Spicy Steamed Beef with Stir-fried Lettuce – a new take on steak and salad

Steak and Salad anyone?
Steak and Salad anyone?

I sometimes day-dream about stepping back in time to visit Chengdu in Sichuan Province as it was when Fuchsia Dunlop learned to cook there, of wandering the narrow alleyways of the old Manchu district where spare ribs and chicken simmered in clay pots, steaming bowls of dan dan noodles were offered to passers by from makeshift snack shops and bamboo steamers towered high under the wooden eaves over huge woks of bubbling water. Fuchsia describes such scenes so vividly I almost feel as  if I really have been there as she lifts the lids off the steamers to reveal chunks of beef embraced in a layer of rice meal and scattered with spices, coriander and spring onion – a Sichuanese speciality known as fen zheng niu rou.
My suburban Dublin kitchen with its stainless steel gadgets and appliances is far removed from those atmospheric alleyways but it is still possible to create a meal in well under an hour which evokes the flavours and smells of those original pop up restaurants and in the process to be catapulted back into some global folk memory of a time and place I never knew.
Take last Friday for instance.  I arrived home pleasantly exhausted after a very busy week. I was mulling over a discussion at a lunch at PwC to celebrate International Women’s Day where Dr. Brad Harrington of Boston College speculated that the debate about work life balance has moved on from one about conflict to one about integration. That resonated with me – the more we women integrate all the different aspects of our lives into one, the more comfortable we become in our own skins. Cooking is part of that balancing act for me, an age old ritual in which I can lose myself and a way of finding an inner rhythm while I unwind and switch off the busy clamour in my head. Cooking Chinese food calms me when I’m tired, with its emphasis on balance and harmony, yin and yang and maintaining equilibrium in the body.
I had picked up some sirloin steak and a head of iceberg lettuce on the way home and I was tempted to serve up a simple steak and side salad. Instead I decided to try out something new. I’ve had a Miele Steam Oven for over a year now and, while I use it all the time for rice, vegetables and fish, I’d never steamed beef in it. I somehow imagined that meat prepared that way would be grey, anaemic and unappetising. Leafing through my copy of The Food of China for inspiration, I came across a steamed beef recipe that sounded worth a try and I had all the other ingredients in my store cupboard. 
It’s a ridiculously simple dish and, with very little added oil, it’s also very healthy. The beef is thinly sliced and marinated in a fragrant sauce of Sichuan chilli bean paste, rice wine and soy sauce then dusted with toasted glutinous rice flour mixed with aromatic spice before steaming. The result is a succulent dish of melting beef with a rich dark colour which just needed a scattering of sesame oil and spring onion to finish it off. While I cooked it in a perforated stainless steel container in my steam oven, I could have just as easily used a bamboo steamer over a wok and been one step closer to those Chengdu alleyways.
My recipe, adapted slightly from The Food of China, is below. It was only later when I started researching the origins of the recipe that I realised that I had actually cooked a reasonably authentic version of fen zheng niu rou. The major difference is that, in the original version, long-grain rice would be dry-fried for 10 to 15 minutes, perhaps with the addition of some star anise and cassia bark for flavour, and then ground down in a pestle and mortar to a texture a bit finer than couscous. This would give a slightly nuttier texture. Cheaper cuts of  beef can also be used, cut slightly thicker and steamed for several hours. It’s almost impossible to overcook this dish. You will find some nice variations in Fuchsia Dunlop’s Sichuan Cookery.
Now that I’ve discovered the joys of steaming meat this way, I plan experimenting – grinding the rice myself in a food processor, using ground star anise or five spice powder with pork and ground sichuan pepper with beef or lamb, adding in some chilli flakes, placing some chunks of carrots or butternut squash on top of the meat in the steamer. The possibilities are endless.
As for the iceberg lettuce, I took a tip from my daughter in law Shan – the Chinese always cook their lettuce – and served it hot tossed in oyster sauce and sesame oil as described below, along with some steamed rice.
Steamed Beef with Rice Flour –  fen zheng niu rou – 粉蒸牛肉
fen zheng niu rou
fen zheng niu rou


