Sichuan Water-Boiled Beef (Shuizhu Niurou, 水煮牛肉)


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Shui zhu beef

Chengdu Challenge #12: A Sichuan Outlaw

水煮 (shuǐzhǔ), or “water-boiled” dishes, may be Sichuan’s most notorious food—feared and loved in equal measure. Shuizhu’s reputation as a dish for the daring precedes it. But those brave enough to dip into its sea of málà—chili peppers and Sichuan peppercorn—to fish out a piece of buttery soft beef (or pork, or fish) are rewarded with the realization that shuizhu is not nearly as lethal as its reputation.

It was a shocking sight the first time I saw Chef Qing Qing make 水煮牛肉 (shuǐzhǔ niúròu), water-boiled beef, at the Sichuan Higher Institute of Cuisine, back in 2009. He knew it was, and he put in a performance worthy  of the bad guy in a classic Western movie, piling on the pain with a sinister grin—more and more chili bean paste (doubanjiang), dried red chili peppers and Sichuan pepper—until it seemed the gunslinger would surely win and the travelers I had brought to the cooking class would surely run for their lives.

First he made the crowning glory of the dish, scorching literally dozens of small red chili peppers and heaping spoonfuls of Sichuan peppercorns in a wok until nose-tinglingly fragrant. Out they came to a cutting board, where he proceeded to mince them into a heap of hotness, the giant cleaver rocking back and forth between his hands gripping it at either end.

Sichuan chilies and Sichuan pepper in a wok
Roasted chili peppers and Sichuan peppercorns deliver authentic mala burn; use an amount and mix of chilies that suits your desired heat level
Mincing chilies and huajiao with a cleaver
The hardest part of this easy shuizhu recipe is mincing the chilies and Sichuan pepper. A food processor also works!

He then wokked some mild green vegetables—celery, baby leeks and leafy greens—as the “bed” of the dish and put them in a large bowl. Next came the part that gives shuizhu—literally “water-boiled”—its misnomer. He boiled some stock with a generous helping of doubanjiang before adding the thin slices of beef to the broth, cooking them just until done and then adding it all to the waiting bowl.

Romaine lettuce, celery and scallions for water-boiled beef
The bottom of the bowl is layered with celery, green onions and a leafy green such as celtuce leaves, A-choy or romaine lettuce, as I used here
Stir-fried greens form the base of shuizhu dishes
Make a bed of quickly stir-fried crispy greens in the serving bowl

In the final step, the outlaw chef dumped the minced chilies and peppercorns onto the top of the bowl and doused it with a cup of heated cooking oil, sending the mala mixture into a sizzling frenzy and further toasting it to give it that incomparably Sichuan scorched chili taste.

Pouring hot oil over chilies on top of water-boiled beef
The crowning touch of hot oil…
Sizzling chilies top shuizhu beef
…sends the mala into a sizzling frenzy and produces toasty chili goodness

Then he invited us to taste it.

I gingerly dipped my chopsticks into the fiery broth to retrieve a piece of tender, melting beef and prepared myself for the worst, even though I love mala. But just as in the classic Westerns, the bad guy turned out to have a heart of gold, and shuizhu turned out to be just the right amount of spicy, tingly, thrilling hot.

Oh, yeah. Shuizhu is notorious. But like the Doc Holliday* of Sichuan food, it doesn’t have to come out guns a-blazing; its reputation alone guarantees its outlaw allure.

