Food Fit for an Emperor – Pine Nut and Beef Stir-fry

My grandson is 7 months old today and I’ve found a good reason to visit Beijing in late October. Not that I need much of an excuse with him growing bigger by the day and a yearning to be with him that is almost a physical ache at times. The other day, as I passed though St. Stephen’s Green in the fading evening light, I spotted a woman of about my own age making cooing sounds at her tiny grandchild, their faces close together, while her daughter looked on with a smile. I felt a rush of envy and empathy as I remembered pushing Dermot past the same spot in a buggy in June, on his brief visit home, proud of my new found status as Nai Nai.
So my ticket is booked, I will stay with Shane, Shan, MaMa and Dermot in their new apartment and attend an event called the Beijing Forum while I’m there. I will get to know Dermot all over again and marvel at how he has grown and how his unique and bubbly personality has revealed itself in the months since I last got to hold him. I can understand how cosseted boy-children in China come to be known as “little emperors” but I’m hopeful that the level-headed rearing provided by Shan, Shane and MaMa will mean that he will avoid the risks associated with that particular label.

Just Dermot

If I’m lucky, in between working and Nai Nai duties, I will sneak in another cookery class at Black Sesame Kitchen. I attended a couple of classes there when I visited Beijing to meet Dermot for the first time in March this year. One featured Imperial Chinese Cooking – the complex and sophisticated dishes that were produced within the walls of the Forbidden City, food deemed fit for an emperor. I wrote about the experience here.
Beijing doesn’t have its own clearly identifiable cuisine – it is a melting pot of cuisines from several of the regions of China – but it is influenced most by lu cai, the great regional cuisine of the North, the food of emperors and courtiers, refined, rich and expensive, and by the sweet, soy dark braises of the regional cuisine of the East –  huai yang cai. In that north eastern climate, vegetables were in limited supply in years gone by, especially during the winter months, so the emphasis was on enhancing the flavour and texture of food through taking care with the size and shape of limited ingredients, tenderising the meat, adding rich sauces and using dried ingredients when fresh were unavailable. In the cooler north, leeks are still used as a substitute for spring onions to make up the holy trinity of ginger, garlic and onion.
Imperial cuisine lacks the fiery punch of the food from Sichuan and Hunan provinces or the lightness of touch of Yunnan or Canton food from further south, but the techniques I learned that day amazed me with their ability to lock in flavour with a limited number of fairly straightforward ingredients.
With Beijing on my mind, I set about recreating one of the Imperial dishes at home last weekend. The pine nut and beef stir fry below is not a difficult recipe but it is a little time-consuming to prepare. I imagine the Imperial Kitchen had any number of chefs delighted to have the honour of preparing the Emperor’s dinner, even if he was a tiny child. If, like me, you are on your own in the kitchen, make this dish on an evening when you are in the mood for the rhythmic pleasure of the precise dicing and slicing involved – the ingredients are all cut into 1 cm cubes – and for the taking the time to “velvet” the beef.
“Velveting” the beef  is an interesting technique. It involves adding a little salt to the meat, then gradually mixing in nearly half its weight in water with your hand until it is fully absorbed and finally mixing in cornflour and egg white. This step takes quite a bit of time. Do it patiently and don’t attempt it when you are in a rush. It wont work. This I know…
The process of “velveting” tenderises the meat which is then deep fried at a low temperature (120C) to lock in the flavour and moisture and leave the beef soft rather than crisp. The result is a delicate, tender texture which absorbs the flavours of the sauce when mixed with the fast-fried vegetables. I find flank or bavette steak ideal for this dish but you could substitute sirloin or fillet if it is unavailable.
Chef Zhang “velveting” the beef at Black Sesame Kitchen

I had not expected this dish to taste nearly as good as it did. In fact it has that umami quality that leaves you wanting to pick at  the leftovers until every last morsel is devoured and, in my case, to jump on a plane to Beijing.
Try it and enjoy.
Pine Nut and Beef Stirfry – Songren Niurou Mi
Pine-nut and beef stir-fry


  • 8 dried shiitake mushrooms
  • 500g flank steak/bavette of beef
  • ¾  tsp salt
  • 200 ml water
  • 2 heaped tbs cornflour
  • 1 egg white
  • 1 small green pepper
  • 1 small red pepper
  • 3 tsp each minced garlic, ginger and leek
  • 3 tbs oyster sauce
  • 90 ml water or stock made with the water drained from the shiitake mushrooms
  • 1 ½ tbs light soy
  • 3 tsp dark soy sauce
  • 1 ½ tsp sugar
  • ½  tsp  white pepper
  • 1/2 tsp chicken bouillon
  • ¼  tsp salt
  • 3 heaped tsp cornflour mixed to a paste with water
  • 3 tbs deep-fried pine kernels*
  • Groundnut, sunflower or rapeseed oil for frying and deep-frying