  • 450g sirloin steak


  • 1 tbs light soy sauce
  • 1 tbs dark soy sauce
  • 1 tbs Pixian chilli bean paste*
  • 1 tbs Shaoxing rice wine
  • 1 thumb ginger, finely chopped
  • 1/4 tsp ground white pepper
  • 1 tbs ground nut oil

Rice flour paste

  • 125 g glutinous rice flour*
  • 1 tsp ground cinnamon
  • 1 tsp sesame oil
  • 1 spring onion shredded


  1. Cut the steak across the grain into thin slices and each slice into bite size pieces.
  2. Combine the marinade ingredients, mix well with the steak and leave to rest for at least 30 minutes at room temperature.
  3. Dry-fry the rice flour in a non-stick frying pan or a wok over medium heat, stirring frequently until it is brown and smells roasted. Add the cinnamon and mix well.
  4. Drain any excess marinade from the beef slices and toss them in the flour and cinnamon mix.
  5. Place the beef in a bamboo or metal steamer lined with greaseproof paper punched with holes and steam over simmering water for 20 minutes.
  6. Toss with sesame oil and garnish with spring onion. Serve with stir-fried lettuce and steamed rice.

Stir-fried Lettuce in Oyster Sauce – hao you sheng cai – 蚝油生菜

Steaming stir-fried lettuce
Steaming stir-fried lettuce


  • 1 head of iceberg lettuce
  • 1 tbs groundnut oil
  • 4 tbs oyster sauce
  • 1 tsp sesame oil


  1. Remove the root from the lettuce, cut it in half and shred into wide strips. If you need to wash it make sure to dry it thoroughly so it will stir-fry rather than steam.
  2. Heat a wok over high heat and add the oil. When the oil is very hot, add the lettuce and stir-fry until wilted. Then add the oyster sauce and stir to heat through. Remove from heat, toss with sesame oil and season to taste.

A word on ingredients
*Pixian chilli bean paste is made with broad beans fermented with chillies and salt to give a rich tangy sauce.  It is named for the town of Pixian in Sichuan Province and is know locally as the “soul of Sichuan cuisine”. It is described in pin yin as douban jiang. You will find it in jars or sachets in your local Asia supermarket. Watch out for the four characters on the packets below.

Pixian Douban Jiang
Pixian Douban Jiang

Pixian Broad Bean Paste
This one is called Pixian Broad Bean Paste

If you can’t find Pixian chilli bean paste, you can substitute Lee Kum Kee chilli bean sauce (also known as toban djan or toban jiang) which is widely available. You can also substitute Laoganma chilli bean paste made with soya (black) beans if you are stuck. Or leave a comment on the blog and I will send a sachet of the authentic version to you by post from my stash of supplies from Beijing.
Glutinous rice flour is not the same as ordinary rice flour. It is made from a particular variety of sticky rice that has a glue-like consistency when cooked. It does not contain gluten. I have included a photo of the brand I use below.
Glutinous rice flour
Glutinous Rice Flour

In other news my grandson Dermot decided to start walking in Beijing last week, just a day or two short of 13 months old. Thanks to the miracle of modern technology he was able to show off his new found skill to me via Face Time five minutes later. Thank you Shan for having the thought to share that special moment with his long distance Nai Nai. It meant more than words can say. I’ve just added a video clip of his first steps below. I’ve watched it over and over and I still get a lump in my throat each time.
Dermot walking

