Sichuan Hot and Spicy Beef (Xiangla Feiniu, 香辣肥牛)
Published Jul 05, 2014, Updated Oct 22, 2023
Chengdu Challenge #6: A Spicy Beef Challenge in More Ways Than One
“This is the only dish that’s spicy enough for girls’ night,” said my 15-year-old daughter, Fongchong, as she dove into Hot and Spicy Beef.
She may be right. Though I’ll be working hard in this blog to disabuse readers of the notion that all Sichuan food is spicy, some dishes are indeed fiery. And out of all the spicy Sichuan dishes I regularly cook, this one is the spiciest. As a result, we generally save it for Wednesday nights, when Dad is out hosting his live/radio music show and it’s just Fongchong and I for dinner. Dad actually likes spicy food, but he’s not into killer spicy food like we are. So we snicker as we eat it, picturing Dad with his mouth on fire while we enjoy the burn.
Even I was worried, however, when I first made the spicy beef and was setting out the mise en place. Looking at the three heaping tablespoons of dried chili flakes portioned out in a bowl, I thought, No way, that has to be too much. But I’ve cooked enough from Sichuan Cuisine in Both Chinese and English—and second-guessed it one too many times to my regret—to know that you don’t doubt this cookbook, the definitive collection of Sichuan recipes straight out of Sichuan. So I used the whole amount.
The recipe also calls for Sichuan pepper, Sichuan pepper oil and chili oil. Oh, and hot green chilies (I use serrano, seeds and all). Is it hot and spicy and numbing? Yes. Is it delicious? Double yes.
Update 2023: All of the above was written in 2014. Fifteen-year-old Fongchong is now 24! And we have in fact changed up the recipe over the years, making it our own, as home cooks can and should do. We eventually did dial back the ground chilies to 2 tablespoons instead of 3. The Chinese name for this dish, 香辣肥牛 (xiānglà féiniú), is literally translated as “fragrant and hot fat beef,” and the ground chilies we now import from Sichuan for The Mala Market are also xiangla, which denotes a wonderful flavor and fragrance along with the heat.
Most noteably, we changed how the beef is cooked. The original recipe instructed you to quickly deep-fry the beef as the first step, because that’s how it’s done in professional Chinese kitchens. I liked the result, because the oil blanching draws out some of the fatty gray juices that beef exudes, leaving a cleaner look and taste in the final stir-fry. But no one really wants to use a cup of oil to deep-fry beef at home in what is merely the first step of cooking, right?
I didn’t, so I looked to other beef stir-fry recipes, particularly in Grace Young’s classic Breath of a Wok, where she collects recipes and tips from Chinese cooks near and far. One cook’s recipe called for removing the beef after an initial stir-fry and draining it in a colander to rid it of the sludgy juices. But I’ve found that another approach works almost as well as deep-frying, and that is merely marinating the meat in a corn starch mixture, which first helps to seal in the juices and then thickens as you cook, making the liquid that remains more appetizing. There will still be some beef fat, so I then drain the beef in a bowl lined with paper towels, patting the meat to remove most of it. You can, of course, skip this step if it doesn’t bother you.
So while this recipe did not originally call for a marinade with corn starch, I have added one. But other than that first step and a bit less ground chilies, I have left the recipe alone, because I want 24-year-old Fongchong to like it as much as 15-year-old FC did.
Xiangla feiniu, or fragrant hot fatty beef, starts with well-marbled meat like this bavette. Cut very thinly across the grain.
Your mise en place includes ma and la in the form of ground chilies, spicy fresh chilies, onions, huajiao, Sichuan pepper oil and your favorite chili oil
After you’ve stir-fried the beef, clean the wok and make a simple chili oil in which to finish the stir-fry. This dish smells even spicier than it tastes, so you’ll want to add the chilies in a well-ventilated room, with exhaust fan on or doors open.
Return beef to wok along with the chilies and onion, adding the finishing oils at the end.
Not as scary at the multiple types of chilies and huajiao would lead you to believe, this hot and spicy beef is just right, if you like spice!
If you love Sichuan’s spicy beef, try my Mala Beef Jerky (Mala Niurougan) recipe inspired by Houston’s Mala Sichuan Bistro!
Sichuan Hot and Spicy Beef (Xiangla Feiniu, 香辣肥牛)
- 12 ounces marbled beef (skirt steak, sirloin flap, bavette, etc.)
- 1 teaspoon light soy sauce
- 1 teaspoon dark soy sauce
- 1½ teaspoons corn starch
- ¼ cup caiziyou (roasted rapeseed oil) or cooking oil of choice
- 2-3 tablespoons Sichuan ground chilies (to taste)
- ½ teaspoon freshly ground Sichuan pepper (see note)
- 1 red or green bell pepper, cut in thin strips
- ½ onion, cut in thin half-moons
- 4 to 5 spicy red or green fresh chilies (jalapeño, serrano, fresno, etc.), cut in thin strips
- 1 tablespoon Shaoxing wine
- ½ teaspoon sugar
- ½ teaspoon salt
- ¼ teaspoon MSG optional
- handful cilantro, roughly chopped
- 1 teaspoon Sichuan pepper oil
- 1 teaspoon sesame oil
- 1-3 teaspoons aromatic chili oil or crisp (to taste)
- Cut beef across the grain into 1/8-1/4 inch strips (no thicker), then cut in half vertically into long, bite-size strips. Add to a bowl with light soy sauce, dark soy sauce and corn starch and mix well. Marinate 15-30 minutes.
- Heat wok until very hot (so the meat doesn't stick). Add 2 tablespoons oil and the beef. Spread the beef out into one layer, and leave it alone to get a sear on one side. Then flip and stir-fry until just cooked through. Remove to a plate or bowl lined with paper towels and let drain. Pat meat with additional paper towels to remove some of the beef fat if it bothers you.
- Turn on the exhaust fan or open doors in preparation for chilies!
- Clean the wok, return to medium heat, then add ¼ cup caiziyou. Heat the oil briefly, then add ground chilies and Sichuan pepper and cook until fragrant, but do not burn. Add back the beef and stir-fry briefly.
- Add the bell peppers, onions and spicy chilies in that order, stir-frying until they appear just cooked but still crisp.
- Add the Shaoxing wine around the edges of the wok, then add the sugar, salt and MSG (if using), constantly tossing and turning the meat. Add the cilantro, Sichuan pepper oil and sesame oil to finish the dish, stir-frying briefly to meld flavors. Plate, garnish with fresh cilantro and drizzle with your favorite chili oil or chili crisp to taste.
Tried this recipe?