During my childhood, beef was rarely consumed by the Chinese-Americans in Chicago: in those days it was relatively expensive, and in any case the Chinese ‘red meat’ is pork, compared with which beef has a strong flavour, too strong for most Chinese. However, cheaper cuts, such as oxtail, shin, or brisket, were both affordable and very popular among the Chinese. Not only was the price right, but, more important, these cuts could be infused with the spices that ‘naturalized’ the beef and made it into a truly Chinese dish.
Star anise, cinnamon, cloves and other powerful seasonings worked nicely with the strong flavour of beef. Dishes made this way could be prepared in advance and reheated with no loss of delectableness, an added bonus for homemakers who were often too tired to cook after a long day out at work.
My Chinese cousins in Oakland, California, prepare what I believe is the best version of this dish, better than anything I have experienced outside of Hong Kong. Their secret ingredient is fermented red bean curd (which can be found in Chinese grocers), which gives the beef even more depth and flavour. This is my version of their recipe.
Cut the meat into 5 cm (
Heat a wok or large frying pan over a high heat until it is hot. Swirl in the oil and, when it is very hot and slightly smoking, dump in the meat and stir-fry for 5 minutes, or until the meat is browned. Then toss in the ginger, garlic, spring onions and chillies and continue to stir-fry for 3 minutes. Now toss in the fermented bean curd, hoisin sauce and the star anise, stirring to mix well. Pour in the sauce ingredients and bring the mixture to the boil. Lower the heat to a simmer, cover, and continue to cook for 2½ hours, or until the meat is tender. Skim off any fat and serve.
This dish can be made ahead of time; reheating is easy and actually improves the flavour.
© 1998 Ken Hom. All rights reserved.