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
- 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
- Cut the steak across the grain into thin slices and each slice into bite size pieces.
- Combine the marinade ingredients, mix well with the steak and leave to rest for at least 30 minutes at room temperature.
- 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.
- Drain any excess marinade from the beef slices and toss them in the flour and cinnamon mix.
- Place the beef in a bamboo or metal steamer lined with greaseproof paper punched with holes and steam over simmering water for 20 minutes.
- 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
- 1 head of iceberg lettuce
- 1 tbs groundnut oil
- 4 tbs oyster sauce
- 1 tsp sesame oil
- 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.
- 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.
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.
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.