Sichuan beef in chili sauce

With tender beef, piquant spices, and fragrant greens, this dish is a real winner. Also, if you’re new to Sichuan pepper, this recipe would be a great introduction. It’s hard to describe what Sichuan pepper tastes like but imagine a cross between black pepper, Pine-Sol, and Novocaine. Seriously… in a good way.

Sichuan pepper has a peppery, light fragrance that is reminiscent of lemons or pine trees, and it also has a strange numbing effect on the tongue, exactly like a topical anesthesia. The effect is both pleasant and useful: the numbing property allows you to enjoy much spicier food than would ordinarily be possible.

A while back, I went to my Chinese market and asked for Sichuan pepper. I didn’t get any pepper, but I got an interesting story instead. The shopkeeper said his most recent shipment had been seized by the FDA because it was considered a safety risk. Apparently, shipments all across America were being confiscated. He was indignant, saying “we’ve been eating this stuff for 5000 years! How can there be a safety risk?” All of a sudden, Sichuan pepper became truly fascinating: not only did it taste like Pine-Sol and Novocaine, but it’s also apparently dangerous!

Beef in Chili Sauce

Turns out there was an import ban on Sichuan pepper for a while, not because there was ever any human health risk but because it can carry a disease that infects citrus trees. The ban was lifted for importers who heat their crop to 65 C to inactivate the citrus pathogen, so now Sichuan pepper is back on the market.

INGREDIENTS:

For the marinade:

  • 1 Tbsp Xiaoxing rice wine
  • 1 Tbsp light soy sauce
  • 1 Tbsp potato flour mixed into 2 Tbsp beef broth

For the beef:

  • 1 lb flank steak,  cut diagonally against the grain into bite-sized pieces

For the chili sauce:

  • 10 dried red chili peppers, seeds discarded
  • 1-2 Tbsp whole Sichuan peppercorns
  • 2 Tbsp peanut oil
  • 4 cloves garlic, minced
  • 1/2 inch ginger, minced
  • 1-2 Tbsp doubanjiang (豆瓣酱,  dòubànjiàng, spicy bean paste)
  • 2 cups beef broth
  • 2 Tbsp dark soy sauce

For the greens:

  • 1 very generous handful watercress, cut roughly into 2″ lengths
  • 1 very generous handful cilantro, cut roughly into 2″ lengths
  • 6 green onions, sliced into 1″ lengths
  • 1 large shallot, sliced thin
  • 1 Tbsp peanut oil

DIRECTIONS:

  1. Marinate the sliced flank steak in the marinade for about 20 minutes.
  2. Prepare the chilies: heat 1 Tbsp oil in your wok until it just begins to smoke, then stir-fry the dried chilies and the Sichuan pepper corns until everything barely begins to brown (about 1 minute). Remove the spices to a bowl. The chilies will be crisp. When they are cool, cut or break them into pieces about 1/4″ long and reserve them with the Sichuan pepper corns.
  3. Reheat your wok until it just begins to smoke, then add 1 Tbsp peanut oil and stir-fry the greens and the shallot together until they start to lose volume, about 1-2 minutes. Remove to your serving dish.
  4. Reheat your wok until it just begins to smoke, then add 1 Tbsp peanut oil and swirl it around. Add the garlic and ginger and stir-fry for about 15 seconds until fragrant. Add the doubanjiang and stir-fry for another 30 seconds, then pour the beef broth and the dark soy sauce into the wok. Add the reserved chiles and Sichuan peppercorns. Bring everything to a boil and then stir in the beef. Return it to a vigorous boil and cook for about 5 minutes.
  5. Spoon the beef over the greens, then pour the sauce on top.

Variations: You might substitute pork for the beef. Also, feel free to play around with the greens. Anything will do, including bok choy, Napa cabbage, gai lan, spinach, or basically anything else.

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