Sichuan Boiled Beef (水煮牛肉)

Shuizhu niurou is often translated on menus in Chinese restaurant across the U.S. as  “water cooked” or “boiled” beef, which can give the impression that this dish is bland. This is mistake, as many an unwary diner has quickly discovered. Feared and loved in equal measure, shuizhu niurou is perhaps some of the most notorious dishes of Sichuan province, and packs a searing, numbing mala heat. However, those brave enough to fish out a piece of buttery soft beef from the swirling red sea of fiery broth are rewarded with the realization that shuizhu is not nearly as lethal as its reputation.
When eating any shuizhu dish, do as the Sichuanese do and and pluck the meat and vegetables out of the killer broth, rather than spooning it directly onto your dish. Serve with plenty of steamed rice, and maybe some crisp, cool Chinese-style pickled radish or cucumbers on the side in case the burn gets too hot to handle.
This recipes makes about four servings.
For the meat:
  • ¾ pound flank steak, sliced ¼-inch thick against the grain
  • ¼ teaspoon baking soda
  • ¼ cup water
  • 1 tablespoon cornstarch mixed with 2 tablespoons water
  • 2 teaspoons Shaoxing wine
  • ½ teaspoon salt

For the vegetables:

  • 1 tablespoon peanut or canola oil
  • 1 small bunch Chinese celery cut into 3 inch pieces (or about 6 to 8 stalks of regular celery cut into thin strips 3 inches x ¼ inch)
  • 1 small head romaine lettuce, chopped

For the broth:

  • ¼ cup peanut or canola oil
  • 3 slices ginger
  • 3 scallions, white parts only, cut into ½-inch pieces
  • 3 tablespoons spicy bean sauce/paste
  • 1 tablespoon Chinese light soy sauce
  • 1 tablespoon Shaoxing wine
  • 2 cups  chicken stock (and/or pork bone stock)
  • 1½ teaspoons sugar

To finish the dish:

  •  4 tablespoons peanut or canola oil, divided
  • 2 dozen (or more) dried red chili peppers, preferably from Sichuan
  • 1 tablespoon whole Sichuan peppercorns
  • 1 tablespoon minced garlic
  • 1 tablespoon chopped cilantro
  • ½ teaspoon ground Sichuan peppercorns
  1. In a medium bowl, toss together the beef, baking soda, and ¼ cup water, and allow it to marinate for 1 hour. The baking soda will help to tenderize the beef. Then “wash” the beef under running water for 5 minutes, using a light to moderate stream of water so it flows out, but the beef stays in the bowl. After the beef has been rinsed, pour out the water, and marinate the beef with the cornstarch and water mixture, Shaoxing wine, and salt. Set aside.
  2. Heat 1 tablespoon of oil in your wok over high heat. Stir fry the celery for about 2 minutes, then add the lettuce. Stir and mix everything well until the lettuce has wilted. Turn off the heat, pick a large serving bowl with some depth, and spread the celery and lettuce around the bottom of the bowl.
  3.  Heat 1 tablespoon of oil in your wok over high heat. When oil is just hot, lower the heat and add whole chilies and Sichuan peppercorns and toss and toast until partially browned and super fragrant (be careful not to burn them). Remove the toasted chilies and peppercorns to a cutting board and let cool, then mince into small flakes. Set aside.
  4. Heat a ¼ cup of oil in the wok over medium heat. Cook the ginger slices until they start to turn light brown. Add the scallions and cook for two minutes, making sure to avoid burning the spices. Now add the spicy bean sauce/paste, stir, and let the sauce cook in the oil for about 3-4 minutes. Be careful to control the heat while cooking the sauce- too low and the oil won’t turn a vibrant red color; too high and you’ll burn everything.
  5. Once the oil takes on a bright red color, add the stock and sugar. Turn up the heat to high, stirring, and let the liquid come to a boil. Immediately add the beef, and stir slowly to separate the pieces, still using high heat. Quickly turn off the heat once all the beef pieces turn opaque (you don’t have to cook the beef completely through– a hint of pink in the middle equals tender beef). Now, pour everything over the vegetables in the bottom of your serving bowl.
  6. Top with the minced garlic and chilies, and sprinkle with chopped cilantro. In a small saucepan, heat the last 3 tablespoons of oil until shimmering. Pour the heated oil over the dish in a very thin stream– you should get a good sizzle. Finish he dish with the ground Sichuan peppercorn, and serve.
  • You can make this dish with good quality beef, pork loin, or mild white fish, or even soft, Chinese-style tofu. Whichever protein you use, do not overcook it, as meltingly tender texture is the goal.
  • The vegetables in this recipe can also be varied depending on availability or personal preference. You can pick two or three different kinds– I used Chinese celery and romaine lettuce, which appear fairly frequently in many renditions of this dish. Some other recipes use bean sprouts, scallion greens, enoki mushrooms, sliced shiitake mushrooms, leeks, and napa cabbage. Use whatever you like, but don’t forget to stir-fry the vegetables first.
  • You can also adjust the amount of chilies and Sichuan peppercorns to your own taste and heat tolerance- just don’t cut them all out, or you’re not making shuizhu niurou.

Cook’s Notes:

  • It’s crucial to cut the beef against the grain so that it stays tender. Each piece should be about ¼-inch thick and close to 1” x 2” in size, then flattened with the flat part of your knife slightly. This is key: slicing the beef too thick or too thin will result in tough meat. Soaking the meat in wate rand baking soda also helps to ensure tenderness, while marinating in cornstarch, Shaoxing wine, and salt imparts additional flavor before cooking.
  • The kind of chili pepper you use is all-important to the heat level. In Sichuan, they use a medium-hot, 1- to 2-inch-long pepper such as a facing heaven chili, that way they can pile on the chilies without piling on the pain. In Chinese markets in the U.S., look for packages of whole chili peppers labeled Sichuan, or a similar chili from a different region. You can also use Korean red peppers or what Mexican markets sell as chilies Japones. Do not use dried Thai chilies unless you want to blow your head off.