Chengdu Challenge #12: Shui Zhu Beef (or Fish) (Shui Zhu Niu Rou)
A Sichuan Outlaw~~
Shui zhu, or “water-boiled” dishes, may be Sichuan’s most notorious food—feared and loved in equal measure. Shui zhu’s reputation as a dish for the daring precedes it. But those brave enough to dip into its sea of mala—chili peppers and Sichuan peppercorn—to fish out a piece of buttery soft beef (or pork, or fish) are rewarded with the realization that shui zhu is not nearly as lethal as its reputation.
It was a shocking sight the first time I saw Chef Qing Qing make shui zhu beef at the Sichuan Higher Institute of Cuisine. He knew it was, and he put in a performance worthy of the bad guy in a classic Western movie, piling on the pain with a sinister grin—more and more chili bean paste (douban jiang), dried red chili peppers and Sichuan pepper—until it seemed the gunslinger would surely win and the clients I had brought to the cooking class would surely run for their lives.
First he made the crowning glory of the dish, scorching literally dozens of small red chili peppers and heaping spoonfuls of Sichuan peppercorns in a wok until nose-tinglingly fragrant. Out they came to a cutting board, where he proceeded to mince them into a heap of hotness, the giant cleaver rocking back and forth between his hands gripping it at either end.
He then wokked some mild green vegetables—celery and scallion strips—as the “bed” of the dish and put them in a large bowl. Next came the part that gives shui zhu—literally “water-boiled”—its misnomer. He boiled some stock with a generous helping of douban jiang before adding the thin slices of beef to the broth, cooking them just until done and adding it all to the waiting bowl.
In the final step, the outlaw chef dumped the minced peppers and peppercorns onto the top of the bowl and doused it with a cup of heated cooking oil, sending the mala mixture into a sizzling frenzy and further toasting it to give it that incomparably Sichuan scorched chili taste.
Then he invited us to taste it.
I gingerly dipped my chopsticks into the fiery broth to retrieve a piece of tender, melting beef and prepared myself for the worst, even though I love mala.
But just as in the classic Westerns, the bad guy turned out to have a heart of gold, and shui zhu turned out to be just the right amount of spicy, tingly, thrilling hot.
Oh, yeah. Shui zhu is notorious. But like the Doc Holliday* of Sichuan food, it doesn’t have to come out guns a-blazing; its reputation alone guarantees its outlaw allure.
Further notes on shui zhu:
- Shui zhu dishes go by many translations in Sichuan restaurants in the U.S.: water-cooked, beef in spicy broth, fish in red soup, etc. My personal favorite, as spotted in Seattle: Swimming Fire Fish. If in doubt, ask if it’s shui zhu (“shway ju”).
- You can make this recipe with good quality beef, pork loin, or mild white fish. One of my favorite renditions is shui zhu yu (fish) made with cod and soft, Chinese-style tofu. Whichever protein you use, do not overcook it, as meltingly tender texture is the goal.
- The kind of chili pepper you use is all-important to the heat level. In Sichuan, they use a medium-hot, 1- to 2-inch-long pepper such as a facing heaven chili (which you can buy in our SHOP). That way they can pile on the chilies without piling on the pain. In Chinese markets in the U.S., look for packages of whole chili peppers labeled Sichuan, or a similar chili from a different region. You can also use Korean red peppers or what Mexican markets sell as chilies Japones. Do not use dried Thai chilies unless you want to blow your head off.
- The finishing bath in hot oil is a must. Heat until hot, but not smoking. I find that 1/3 cup is enough for authenticity, but you can use more for even more authenticity.
- Do not spoon the oily broth onto your dish. Do as the Sichuanese do and pluck the meat and vegetables out of the killer broth.
(*An Old West gambler and gunfighter, who may or may not be an ancestor of mine…)
- 2 dozen (or more) dried red chili peppers, preferably from Sichuan
- 2 teaspoons (or more) Sichuan peppercorns
- ¾ pound (340 grams) high-quality beef such as rib-eye or top sirloin cut in thin slices
- 2 teaspoons Shaoxing wine
- ½ teaspoon salt
- 1 tablespoon cornstarch mixed with 2 tablespoons water
- 6 to 8 celery stalks, cut into thin strips 3 inches x ¼ inch, leaves set aside for garnish
- 6 to 8 scallions (or baby leeks), cut into thin strips
- ⅓ cup peanut or canola oil
- 2 cups chicken stock
- 2 tablespoons Pixian douban jiang (chili bean paste)
- 1 tablespoon Chinese light soy sauce
- 1 tablespoon Shaoxing wine
- Heat wok until hot. Add 1 tablespoon oil and lower heat. When oil is just hot, add whole chilies and Sichuan peppercorns and toss and toast until partially browned and super fragrant. Be careful not to burn them. Remove to a cutting board to cool off, then mince with a knife into small flakes.
- In a bowl, mix the beef slices with the 2 teaspoons Shaoxing wine, ½ teaspoon salt and the cornstarch mixture.
- Wipe out wok, return to heat until just starting to smoke, add 1 tablespoon oil and heat until hot. Add celery and scallion strips and stir-fry until celery is beginning to soften and scallions are beginning to brown and caramelize. Salt and remove to a large serving bowl.
- In a small saucepan, heat ⅓ cup oil until hot, but not smoking, about 250° to 275° F. Let it heat up slowly while you finish the dish.
- Wipe out wok, heat until hot and add the stock, douban jiang, soy sauce and Shaoxing wine. Bring to a boil and add marinated beef. Lower heat and gently simmer beef until just done. Pour the entire contents on top of the waiting bowl of vegetables.
- Top the meat with the minced chilies and Sichuan pepper. Do not stir. Carefully pour the hot oil over the chilies and watch them sizzle. Garnish with celery leaves and serve.