Saturday, February 05, 2005

Successful steak sha zha jiang

And it’s about bloody time, too, is all I can say.

One of the first books I bought upon moving here was Bruce Cost’s Asian Ingredients. I figured I would need some guidance now that I was living in a place where my nearest market was an Asian one that carried foods way beyond the bounds of what I knew. Not only was Asian Ingredients very educational, it emboldened me to try things that, left to my own cautious devices, I never would have tried. One of these was Chinese barbecue sauce or sha zha jiang. It was one of the things I got because Cost raved about it so.

Cost’s top pick was Lan Chi brand, so that’s what I bought. Its ingredients are listed as “fish, chili, garlic, salt, soy bean oil, small dried shrimps, peanut powder, spice, rice bran” on the label. I can’t begin to describe the taste. It is extremely spicy and has a very strong, almost harsh flavor. This sauce goes beyond just having a bite to it; the jar might as well get up and chase you around the room, it’s so intense.

I tried cooking Cost’s recipe for “Sliced Steak with Sha Zha Jiang” twice, but both times it gave me a very upset stomach. This was unfortunate, because as I ate it (before the digestive problems set in), I got the feeling that sha zha jiang was a taste I could acquire. Maybe having it every week would be a bit much for such an aggressively-flavored dish, but it was something I wanted to keep in my repertoire. So I decided to try it again last night, with a few modifications.

Cost’s recipe calls for stir-frying the beef in a cup of peanut oil (velveting), then turning it out of the pan and starting over in a clean pan or wok by stir-frying quarter of a cup of chopped chili peppers, quarter of a cup of chopped shallots and a scallion in two tablespoons of peanut oil. To reduce the complexity of the process, I decided to turn it into a simple stir-fry, rather than velveting the meat and then cooking the rest of the ingredients. So, I stir-fried the scallion and shallots in two to three tablespoons of peanut oil, then added the beef. (I omitted the chilis to lower the heat of the dish slightly.)

I stir-fried the beef until it started to look mostly done; this was a little difficult because the beef was marinated in two teaspoons of cornstarch, a tablespoon of mushroom soy and a tablespoon of sesame oil. The dark color that the soy sauce imparted to the beef made it harder to judge the meat’s doneness. As I stir-fried, the big skillet developed a nice-looking brown tint from the meat and marinade juices.

After I had cooked the beef for what felt like an adequate time (maybe a little more than three minutes), I added the remaining sauce ingredients. This worked out to be one and a half to two tablespoons of sha zha jiang (reduced from three to four), one teaspoon of sugar and two tablespoons of Shao Xing rice wine (altered from one tablespoon of the wine and one tablespoon of chicken stock). I did not add the recommended half-teaspoon of salt. I stir-fried this for a few minutes and, as the sauce and pan juices started bubbling up nicely, I added more rice wine to create a more liquid sauce. I didn’t measure the wine, just poured what looked good into the pan. It might have been about half a cup or somewhat less. I cooked it down until the sauce reduced to a fairly thick consistency (sort of like a good oyster sauce), then served it over Chinese egg noodles.

Although my stomach muttered to itself into the evening, there were no more serious results, which was a major improvement over past history. I think I’ve found a way to have my sha zha jiang and eat it too.

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