A closeup of shuizhu niurou
Would you believe me if I said it’s not as scary as it looks? It’s really not! You pluck that tender, spicy beef and crispy veg out of the killer broth and oil to eat it

Further Notes on Shuizhu Dishes:

  • Shuizhu dishes go by many translations in Sichuan restaurants in the U.S.: water-cooked pork, beef in spicy broth, fish in red soup, etc. My personal favorite, as spotted in Seattle: Swimming Fire Fish. If in doubt, ask if it’s shuizhu (“shway ju”).
  • You can make this recipe with good quality beef, pork loin, or white fish. One of my favorite renditions is shuizhuyu (fish) made with mackerel and soft, Chinese-style tofu. Whichever protein you use, do not overcook it, as meltingly tender texture is the goal.
  • The kind of chili pepper you use is all-important to the heat level. In Sichuan, they use a medium-hot pepper such as  zidantou facing heaven chili or denglongjiao lantern chili. That way they can pile on the chilies without piling on the pain. If you want it a bit milder you could use erjingtiao, and if you want it punishingly hot try xiaomila. Or a mix of all three!
  • The finishing bath in hot oil is a must. Heat a neutral oil until hot, but not smoking. I find that 1/2 cup is the ideal minimum for authenticity, but you can use less if you like. [When I first published this recipe (2015), it was next to impossible to source Sichuan’s roasted rapeseed oil (caiziyou) in the U.S., but now that we import it for The Mala Market, I highly recommend using this toasty oil for another deep layer of flavor.]
  • Do not pour the oily broth onto your personal bowl or plate. Do as the Sichuanese do and pluck the tender meat and crispy vegetables out of the killer broth, or spoon small amounts onto your rice.

(*An Old West gambler and gunfighter, who may or may not be an ancestor of mine…)

This recipe was updated and revised in April 2023. 

If you’re looking for shuizhu fish, read more at Water-Boiled Fish With Tofu (Shuizhuyu, 水煮鱼)!

Sichuan Water-Boiled Beef (Shuizhu Niurou, 水煮牛肉)

By: Taylor Holliday | The Mala Market | Inspiration & Ingredients for Sichuan Cooking
Adapted from
Sichuan (China) Cuisine in Both Chinese and English, published in China in 2010 by the Sichuan Higher Institute of Cuisine and the Sichuan Gourmet Association.


  • 2 dozen (or more) moderately hot dried red chilies such as zidantou facing heaven chilies or lantern chilies (use erjingtiao for milder heat and xiaomila for extra hot)
  • 1 tablespoon (or more) dahongpao Sichuan peppercorns (or Sichuan Tribute pepper)
  • ¾ pound high-quality beef such as rib-eye or flank steak cut in thin slices, about ⅛-inch thick 340 grams
  • 1 tablespoon Shaoxing wine
  • 1 tablespoon Chinese light soy sauce (Zhongba preferred)
  • ½ teaspoon salt
  • ½ teaspoon baking soda
  • 1 tablespoon corn starch
  • 2 to 3 celery stalks, cut into thin strips 3 inches x ¼ inch, leaves set aside for garnish
  • 6 to 8 green onions, cut into thin strips
  • 1 small head romaine lettuce, torn into large pieces (or A-choy or the leafy tops of celtuce)
  • ½ cup Sichuan roasted rapeseed oil (caiziyou) (or neutral cooking oil)
  • 3 cups chicken stock (or water)
  • 3 tablespoons aged Pixian doubanjiang (chili bean paste)
  • 1 tablespoon Chinese light soy sauce (Zhongba preferred)
  • 1 tablespoon Shaoxing wine
  • 1 teaspoon sugar
  • ½ teaspoon salt
  • ½ teaspoon MSG (optional)