Slow-cooked Chinese Chicken "Cure a Cold" Soup

There is some instinct in women, especially mothers, that makes us want to nourish those we love and care for. Somehow we believe deep down that the right nutritious food will cure all ills. Whether we are encouraging someone to eat well for the sake of her baby yet unborn, comforting a listless toddler on our knee, visiting a friend convalescing in hospital, sitting with a sick relative or watching out for an older family member who has lost their appetite, the words “eat up, it will do you good” are never too far from our lips. It’s the urge in us to fix things even when there are some things which just cant be easily fixed.
In China more than any other cuisine, the medicinal properties of food are intrinsically linked with day to day cooking. Every time Shan or her MaMa have served me a meal or sent me a recipe, they have commented on the health-giving properties of one or other of the ingredients.  They are not unusual in this. According to The Food of China, achieving balance at every meal is an essential part of Chinese cooking. “Every ingredient is accorded a nature – hot, warm, cool and neutral – and a flavour – sweet, sour, bitter, salty and pungent – and these are matched to a person’s imbalances: a cooling food for fever, warmer food after childbirth.” The Chinese use exotic foods too, that are believed to have special properties, such as black silky chicken in special soups and preparations.
In different regions of China, people explain their food preferences in terms of the local climate and its effects on the body and the spirit, changing their diets with the season and even with age and sex. That deep understanding of the impact of different foods and spices on the body and the spirit is handed down seamlessly from generation to generation. Chicken and chicken soup features in their lexicon of cures. I remember  Ching-he Huang seeking out a traditional chicken broth when her immune system became depressed during the making of Exploring China – A Culinary Adventure.
In Shan’s recipe for Winter Chicken Ginger Stew, she and Shane explained to me how they use chicken and the the complimentary spices of garlic and ginger to “heat from the inside” during the cold days of a Beijing winter. Ginger has traditionally been used in Chinese medicine and cooking to prevent or cure the common cold and warm the body. Garlic is considered a ‘warrior’ for the body, cleansing harmful bacteria picked up in every day life and from less healthy eating.
As winter in Northern China is very dry, they generally advise against eating too much spicy food or chilli at this time of year as this can affect the balance of a body and its ability to retain moisture. Here in Ireland of course our winters are very damp and chilli can help sweat the moisture out of the body and speed up the metabolism.
The Chinese are not the only ones to believe that chicken soup is good for body, and even the soul. The phrase Chicken Soup for the Soul has become part of the vernacular and spawned a world wide movement for life improvement. We believe in the healing and preventative value of chicken soup here in Ireland too and I recall a lovely post by Mum of Invention earlier this winter whose tagline is “let food be your medicine and let your medicine be your food”. She wrote about using simmered chicken and its stock to prepare your defences against the common cold.
With all that has been going on since the beginning of the year, we’ve been feeling a bit under the weather recently and I felt as if I was about to come down with something earlier this week. I set out to find a recipe for a Chinese version of chicken soup that included garlic, ginger and chilli to open my pores and push those bugs away.
A Twitter conversation with AineD about using slow cookers got me thinking about using them in the way the Chinese might use a stock pot or clay pot for a long-simmered soup.  So I trawled a few slow cooker cookbooks and I came across the recipe below in Anthony Worrall Thompson’s Slow Cooking and tweaked it a bit.
Although this particular recipe is described as a Chinese soup, it has influences from Thailand with its use of lemongrass, red curry paste and lime. It has flavours evocative of thai red curry but without the added coconut. It packs a powerful, spicy punch and certainly clears the tubes. I made it using the stock from our free-range turkey at Christmas, a breast of free-range chicken and lots of fresh vegetables. With the addition of a nest or two of noodles, which are optional, it is a meal in itself and a perfect supper for a cold, miserable, January evening.
Chinese Chicken “cure a cold” Soup
Continue reading Slow-cooked Chinese Chicken "Cure a Cold" Soup

Chinese kitchen essentials

I first posted this list the day Shananigans was a month old but I learn something new every week so I update it regularly.
I love getting feedback from friends, tweeps and readers who have been trying out Shaningans recipes at home and finding out for yourselves how easy, good value and nutritious they can be.
Don’t forget that all the recipes we’ve tried so far in Beijing, Sydney and Dublin are in the archives and I’ve tried to make them a bit easier to find by categorising them by principal ingredient. While some need a few unusual or exotic ingredients, not all do and not all are terrifyingly spicy. As time goes by, and I work around the different regions of China, you will learn along with me which regions favour the spicier food and which produce dishes that are more accessible to the western palate. And I suspect, like me, you will become more adventurous in your tastes as you go along. While the chilli heat of the recipes may vary, one thing you will discover is that Chinese food is never boring or bland.
You will also find in the archives tales of our travels in China, of good food experiences in Ireland and elsewhere and of the fun we are having connecting our family in China, Oz and Ireland through food.
A few questions have come up over the past few weeks about cookbooks, ingredients and the basic kit you need to cook Chinese foods so here is a brief recap.


