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. Hi! I am currently living in Chengdu and trying to learn how to cook Sichuan food. There are so many names of dishes I love but do not know the translation to yet (I am slowly learning Chinese). I actually just found this book on Taobao and am ordering it as a souvenir I know I’ll treasure for years to come. Thank you for you beautiful writing and informative posts! I can’t wait to see the next one! 再见!

    1. Hi Christine. Thanks so much for the kind note. I’m jealous of your living in Chengdu. I always have so much to eat there in so little time. I’d love to hear back about your own experiences with the cookbook. Good luck!

  2. Is this very different from the soup base used for 麻辣鍋? It seems similar, but less complicated, and I think they often /look/ similar on the table. I know both made me drool in anticipation of the tasty, tasty pain…

    1. Hi Keili,
      Shui zhu broth and mala hotpot do look similar, and do have similar ingredients. But as you guessed, hotpot has a lot more going on in the broth. I’ll tackle The Cookbook’s hotpot recipe soon! Thanks for your note.

      1. Thank you! Can’t wait to see your recipe! I go to the spice market this weekend to find everything I can’t find in my local grocery stores.

  3. OK. You have done it. A dish that has replaced mapu tofu as my new favorite. (Something I never thought would happen). I made this Sat night with friends and the complexity and depth of flavor was nothing short of amazing. I cannot even begin to describe how good this dish was. Everyone lapped it up like we hadn’t eaten in days! BTW – I think this would be unbelievable with fish. Going to try it soon and will let you know. Thanks again Taylor for the great new recipe. Keep up the good work!

    1. Hi Jim,
      I feel like I should pay you, since you’re by far my best recipe tester. But since I don’t get paid to blog, guess I’ll just pay you in “thanks.” I so appreciate your feedback!

  4. I’ve been pouring over your blog for the past hour and every dish here looks amazing! This specific one reminds me of the soups they sold in Chengdu street restaurants which they brewed up in large pots… obviously it’s a different dish because it’s made differently and the one I had used pig intestines. Luckily I’m in Houston and there is quite a few large markets to get all the ingredients and restaurants if I’m feeling lazy.

    1. Thank you, Jay! I’m glad it reminds you of Chengdu. I love those street restaurants with the stews/braises and the cold dishes. Street dining at its best! You’re lucky to have the great Chinese supermarkets in Houston. As for restaurants, have you tried Mala Sichuan Bistro? I hear it is fantastic, and I’ve been in touch with the lovely owners.

  5. Hi, love reading this blog, can’t wait to try this recipe!
    just one question, the celery, is it Chinese celery?
    thanks in advance

    1. Yes, preferably Chinese celery, but the Western kind is also great in it. I should also mention that people often add bean sprouts to this dish for a little more crunch. Hope you enjoy it, and thanks so much for writing!

  6. Hi, I lived in Leshan south of Chengdu for a year and couldn’t believe how incredible the food was. I actually feel homesick reading these recipes! My friend’s father made the best Shui Zhu Niu Rou I have ever had and I can’t wait to try your recipe to help cure my home sickness. Do you possibly have a recipe for Malatang and/or Dou Fu Nao?

    1. Hi Mike. It must have been very interesting to live in Leshan. I’m sure they have their own specialties as well. The SHIC’s cookbook has several recipes for mala hotpot, so I’ll try to do that soon. It unfortunately does not have doufu nao. I wish it did! I hope the shui zhu beef satisfies your craving. Thanks for writing!

  7. Hi Taylor,

    After my friends and I had finished enjoying this Shui Zhu Niu Rou, I kept the soup by placing it in a plastic container and freezing it. The other day, I placed the frozen contents into a pot, added an extra handful of dried chilli and hua Jiao, and 2 cups of chicken stock to make a pretty darn good hot pot. After this, the usual rules of hot pot ingredients apply: throw in anything and everything that might seem like a good idea… beef, bacon, lamb, cauliflower, broccoli, potato, fish, mushroom, cabbage, tofu, beans, spring onion, leek, pumpkin, boiled egg, endless etc!

    Reusing the Shui Zhu Niu Rou soup is probably considered cheating, but it tasted like authentic huo guo, and I’m all for a quick win 🙂

    And, of course, the sesame oil, garlic and coriander dipping tray is a must!

    1. Hi Mike,

      That is a great short-cut to hotpot! Two dishes in one. And, in fact, the recipes for shui zhu broth and hotpot are similar, so why not? Thanks for sharing with us. I’m trying that next time…

  8. When my favorite Sichuan closed up here in Atlanta, I had to learn this dish – it’s my favorite and hard to come by, even in a restaurant crazy town like mine. This was my third recipe and the clear winner. So good I made it two days in a row. Wish I could post a pic, look forward to trying other things on the blog. Also saves me a 20 mile trek out to the burbs!

    1. Thanks, Spike! I test these recipes several times before I publish them, but it’s always reassuring to hear that they work for other people. I too wish you could post a photo. I don’t know why that’s not an option in comments.

      Are you referring perhaps to Gu’s Bistro in Atlanta? I love that restaurant! I sure hope they reopen…

        1. I hope they reopen the original somewhere (as promised) before I get back to Atlanta. I based my gong bao (kung pao) lotus root on theirs. Yum!

  9. I just got an intense desire to make this dish again. This is one of my faves that you’ve posted! Delf’s recipe does not have the finishing touch of putting the peppers on top and pouring the hot oil over it, but imo this was the best part of the dish after the hot, cool/numbing flavor of the beef! I especially enjoyed when my wife jumped a little as the chiles started loudly sizzling 😀

    1. Great visual! Thanks a lot for letting me know. You remind me that it’s time to make it again myself. Have you tried it with fish fillets?

    1. One of the better comments I’ve ever received. Thank you! You must be a big fan of shui zhu. 🙂