  • Heat wok until hot. Add 1 tablespoon oil and lower heat. When oil is just hot, add whole chilies and Sichuan peppercorns and toss and toast until partially browned and super fragrant. Be careful not to burn them. Remove to a cutting board to cool off, then mince with a knife into small flakes. Alternatively, mince in a food processor.
  • Place sliced beef in a bowl, fill with water and gently massage the beef, washing away the impurities. Wash beef until water runs fairly clear. Drain the water and mix the beef slices with 1 tablespoon Shaoxing wine, 1 tablespoon soy sauce, ½ teaspoon salt, baking soda and corn starch. Marinate for at least 15 minutes.
  • Wipe out wok, return to heat until just starting to smoke, add 1 tablespoon oil and heat until hot. Add celery and green onion and stir-fry until celery is beginning to soften. Add romaine lettuce and stir-fry very briefly, just enough to break the rawness. Salt lightly and remove the greens to a large serving bowl.
  • In a small saucepan, heat ½ cup oil until hot and just on the edge of smoking. Let it heat up slowly while you finish the dish.
  • Add the stock to the wok over high heat along with the doubanjiang, soy sauce, Shaoxing wine, sugar, salt and MSG. Bring to a boil and add marinated beef. Lower heat and gently simmer beef until just done. Pour the entire contents of the wok on top of the waiting bowl of vegetables.
  • Top the meat with the minced chilies and Sichuan pepper. Do not stir. Carefully pour the hot oil over the chilies and watch them sizzle. Garnish with celery leaves and/or cilantro. Serve with rice.


Note that the oily broth is not meant to be eaten like a soup or stew. Diners should not ladle it onto their bowl or plate. They should pluck the meat and vegetables out with chopsticks as the Chinese do, or spoon out the solids with small amounts of sauce onto their individual rice bowls.

Tried this recipe?

About Taylor Holliday

The Mala Market all began when Taylor, a former journalist, created this blog as a place to document her adventures learning to cook Sichuan food for Fongchong, her recently adopted 11-year-old daughter. They discovered through the years that the secret to making food that tastes like it would in China is using the same ingredients that are used in China. The mother-daughter team eventually began visiting Sichuan’s factories and farms together and, in 2016, opened The Mala Market, America’s source for Sichuan heritage brands and Chinese pantry essentials.

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  1. I love this website. I lived in Sichuan for two years and there’s been a whole in my heart ever since. Your recipes help fill the void just a little bit.

    1. Awww, thanks. I always love hearing from fellow lovers of Chengdu/Sichuan. Making the food can take you back!

  2. Hi Taylor –

    I lived in Nashville for a few years and while I’ll always love the “Meat & Threes”, Princes & Hattie B’s hot chicken and some of the best BBQ in the world that I had there, it was discovering the worldliness of the cuisines Nashville had to offer as well. There were many great Asian markets and restaurants to visit – Korean, Vietnamese, Thai and of course Chinese. I often enjoyed going to Lucky Bamboo for a particular dish they called ” Sichuan Soupy Style Entree” with your choice of fish, beef or shrimp. Have you been to this restaurant and do you think Shui Zhu is equivalent? The first time I had this dish there, it didn’t have too many dried chilies, but boy did it have the Sichuan peppercorns. Subsequently the ratio of chilies increased. The dish was also – as the name suggests – much more soupy/had more broth than your recipe for Shui Zhu calls for. But it otherwise looks and I’m sure might taste very similar. Can’t wait to make it on my own. Thanks for your informative and intriguing site!

    1. Hi Jon,
      I do indeed know Lucky Bamboo. Here is the piece I wrote for The Tennessean when it first opened:
      And you are correct that their “Soupy Style” dishes are their version of shui zhu dishes. I particularly liked their version with fish and soft tofu. When they first opened they had FIVE Sichuan-trained chefs and the food was fantastic. Unfortunately, it was too spicy for the locals and they had to tame it down and let the Sichuan chefs go. 🙁 Not sure how they are preparing the dish now, but I hope this recipe will scratch your itch for it. Thanks for writing!

  3. Hi Taylor, thanks to your recipe for shui zhu niu rou I received the single greatest compliment I think a chef could ever be given. I recently had some friends from Chengdu visit me in New Zealand for 2 weeks. Halfway through their stay here I thought they might be craving some Sichuan food so, in the absence of huoguo ingredients, I decided to cook shui zhu niu rou. What I forgot to consider was the fact that they were both originally from Leshan and as such are both staunch chihuo! My every move during preparation and cooking was scrutinized thoroughly, and verbal feedback was brutally honest. However, upon presenting the finished product, a stunned silence ensued as they both devoured the dish in a muted frenzy. When its contents were spent and almost everyone was bloated, my friend Li Yan pulled the dish in front of her, wrapped her arms around it in a loving embrace and proceeded to use her spoon to drink all of the of the leftover soup. She took the time remove her face from the dish and look up to say, “Sorry, I need to do this. I need a taste of home.”