Since I started on this journey I’ve made new “friends” with food writers that have inspired and challenged me. All of these books are available from good book shops such as Hodges Figgis in Dublin or from Amazon.
Gok Wan was my first “discovery” (I know, I was late to that party!) and his Gok Cooks Chinese, which I came upon in the Wexford Book Centre has become a firm favourite. His recipes are straightforward and easy to follow and it’s worth watching the TV series on which the cookbook is based on the Channel 4 Player or keep an eye out for repeats. Thanks to Gok I’ve gained the confidence to make Dim Sum as well as a host of other lovely family dishes. His influences are mainly Cantonese so his food isn’t overly spicy.
Next up in order of discovery is the visually stunning and evocative BBC2 series “Exploring China – A Culinary Adventure“. Ken Hom and Ching He Huang’s journey through Chinese regional cuisine mirrors my own dreams of exploration and some of my experiences. The book that accompanies the series is as much a travelogue and social history as a cook book and captures their insights and discoveries as they travel through China. For both of them it is something of a voyage of rediscovery into their Chinese heritage. Some of the recipes are a bit more complex but it is a beautifully produced book to have on your bookshelf or kitchen table.
It was the addictive, spicy food of Sichuan province that started me on this food journey on my first night in Beijing last June when it blew my mind as well as my taste buds. It was inevitable that within a week of returning I would stumble upon Fuchsia Dunlop whose Sichuan Cookery is the definitive guide to that region. I’ve already tried her Ma Po Dou Fu and Dan Dan Noodles with near perfect results. I have made recipes such as Chairman Mao’s Red-braised Pork from her Revolutionary Chinese Cookbook on Hunan Cuisine. Her most recent and accessible cookbook on simple Chinese food, Every Grain of Rice, is rapidly becoming one of my favourites and the one I reach for when I want to rustle up something quick and easy for a weekday dinner.
But Fuchsia is more than a chef, she is a wonderful food and travel writer. Her memoir Shark’s Fin and Sichuan Pepper is an enthralling journey through a Chinese landscape that I can only glimpse the aftermath of in 2012, told with wit, humour, keen observation and an objective honesty about the China she encountered tempered with a love of its people and food. I loved every moment of it and read it with a tinge of regret that I can never have her experience of Chengdu, the capital of Sichuan Province, so rapidly is the Chinese landscape and cityscape developing.
My journey through the regions led me to The Food of China – a journey for food lovers first published around 2001 which is a great, colourful introduction to the landscape of chinese food with manageable recipes and not a celebrity chef in sight. The Cantonese recipe Lemon Chicken came from this book.
And finally I have to spare an affectionate thought for my first ever Chinese “cookbook” more a recipe leaflet really, produced by Sharwoods when they first introduced a range of Chinese foodstuffs and prepared sauces to Ireland in what must have been the late 1970s. I will forever have a soft spot for that booklet which hooked me into Chinese cooking and using chopsticks when it was relatively unheard of in Ireland. And do you know the recipes still work – I might just reproduce one of them one of these days… I bet you some of you have this hidden away on your bookshelf somewhere. Go on. Check.
Store cupboard ingredients
I took a tip from Gok Wan from his first episode. I invested in two cheap wicker baskets in which I store all my Chinese ingredients and I keep them separate from all my other store cupboard ingredients (stored under the butcher block in my case) so that they are always easy to find. They even travel with me in the back of the car to Duncannon at weekends.
I buy ingredients as I need them for specific recipes. Once you make the initial investment, replacements are relatively infrequent and not very expensive. I keep a list in notes on my iPhone when bottles or packets run low and stock up on them whenever I visit the Asia Market or a good store.
A lot of these ingredients are  available in supermarkets in ranges such as Sharwoods, still on the go all these years later. Speciality food stores and good local greengrocers are also good sources of many of these ingredients. Brands such as Lee Kum Kee, Blue Dragon and Pearl River Bridge are also readily available.
I’ve tracked down all of the ingredients in the Asia Market in Drury St. or Oriental Emporium in Jervis St., both in Dublin city centre, or in the Tony’s Asia Market in Bray, Co. Wicklow (opposite the Royal Hotel). Tony in Bray is particularly helpful at finding products in his densely packed shop and will go looking for them for you if they are not in stock.
Many of these ingredients are also available in good supermarkets or speciality food shops such as Roy Fox Gourmet Foods in Donnybrook. Niall at Get Fresh Rathfarnham has at least 90% of the items in stock and is working on sourcing the rest. Kate’s Farm Shop in Wexford also has a good range of oriental ingredients and spices.