  1. Soak the shiitake mushrooms in hot water for about 20 minutes to reconstitute.
  2. Dice the beef into 1 cm cubes and “velvet” by adding salt, then beating the water in with your hand a little at a time.
  3. Once the water is fully absorbed, add the cornflour to coat all the pieces of meat thoroughly. Finally add the egg white and coat the meat thoroughly.
  4. Dice the red and green pepper into 1 cm cubes. Remove the stalks from the reconstituted shiitake mushrooms and dice into 1 cm cubes. Finely mince the leek, garlic and ginger.


  1. Add enough oil to a large wok for deep frying and heat to just 120C. Spread the beef into the oil, separating the cubes with choptsticks or a ladle and cook for about 1 minute until cooked through. Remove the beef  from the oil with a slotted spoon and set aside.
  2. Empty all but a tablespoon or two of oil from the wok and, over a medium high heat, add the leek, ginger, garlic and oyster sauce and stir vigorously for 10 seconds.
  3. Turn up the heat to high, add the peppers and shiitake mushrooms and  stir-fry for 20 seconds.
  4. Add the cooked beef and toss for 20 seconds.
  5. Add in the pine kernels, reserving some for garnish
  6. Add the water/stock, soy sauces, sugar, pepper and chicken bouillon and let bubble for 20 seconds.
  7. Ladle in a tablespoon at a time of the cornflour mixture, mixing after each addition until the sauce is thick and glossy.
  8. Serve immediately, garnished with the remaining pine kernels and with steamed rice.

Final stage of cooking in the wok

To deep-fry the pine kernels, put a few cups of oil in a wok, add in the pine kernels, then slowly bring the temperature up to low and then, over the next few minutes to medium low. Keep stirring for about 3 minutes until the pine kernels have turned a light golden colour, then remove with a slotted strainer and drain on kitchen paper. They will continue to cook for a few moments when you take them out of the oil so take them out when they are slightly lighter than done. Alternatively roast the pine kernels in a low oven for about 20 minutes. They will keep in an airtight container for a few days.

Food fit for an Emperor at Black Sesame Kitchen

Many years ago I used to be involved in leadership training and we talked about the four stages of learning a new skill and how you progress from “unconscious incompetence” to “conscious incompetence” to “conscious competence” to “unconscious competence” – think of it like learning to drive a car where you reach a point where it becomes second nature.
I thought about that today when I attended my last cookery class in Beijing this time around – back to Black Sesame Kitchen for a lesson in preparing Imperial Chinese dishes. Imperial cooking is not a regional style of cooking but more a technique – the more complex style of preparation used for the royal family. It was the 8th cookery lesson I have taken in the last 3 weeks, not to mention the few impromptu ones I have had from my Quin Jia, Shan’s MaMa which are ongoing – tomorrow we go shopping together to the market and supermarket, armed with my pinyin shopping list, for ingredients and utensils to take home to Ireland.
When I used to teach leadership skills, the tacit assumption was that you moved seamlessly up the skills ladder. What you tend to forget is that sometimes you have to go backwards before you go forwards and over the last few days there were times when I felt right back at the “conscious incompetence” stage when it came to Chinese cooking.
I came out on this trip to China thinking that I was almost getting the hang of it. I’ve certainly developed a feel for the culture, an understanding of the food and ingredients, the importance of balance in the Chinese diet, the relationship between food, health and medicine and the regional variations. I recognise the importance of careful preparation and was even beginning to think I could cook quite well.
But over the past few days it came home to me just how much more I have to learn about technique, whether it’s to improve my cutting skills with a cleaver, get precision into shapes and sizes, judge the temperature of oil in the wok, get the correct consistency when “velveting” meat, balance the seasoning of a dish or simple wok skills to move and flip the ingredients correctly around the wok.

