This dish isn’t for the faint hearted. The flavours are strong, pungent with a good kick of heat, but if you’re feeling adventurous or in a rut, then this Szechuan inspired beef dish is a real thrill ride. Bonus points for being simple to prepare and fast to deliver to the table. You can have it ready in the time it takes to your cook rice.
In Szechuan cooking, there is a term for the distinct, tingling heat that is found in many dishes from the region. They call it ma la. “Ma” is the word for the slightly numbing tingle that comes from Szechuan peppercorns. There is really nothing that can be used as a substitute. They won’t deliver much heat, but they do have an exotic, strongly herbal and aromatic flavour, as well as the strange sensation that lingers on your lips. “La” is the delicious heat served up by chilies. In this recipe, there is a punch of heat in the spicy doubanjiang. It’s a salty, fermented paste with chunks of fava beans,and chilies suspended in oil. There are plenty of brands available, but the best ones come from the Pixian district. Doubanjiang from other regions usually have soy beans and lack the slightly chunky texture and depth of flavour. Adding a couple of chilies will bring this recipe up another notch, if you like that kind of thing.
Another ingredient used here that is well worth the effort to find, is a good Shaoxing cooking wine. Amber in colour, it’s more flavourful than the other clear rice wines. It’s used extensively in many Chinese dishes and makes a reasonable cooking sherry substitute. Just a tablespoon will take your stir fried dishes to the next level.
This recipe uses a technique called dry frying. It’s simple to do, but requires you to regulate the heat throughout the cooking process. The marinated beef strips are spread across a layer a smoking hot oil. They are only cooked until the juices just start to run, then removed from the pan, posthaste. It’s important that they are never allowed to cook in their juice, or they will become stringy and boiled tasting. As soon as the beef is removed, turn the heat down to somewhere around medium. From here on, the aromatics, the bean paste and the garlic stems are cooked. Let your pan cool a little or the volatile oils in the chilies might catch in your throat.
Now, about garlic stems: they are available in Asian markets in the spring and early to mid summer, but I haven’t seen them everywhere I go. They are like garlic scapes without the flower bud, so if you find scapes, they will work just fine. When they are out of season and I still crave this meal, I use celery and carrots or sections of lightly blanched long beans. But if you find garlic stems, you’ll be in for a treat.
There you have it! I hope you enjoy this potent, flavourful meal from the north of China! It’s a favourite in our house.
Dry Fried Beef with Garlic Stems
- wok or large, heavy bottom frying pan
- 1 lb flank or chuck steak
- 1 tbsp Shaoxing cooking wine
- 1 tbsp soy sauce
- 2 birds eye or other hot, red chili
- 3 cloves of garlic
- 1 1/2 tbsp doubanjiang (red chili bean paste)
- 1/4 tsp ground Szechuan peppercorns
- 8 to 10 fresh garlic stems
- 3 green onions
- cilantro leaves
- sesame seeds for sprinkling
- 2 to 3 tbsp neutral cooking oil.
- Put your favourite Chinese rice on to cook, following package directions.
- Cut beef into very thin, 2 inch long by 1/2 inch wide strips. Place in a bowl with cooking wine and soy sauce. Toss together and let marinade for 20 minutes.
- While rice is cooking and beef is marinading, cut garlic stems into 1 1/2 inch chunks, seed and thinly slice the chilies, slice the green onions on an angle and thinly slice the garlic.
- Heat enough oil on high to coat the bottom of the wok or pan until it is smoking hot. Add beef and stir fry, very quickly just until the beef is seared but before the juices start running, about 1 1/2 to 2 minutes. Remove from wok and set aside.
- Turn heat down to between medium and medium high. Let oil cool for a couple of minutes. Add garlic, peppercorns, and chilies and stir fry for about a minute.
- Add a little more oil and doubanjiang. Stir for about a minute, coating the aromatics and taking care that the bean paste doesn't scorch.
- Add the garlic stems and stir for a minute or two, until bright green. Add green onions.
- Add the beef back to the wok and toss with the vegetables and bean paste, until beef is heated through.
- Garnish with cilantro and sesame seeds and serve immediately.