SO MUCH BETTER THAN TAKEOUT – HONG SHAO NIU ROU (红烧牛肉)

This is one of the first dishes that Li You taught me how to make during our time cooking together, as I mentioned in my story, ‘All Because of You’, and it’s one of the first dishes I make for people when they come over to try real-deal Chinese food for the first time.

Photos by Danila Ponomarenko

Just remember to read the recipe all the way through before you begin to ensure you didn’t miss anything. Also, you should have all of your ingredients prepared and equipment in place before you start cooking. (Trust me. It will make your life so much easier.)

VHXY2603
Photo by Danila Ponomarenko

Hong Shao Niu Rou (红烧牛肉) or “Red-Cooked Beef”

Notes:

  • If using brisket, try to find it with the beef tendon still attached. Asian grocers will often have this particular cut available, and it makes a tremendous difference when dealing with an otherwise lean piece of meat. Not only will the tendon impart lots of flavor to the braising liquid, but it will also provide a contrasting chewiness to the tender brisket once the dish is complete. Not ready to brave beef tendons? Stick with the chuck. It will be delicious.
  • Once again, most Asian grocers should carry Chinese cinnamon and the other spices mentioned in this recipe. It is not the fancy, clean-shaved curled twigs we think are cinnamon. It is actual bark, and the scent and flavor are far stronger than that of the mulling-spice-variety sticks. That being said, if all you have are the regular sticks, you can use them in a pinch. I’d just throw in an extra one for good measure.
  • I like to use peanut oil when stir frying, because of the flavor and fragrance it imparts to the food, but any oil with a high smoke point (e.g. grapeseed) will do just fine.

Ingredients:

2½ lbs. of well-marbled beef chuck or brisket (see note above), cut into medium-sized chunks (it will shrink a bit as it cooks, so think bigger than stew meat, but still manageable for chopsticks)

5 small or 4 medium yellow potatoes, peeled and cut into chunks roughly the size of the beef (once cut, place in cold water to prevent the starch from oxidizing)

1 medium/large daikon radish, peeled, sliced lengthwise, and cut into half circles about 1 inch in thickness (you can substitute carrots if you prefer or cannot find daikon)

1 medium thumb of ginger, cut into about six planks (No need to peel it, just wash it thoroughly!)

2 T. Shaoxing cooking wine

3 T. dark soy sauce

3 T. light soy sauce (plus more to taste)

12 black peppercorns, whole (not Sichuan peppercorn, the regular old black ones)

1 tsp. fennel seeds, whole

2 bay leaves

4-5 star anise pods (or enough broken pieces to constitute as much)

1 stick of Chinese cinnamon (see notes, above)

1 medium-small piece of Chinese rock sugar/1½ tsp. granulated sugar

Peanut oil (see notes, above)

Kosher salt

2-3 Tbsp. doubanjiang (fermented broad bean chili sauce) (optional, but recommended)

Rice or noodles for serving, optional

Method:

  1. Place the beef in a large pot full of water, and bring to a boil. This will force the blood out of the meat, creating brown foam on the top of the pot, which should be skimmed off regularly as the meat boils. Once all of the blood has been released (about 10-15 minutes later), remove the beef to a plate/colander, and set aside. (In the meantime, clean the pot, to ensure that there is no lingering scum in it when you arrive at the braising phase.)
  2. Heat a large skillet/wok over high heat for a minute (or until it is really freaking hot), and add a few teaspoons of peanut oil. (The oil should smoke just a little bit if the pan is hot enough.) Add the whole peppercorns and ginger planks to the pan – stirring constantly to prevent burning. Once the aromatics are fragrant (30-60 seconds later), add the reserved beef chunks, and continue stirring for about two minutes longer. (FYI: At this point, you can add some doubanjiang to make the spicy version of the stewed beef, if that’s what you’re looking for. Just make sure to reduce the amount of light soy sauce/salt you add in steps 3 and 5, to ensure that the final product isn’t overly salty.)
  3. Once the beef has begun to brown a bit, add the Shaoxing wine, light soy sauce, dark soy sauce, fennel seeds, and a pinch of kosher salt, and continue cooking for 2 minutes. (The key to a lot of Chinese cooking is frequently moving whatever you are cooking around in the pan. Since we’re using very high heat, this sort of constant attention prevents items from burning, which – especially in the case of the aromatics – can ruin the whole dish by imparting acrid flavors and unpleasant aromas to the final product.)
  4. Once the liquid in the pan has reduced, transfer everything to the large pot you used earlier, and fill with water until everything is just covered. Add the cinnamon, stare anise, and bay leaves, and place on high heat until it comes to a boil. Once boiling, reduce the heat so that the liquid is kept at a gentle simmer, cover, and leave it be for about an hour.
  5. After about an hour and a half, give the liquid a taste, and season with soy sauce/salt to taste. (Dark soy is more for color/complexity, and light soy is good for upping saltiness/umami, but if you rely on either one too much, you may find that the other flavors are overpowered by the soy’s natural assertiveness. For this reason, plain old kosher salt might be the best option for seasoning at this point. Just use your best judgment!)
  6. Once the beef is close to tender, drain the potatoes, and pat them dry. Heat a large skillet on high heat, adding peanut oil once the pan is hot. Add the potatoes to the skillet, and stir constantly. Season with salt, and cook until they begin to look a bit translucent at the edges. (We are not aiming for browning here, so remember to move them around in the pan.)
  7. Add the stir-fried potatoes and daikon chunks to the pot with the beef, and stir a bit to make sure they are submerged. (If necessary, you can add a bit of boiling water. Just don’t get too carried away, as the added water will dilute the flavors of the cooking liquid!) Continue to simmer until both the potatoes and the daikon are fork tender and nicely colored by the broth.
  8. At this point, you can remove the stew to a serving dish for a family-style meal, or spoon it over bowls of white rice/thick, chewy rice noodles for a more casual meal. Just be sure to leave most of the cooking liquid behind, as a little goes a long way (and it’s high in sodium).

Serves 4 generously.