The speed of the wok master in action

Now Imperial Chinese dishes would not be top of my list of sought after Chinese cuisine – they lack the fiery punch of Sichuan, Hunan and Shanxi provinces or the lightness of touch of Yunnan and Cantonese food. But I was interested in the techniques involved in their preparation and what I could learn that would translate to other dishes I prepare so I was delighted when a last minute cancellation meant there was a space for me at today’s class.
Once again it was Chef Zhang who did the cooking, as on my first visit to the school two weeks ago to learn about cooking with colour , and we were led though the class by Candice Lee. We diced and sliced and prepared three dishes fit for emperors of old.
Ingredients ready for class action

Fried Shitake and Coriander Stir-Fry – suchao shansi
I loved the meaty texture of this dish made with rehydrated dried shitake mushrooms. I noted the attention Chef Zhang paid to squeezing all the excess moisture out of the mushrooms and how he judged the temperature of the oil to be just right at 140 degrees C and not too hot.
Deep-frying shitake mushrooms

Straining off the mushrooms

The addition of shredded carrot and bamboo shoots, minced leek, ginger and garlic, a little chicken bouillon, black vinegar and coriander made this a tasty dish whose simple ingredients belied the effort involved in putting it together.
Chef Zhang and Candice serving up the mushrooms

I felt the urge to add a dash of homemade chilli oil and black vinegar to the final dish.
Pine Nut and Beef Stir-Fry – songren niurou mi
The trick in this dish involved cutting the beef into cubes of less than 1 cm and “velveting it”, adding salt and then water a little at a time, up to half the weight of the beef, beating it in with your hands and then cornflour and eggwhite.
Chef Zhang “velveting” the beef

This time the beef was cooked in the oil at 120 degrees C – judging the temperature of the oil is more an art than a science but if you add a few drops of water in with the oil at the beginning at least you will know when it has reached 100 degrees C as the oil will have stopped spitting. In this case the reason for the lower temperature was to have the beef soft and tender rather than crispy and to lock the flavour and the moisture in.

 Finely diced red and green peppers were added in for just a few seconds before the beef was strained off.

Straining off the beef and peppers

The usual trio of leek, garlic and ginger were added as well as shitake mushrooms, soy sauce, oyster sauce and roasted pine nuts.
Final stage of cooking in the wok

Pine-nut and beef stir-fry served

This was a tender and delicately flavoured dish which helped me understand the impact of velveting the meat and how deep-frying does not necessarily lead to a crispy result.
Traditional Sweet and Sour Pork – tangcu liji
The last dish of the day was one I will certainly be making when I get home. It had none of the gloopy texture of the cloying, ketchup based sweet and sour dishes with added pineapple chunks that I’ve sometimes had from Chinese takeaways. The sweet-sour flavour derived simply from sugar and black vinegar.
I was interested in this dish too because it was an approach to deep frying to create a crispy result that is similar to the one I use for crispy chilli beef which is based on recipes I had read in cookbooks but had never seen demonstrated in practice.
Pork mixed in a thick batter

The first thing that I noticed was that the wet, chalky cornflour batter used was thick enough to stand on its own for at least 3 seconds before collapsing. Next was the way Chef Zhang used his fingers to add the pork pieces little by little to the wok. There is a specific Chinese term for this particular type of stir-frying. The oil was heated to 140 degrees C for this phase of cooking.
Chef Zhang adds the pork…

… piece by piece

Chef used a ladle to separate the pieces after about 30 seconds when the batter had hardened.

Once the pork pieces were golden brown he strained them from the oil.
Crispy pork strained off

Then he made a simple sauce with the usual minced leek and garlic (no ginger in this recipe), vinegar, sugar, cornflour and water mix and a little soy sauce and the pork was added in to coat.
Traditional sweet and sour pork

You can balance up the sweet and sour by adjusting the ratio of sugar to vinegar to taste and with a hint of soy.
I am contemplating how I will adapt this recipe to beef although Candice says it is traditionally used with pork, chicken or camel hump. I will also be tempted to play around with the addition of chilli. Definitely not the stuff of emperors but it could be fun.
I picked up a couple of copies of Serve the People – A stir-fried journey through China at Black Sesame Kitchen today. It is the memoir written by Jen Lin-Liu who founded the school and tells of her own journey of discovery of food in  China as a young writer and journalist who had grown up in America to Chinese parents. I’ve started into it and it makes me wonder once again how baby Dermot will make sense of the complexities in his mulit-racial, mixed identity world. I love the scope it will give him to explore his world.
Chef Zhang, who features in the book, autographed both copies of the book for me and I will have one as a prize when I come back next week. Meanwhile I will return to Ireland at the weekend determined to put into practice at least some of what I have learnt about Chinese cooking over the last few weeks and with lots of recipes to blog and adapt. I just wish there was a Chinese cookery school in Dublin where I could keep on learning.

Thank you Candice and Chef Zhang of Black Sesame Kitchen.

See – Imperial Dishes

Morning classes 10.00 – 1.00 pm, price 300 rmb (about €37) per person