  4. Taylor, what a great article – and great resource. I love Sichuan food, and fortunately we have a number of Sichuanese restaurants in Seattle. Though my Chengdu friends will only give the Sichuan foods here a “It’s OK. Not good” rating, I still find it enjoyable (and still marvel at the truly magical and unique experience of ‘ma la’). one question: In the article, you mention “Shui zhu dishes go by many translations in Sichuan restaurants in the U.S.: water-cooked, beef in spicy broth, fish in red soup, etc. My personal favorite, as spotted in Seattle: Swimming Fire Fish.” Would you be so kind as to tell me which Seattle restaurant this was? (And would also be thrilled to hear of any other Seattle area Sichuanese that you might have enjoyed – or even found “It’s OK. Not good!)

    1. Hi, Wes. Thanks for your great comment! I wish I could remember what restaurant that was, but that was a while ago and I just found its menu through Internet research. Sadly, I have never been to Seattle. Though, coincidentally, a writer friend who lives there recently recommended a couple Sichuan places for when I do make it there. Country Dough, in the Pike Place Market, apparently makes a fine guo kui, a Sichuan-style meat sandwich. That excites me, because you never see those in the U.S. There’s a chefy, Sichuan-inspired place called Lionhead. I’m sure there are others in the more Asian-heavy suburbs. Let me know if you find any gems! I’m planning to put together a Sichuan restaurant guide with reader help.

  5. If I were to make this with fish, do I skip the marination with corn starch or keep it in? Also, would you still cut the fish thin, or try to keep it in thicker fillets? If I’m using tofu, what type would be best to use?

    Thanks! I can’t wait to cook this.

    1. Hi James,
      Fish and tofu is my favorite shui zhu! I would still coat the fish in a light dusting of cornstarch, but I would cut the fillets in large bite-size pieces. And be sure not to overcook them. When I’ve had this dish with tofu, it has been the soft/silken tofu. It may fall apart a little when cooking, but it has such a great texture and fresh taste that it’s worth it. Hope it’s a success!

  6. Hi!

    My favorite version of this dish is actually made using chicken instead of the more common beef or fish. I have yet to find a recipe for chicken, though… So, I’m simply wondering: can I just follow this recipe but substitute beef for chicken, or would you suggest that I adapt the recipe in some other way as well?

    1. Hi Michael,
      I think you could probably cook it with chicken this same way. Do cut the chicken thinly so it cooks quickly, but don’t overcook it. The goal is a velvety, tender protein. Let us know how it goes!

  7. Hi,
    thanks for sharing this and the other incredible recipes on your website. Shui zhu is one of my all-time favorites. Last time I tried adding some star anise and ginger to the shui zhu. The result was really good. In my opinion it adds some additional depth and richness.
    I am living in Germany and Chinese restaurants serving authentic food are incredibly rare over here, especially Sichuanese ones. Thus, the only chance for me to experience the má là sensation on a regular basis is to cook it myself at home. Your website has helped me a lot with that. 太谢谢你了!

    1. Thank you for letting us know this, Chris! We’re really happy that people are still getting pleasure from our older recipes.

  8. I eat a fish dish like this at a well known Sichuan restaurant in Massachusetts. What a lot of people don’t realize is that it’s not the fish that’s spicy–it’s the broccoli they add, which traps all the pepper particles. I love it. I’ve bookmarked it to try making at home soon.

    1. Hi Mycroft, thanks for reading and sharing your experience. The veggies are so good at trapping all the spicy broth, same dangerous game as with hotpot! Let us know what you think when you get the chance to make it yourself!