Where I have found a brand that I like I have included it in brackets below but in most cases there are alternatives.

In my ever expanding “sauce/ jar” basket I have:

  • Light soy sauce (Lee Kum Kee or Pearl River Bridge)*
  • Dark soy sauce  (Lee Kum Kee or Pearl River Bridge)*
  • Shaoxing cooking wine* – sherry or white wine can be used as a substitute but Shaoxing is cheaper and has a more authentic flavour
  • Chinese black vinegar – Chinkiang Vinegar (Gold Plum)* or any good Chinese black vinegar. Watch out for aged black vinegar – Balsamic vinegar can be used as a substitute but the flavour is different
  • White rice vinegar (Blue Dragon)
  • Sesame oil (Lee Kum Kee)*
  • Chilli oil (Lee Kum Kee) but home made is nicer – see this post*
  • Oyster sauce (Panda)
  • Fish sauce (Squid)
  • Maggi sauce*
  • Hoisin sauce – home made is best – see this post
  • Sesame paste
  • Sichuan chilli paste made with broad beans – douban djan (Lee Kum Kee Chilli Toban Djan chilli bean sauce is a good substitute)*
  • Laoganma chilli bean sauce*
  • Yellow bean sauce
  • Tianjin preserved vegetables (Yongnian Mengde Food Co. Ltd.)*
  • Ground nut oil, sunflower oil, rapeseed oil (rapeseed oil, now readily available in Ireland, is typically used in Sichuan cooking).

In my “spices/dry-goods/cans” basket I have:

  • Sichuan peppercorns – a vital ingredients. See below and try Green Cuisine or Bart’s Spices if you can’t get the good stuff.
  • Fermented black beans (Pearl River Bridge)*
  • Water chestnuts
  • Anchovies
  • Dried Chinese shitake mushrooms
  • Large whole chillies or chilli pieces – the milder or Sichuan type, not the small, fiendishly hot Thai ones – you will find these in Asian markets described as Chinese long chillies*
  • Chilli flakes
  • Ground Chilli
  • Dried shrimps*
  • Star anise
  • Cinnamon or cassia bark* – the Chinese substitute this for cinnamon
  • Chinese white pepper (ordinary white pepper will do but if in an Asian market pick up some Chinese )
  • Dried noodles and egg noodles (I find these easier to get in good quality in a supermarket. I particularly like Blue Dragon wholewheat noodles and their medium egg noodles)
  • Cornflour
  • Potato flour*
  • Rice flour*
  • Rice – thai jasmine rice
  • Fine sea salt – sea salt flakes do not dissolve fast enough when stir-frying
  • White pepper – there is a special Chinese type which is very aromatic but ordinary white pepper will do – Chinese cooks consider flecks of black pepper unsightly.

