You may have ordered Hunan Beef from your local takeout joint before.
The Americanized version is pretty variable, depending on who’s making it. I once asked my father and other Chinese restaurant chefs—what’s the deal with Hunan Beef? Even they confessed to not know much about it other than the way that particular restaurant prepared it!
Americanized Hunan Beef vs. Authentic Hunan Beef
Let’s set the record straight. There’s an Americanized way to prepare Hunan Beef, and an authentic Chinese way.
This is—you guessed it—an authentic Chinese Hunan Beef recipe, so you all can taste what Hunan Beef should really be like!
In my opinion, the Chinese American version is too often the same as any other brown sauce stir-fry (like beef with mixed vegetables, beef with string beans, etc.), and just not as tasty as what you can find in China.
Most Chinese takeout restaurants simply add peppers, a few dried chili peppers, and chili oil to a basic Chinese stir-fry sauce. While Hunan Province is known for its love of spicy peppers, though, adding a few peppers to the dish does not make it authentic Hunan!
Hunan Beef in China is usually smoky and spicy. Dry smoked beef is a specialty of the region. Almost like beef jerky, this beef is reinvigorated when it hits a wok full of peppers and fermented black beans.
It’s a hard-to-find ingredient (a local and incredibly authentic Hunan restaurant in our area makes their own!), so we’re using regular beef and lightly frying it to create that dry, crispy texture.
Trust us. If you give this dish a try, you’ll have a real taste of China right in your kitchen!
What’s the Difference Between Hunan and Sichuan (Szechuan) Cooking?
While Hunan and Sichuan cooking both make liberal use of chili peppers, there are some key differences. Many of you are familiar with Sichuan cooking (it’s grown in popularity outside of China in recent years), but you might be scratching your heads about what exactly Hunan cooking is like.
The key difference is that alongside chili peppers, Sichuan cooking often uses the flavor of numbing Sichuan peppercorns (in a dish of spicy numbing Mapo Tofu, for instance). In Hunan cooking, spicy peppers are used without a numbing agent, creating a “gan la” (干辣) or “dry spicy” flavor rather than “ma la” (麻辣) or spicy numbing flavor.
Hunan dishes are more purely spicy, with dried, fresh, and/or pickled peppers used to add depth and variation, along with lots of garlic, fresh ginger, fermented black beans, other pickled ingredients (like pickled long beans), and cured/smoked ingredients. Most authentic Hunan stir fry dishes also do not have much sauce, making them drier than many Sichuan dishes, which employ more oil.
As a result, it’s well known among Chinese people that Hunan dishes can actually be spicier than those from Sichuan! (Those of you who’ve sweated over Sichuan food are probably in disbelief right now.)
To try more Hunan dishes in addition to this one, here are some of our other Hunan recipes:
- Hunan Pork and Tofu
- Hunan-Style Whole Steamed Fish
- Hunan-Style Eggplant
- Pickled Long Beans with Pork
- Eggplant String Bean Stir-fry
- Steamed Duo Jiao Fish
Picking Your Peppers
Ever since we started the blog, the pepper-loving community has really kept us on our toes about pepper varieties and spice levels!
Peppers are vital to Hunan Beef, but the peppers you use are a matter of personal preference. We like to use a variety—both spicy and sweet. Poblano and Holland peppers are mild, but if you want more spice, you can add Fresnos or jalapeños to the mix. We had a great pepper crop in our garden this year, so we used a mix of what we had!
Remember that the addition of the dried chili peppers can add a lot of spice (also depending on whether you chop them to release the seeds inside or leave them whole), so you’ll want to consider those factors as well.
Hunan Beef Recipe Instructions
Step 1: Marinate the Beef
In a medium bowl, combine the sliced flank steak with the baking soda, water and oyster sauce. Massage these ingredients into the beef until any liquid has been absorbed by the meat. Marinate for 30 minutes. For more information on preparing beef, see Bill’s post on How to Slice and Velvet Beef for stir fries.
Next, lightly dredge all of the beef slices in cornstarch. Set aside until ready to fry.
This technique is similar to what we do in our Mongolian Beef to create a crispy crust, but for more details on marinating beef, see our post on How to Prepare Beef for Stir Fry.
Step 2: Prepare Peppers
Slice all the fresh peppers crosswise into thin slices on the diagonal. Set aside the dried red peppers. Do not break them open or chop unless you want a very spicy Hunan Beef!
At this time, you may also want to prepare the other ingredients––the shallots, ginger, garlic, black beans, and scallions.
Step 3: Prepare Sauce
Stir the sugar into 2 tablespoons of hot water until dissolved. Add the Chinese black vinegar, soy sauce, and ground white pepper. Mix until well combined and set aside.
Step 4: Fry the Beef
Heat your wok over high heat until smoking. Spread ⅓ cup oil around the wok, and sear the beef in three batches on both sides until browned and slightly crispy on the outside.
Be sure the wok and oil are hot each time you add a batch of beef.
Drain the crispy beef by moving it up to the side of the wok.
The oil will drain to the bottom and you can then transfer the beef to a sheet pan or plate. No need for paper towels or wire racks!
After frying the beef, leave about 2 tablespoons of the oil in the wok, and remove any excess. If your wok got burned in the frying process, this is a good time to wash it. While you want the beef flavor from frying, you definitely don’t want burned bits in the stir-fry if you got carried away with the heat during frying.
Step 5: Assemble the Hunan Beef
Set the wok over medium heat. Add the sliced ginger and fry until caramelized, about 30 seconds.
Next, add the shallots.
Continue to fry for another 30 seconds, and add the fresh peppers (except for the red holland or fresno peppers). Turn the heat up to high and stir-fry for 1 minute to get a nice sear on the peppers.
Clear a section on the bottom of the wok, and add the dried chili peppers. Let them toast in the oil for 20 seconds. (If you want your dish spicier, add the dried chili peppers earlier, along with the shallots.)
Next, pour the Shaoxing wine around the perimeter of the wok. Add the sliced garlic, fermented black beans, and the red Holland or Fresno peppers. Stir-fry for another 30 to 60 seconds on high heat.
Next, add the fried beef…
And pour over the pre-prepared sauce.
Maintain the highest heat possible and stir-fry everything together for 20 seconds. Add the scallions.
Continue to stir fry until most––if not all––of the sauce has evaporated. Remember that most authentic Hunan stir-fried dishes are relatively dry, without any pools of sauce.
Serve your spicy Hunan Beef with steamed rice and enjoy!