by a local Chinese restaurant owner named Lam Pang. “He came from Taishan, a coastal city in southern Guangdong province of China,” says his daughter Gilda Pang-Allard. “He came to Thunder Bay when he was a boy and later learned to cook on the ships. Then he opened his own restaurant called Pang’s.”
Pang experimented with the two-inch short ribs while catering a house party. Obviously, they were a hit. “The story I’ve heard is that he needed something quick and fast to serve the guests who were still drinking beer into the night,” says Shi Ping Chen (known as Ping), a family friend of Pang’s and owner of the Fort William Curling Club Chinese restaurant. “They are perfect with beer.”
Pang naturally decided to put them on his menu. Soon all of the Chinese restaurants in town were offering bon bons. Now they are an expectation on any Thunder Bay Chinese menu. There’s even a wee bit of competition to serve the best bon bons. “Each restaurant does it slightly differently. Our bon bons are very popular. At Fort William Curling Club, we go through 150lbs of them a week,” says Chen.
It’s a far cry from the traditional Chinese ribs that are usually steamed with black beans, Pang-Allard says. Even she has worked to improve her father’s recipe with her own unique mix of spices and her own ginger sauce.
“My father would plan the New Year’s Eve menu a week before Christmas and there were always bon bons,” she says. “I still make them them for our family every New Year’s Eve.”
Want to make your own bon bons? Check out the recipe by Chef Rachel Globensky in our February issue.