Chengdu Challenge #6: Hot and Spicy Beef (Xiang La Fei Niu Rou)
A Recipe With Heat and Technique~~
“This is the only dish that’s spicy enough for girls’ night,” said my 15-year-old daughter, Fong Chong, 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 Fong Chong and I for dinner. Dad actually likes spicy food, but he’s not into killer, painful 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 dish and was setting out the mise en place. Looking at the three heaping tablespoons of dried chili flakes portioned out in a bowl—for one pound of beef—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. And I recommend you do too, if you are using Sichuan chili flakes, since they are generally not super hot. If you can’t find Sichuan or Chinese chili flakes, you can substitute Korean hot chili flakes. If using hotter chili flakes, you might indeed reduce the 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). And cilantro (or if you’re like me, and genetically predisposed to hate cilantro, you can substitute with thin strips of celery). Is it hot and spicy and numbing? Yes. Is it delicious? Double yes.
But what I really love about this recipe is not only the heat but the technique it uses for cooking the beef. I’ve never been happy with home-cooked beef stir-fries because I feel like they are always awash in the taste of beef fat. Even when you use a lean cut such as flank steak, the fat oozes out and overwhelms the other flavors. I’ve always wondered why restaurant stir-fried beef dishes don’t have that taste.
And now I know. Professional Chinese cooks quickly deep-fry the meat before stir-frying it, which draws out the excess fat and water without drying out the meat. Just try it yourself, and see how much gray, foamy sludge leaches out into the oil. Ick. I love fat as much as the next person, but not in that form.
The Chinese name for this dish is literally translated as “fragrant and hot fat beef,” so apparently they use a well-marbled cut, though the recipe doesn’t specify which cut. I’ve used skirt steak, “sirloin flap” and leaner flank steak, and they all work well.
After you’ve got quick-fried steak, it’s just a matter of adding all that spiciness. I will warn you here that this dish smells even spicier than it tastes, so you’ll want to add the chili flakes and oils in a well-ventilated room, with exhaust fan on or doors open, or coughing and eye-watering will ensue.
The taste is most definitely spicy, but not actually painful or killer. So after a few girls’ nights with the dish, we finally made it on a Friday, when Dad was at home. And guess what? He loved it! We had to eat our words about his wimpiness and realize we aren’t so tough after all. This dish could be pleasing to anyone who’s not spice-averse.
But it does scream Sichuan, featuring a balance of heat and heat’s-best-friend, tingly Sichuan pepper. So for those who love Sichuan cuisine precisely because of its spice, this dish will not disappoint.
Updated March 2017
- ¾ to 1 pound fajita beef (sirloin flap or skirt steak), cut diagonally across the grain into ¼-inch strips
- 1 cup peanut or canola oil
- 2-3 tablespoons chili flakes (depending on their heat level)
- 1 teaspoon ground roasted Sichuan pepper
- ½ yellow or red onion, cut in thin strips
- ½ red bell pepper, cut in thin strips
- 4 to 5 green chili peppers (jalapeño or serrano), cut in thin strips (seeded only if you must)
- 1 tablespoon Shaoxing wine
- 1 teaspoon sugar
- 1 teaspoon salt
- ¼ cup cilantro, cut in sections
- 3 teaspoons chili oil
- 1 teaspoon Sichuan pepper oil
- 1 teaspoon sesame oil
- Heat wok until hot. Add enough oil to deep-fry the meat, about 1 cup. Heat oil just until a test piece sizzles (300° F or 150°C; it should not be hot enough to brown the meat). Fry beef strips until they are just cooked through, then remove and let drain on paper towels.
- Turn on the exhaust fan or open doors in preparation for chilies!
- Clean the wok, return it to the heat until hot, then add ¼ cup fresh oil. Heat the oil briefly, then add chili flakes and Sichuan pepper and cook until fragrant, but do not burn. Add back the beef and stir-fry until it is starting to brown.
- Add the onions, red bell pepper and green chili peppers and stir-fry until peppers are just beginning to wilt.
- Add the Shaoxing wine, sugar and salt, constantly tossing and turning the meat. Then add the cilantro, chili oil, Sichuan pepper oil and sesame oil to finish the dish, stir-frying briefly to meld flavors. Garnish with fresh cilantro sprigs.