*all available in Asisan supermarkets
I acquired a few exotic ingredients when I was making Gok Wan’s dim sum including some very camp dried lotus leaves that open up to look like enormous fans and ridiculously expensive dried scallops which will last me a lifetime but you don’t need these unless you are going to do his sticky rice parcels and even then you can improvise.
A few items are hard to come by in the quality available in Beijing – Sichuan peppers and Sichuan dried chillies in particular. A lot of the Asian Markets here are Cantonese owned and do not seem to import direct from Sichuan. Restaurants like The China Sichuan import their own. The Green Cuisine range includes Sichuan pepper and cassia bark among other exotic spices Bart’s Spices is another good quality range. I recently found them in the Harvey Nichols in Dundrum. They can be expensive in small quantities so I bring home a supply whenever I am over in Beijing.
It’s impossible to get through a weekend of Chinese cooking without the holy trinity of fresh ingredients:

  • Spring onions
  • Ginger
  • Garlic.

and I also usually need some fresh red and green chillies. The garlic keeps but I usually buy a “hand” of ginger, a bunch or two of spring onions (Irish if at all possible) and a few red chillies each Saturday. I’m constantly searching for fresh Irish vegetables for use in the recipes and try to always use what is in season. Irish pak choi is readily available.

Your Chinese kitchen

My favourite place to buy kitchen equipment is Sweeney O’Rourke, Pearse St. Dublin which has been  supplying the catering trade in ireland for over 30 years. Prices are reasonable, the staff are very helpful and you can even have your knives sharpened for about €1.50 each. I have found nearly everything I need for Chinese cooking there including my latest stainless steel cleaver which is better suited for fine work than the cleaver I originally bought which I use for chopping meat.
What few things you cant get at Sweeney O’Rourke you will pick up at the Asia Market or the Oriental Emporium. Many items are also available in the kitchen shops of Brown Thomas or other large Department stores and in specialist kitchen shops.
It’s not for nothing that countless generations of Chinese have cooked sumptuous meals in tiny kitchens in claustrophobic spaces with only a hob and the space for a chopping board. I was amazed at how small the kitchens are, even in modern Chinese apartments and an oven or grill is still a rarity. So, apart from one or two rings on which to cook, all you really need is:

  • A wok or two or three – one that requires seasoning before use and takes on the “patina” of the food cooked in it over time gives a much more authentic flavour. Go for a type that suits your hob – I have an induction hob which limits me a bit but I find the “boost” function on an induction hob is fantastic for fast stir-fry cooking. Woks are available in Sweeney O’Rourke, the Asian Market, Oriental Emporium, Ikea and most kitchen stores. They are inexpensive. I have two – a larger one for deep-frying and steaming and a medium one capable of handling a stir-fry for two to three people. My favourite, multi-purpose wok is this one from Ikea which has great capacity and cost €43
  • A ladle, shovel and strainer – these are cheap and great fun. They make you feel like a real Chinese cook. The strainer is great for working with deep-frying in the wok.
  • A chopping board, preferably round as the Chinese consider that more auspicious, or use plastic boards colour-coded for food safety
  • A cleaver – mine still scares me and I haven’t got the hang of it. Now that I’ve attended a Knife Skills Course, I’ve reverted to a Chef’s knife for dicing garlic and ginger. I have ambitions though. I aspire to being able to use two simultaneously to mince meat like they do at the markets in China! (update in November 2013 – I now own 5 cleavers and use them all the time!!)
  • A set of stacking bamboo steamers in various sizes with lids for each stack. Make sure at least one is big enough to take a dinner plate and one small enough for pancakes. Cooking with steamers is a revelation and so healthy.

Indispensable Chinese kit

This final bit of kit is far from being an essential but is my favourite – a genuine Shabu Shabu hotpot which I bought on line from the lovely Sophie in Table Top Cookware who had no difficulty arranging it’s delivery to Ireland.
Shabu Shabu Hotpot

And finally… a film

This is not a book, ingredient or implement but if you can get hold of it it will complete your love for Chinese food and culture.
Ang Lee’s film Eat, Drink, Man, Woman is an absolute treasure for anyone who wants to understand the importance of food and family in China and the opening scene is pure food porn.
Unfortunately it never seems to have gone on general release here in Ireland but it is available from Amazon. Just make sure it’s “region free” before you buy.