As I have written in previous posts, I did not grow up with Asian food, and it wasn't until I moved to Saipan for my first overseas teaching job in 1989 that I had any exposure to the real thing. The island was (and still is) populated with a mix of nationalities and there were a handful of Asian grocery stores around the island. The one closest to my house was in Chalan Piao right on Beach Road, and I remember going shopping there for the first time and feeling utterly bewildered when I looked at the food products. I was looking for a particular kind of Chinese noodles and some Chinese cooking sauces, but I couldn't seem to figure out what products were Japanese vs Chinese vs Korean, so when I finally stumbled across a shelf that had Lee Kum Kee products with English labels, I was relieved and bought my first jar of Lee Kum Kee Black Bean Sauce.
That experience is how my Asian cooking and condiments love affair got started. I didn't have a clue about any of the other ingredients in the store, I just knew that I had tasted a delicious beef and black bean sauce with noodles dish at Diamond Chinese Restaurant in Garapan and I wanted to learn how to make it myself. I still enjoy making the dish, and I was able to make it recently with the last of this year's bell peppers from our garden.
We were lamenting last month about how the peppers were not cooperating and turning red and yellow like they were supposed to. Well with these last three peppers we finally got two that turned a bright red and added some nice color to the stir fry. The outdoor garden is now done for the season as we had a good frost last night, so my winter Grow Your Own posts will all be from my indoor herb garden.
Sirloin steak is my favorite cut of beef for stir fries, and I'll usually buy a couple when it's on sale and then keep them in the freezer. Cutting the meat partially frozen is the easiest way to achieve the customary thin slices found in Chinese cooking. If you are using fresh meat, then pop it into the freezer for about 30 minutes before you start slicing and it should harden just enough to make slicing easier.
You can adjust the amount of black bean sauce to suit your taste, or you can substitute fermented black beans if you have some available. Many black bean sauces on the market now include garlic since they are a common pairing in Chinese cooking, and you can omit the extra garlic if you prefer, we just happen to like strong garlic flavors. I always use low sodium soy sauce in all my Asian cooking, but it's particularly useful in this dish because the black bean sauce tends to be somewhat salty.
We enjoy this with rice or noodles. For a great post on how to make perfect Chinese rice and some terrific insight on her recent trip to China, check out Jaden's Steamy Kitchen.
Make It Gluten Free
It used to be difficult to find gluten-free Asian condiments, though now stores often have gluten-free soy sauce. You may have access to an international grocery store that has more gluten-free condiments. Look for gluten-free black bean sauce and rice wine, and make sure to read labels carefully.
[Updated November 2009: Since this post was originally written, I have learned the cold wok technique from Jaden of Steamy Kitchen. Instead of preheating oil and adding ingredients, you add oil, garlic, and ginger to the cold wok and then heat. The garlic and ginger flavor the oil while it heats, then you remove them. The oil is now infused with the flavor.]
Beef and Bell Pepper with Black Bean Sauce
- wooden spoon or paddle for stirring
- medium glass bowl or 8x8 glass baking pan
- small bowl
- sharp knife
- medium bowl (avoid plastic)
- 1 pound sirloin steak (thinly sliced across the grain, each piece about 2 inches long)
- 2 medium bell peppers (green and red, sliced into thin strips, about ½-inch wide)
- 3 scallions (cut into 1-inch pieces)
- 2 tablespoons gluten-free Chinese black bean sauce (or fermented black beans, more or less to taste)
- 2 cloves garlic (minced)
- 2 large slices ginger (minced)
- 4 tablespoons canola or peanut oil
- ½ cup chicken stock (or strong vegetable stock)
- ½ teaspoon granulated sugar
- 2 teaspoons gluten-free soy sauce
- 2 teaspoons gluten-free Chinese rice wine (or dry sherry)
- 1½ teaspoons cornstarch
- 1 tablespoon canola oil
- Put the sliced steak into the glass bowl and sprinkle the sugar on top. In the small bowl, stir together the soy sauce, sherry, cornstarch, and oil and then pour over the steak. Toss until the steak is coated, and set aside for about 30 minutes.
- While the steak is marinading, prepare the remaining ingredients. Make sure everything is chopped, minced, and measured, because the process moves pretty quickly once you begin stir frying.
- Heat the wok over high heat. If you have a gas range or cooktop, use the highest output burner. Add 2 tablespoons of the oil to the wok, and it should move quickly around the wok if the temperature is correct. Add the meat, stir frying for about 3 minutes, until the meat is cooked about 75% through. Remove the meat to the other medium bowl (do not put back into the marinade bowl).
- Add 2 more tablespoons oil to the hot wok and add the bell peppers, stirring for about 2 minutes. Add the scallions and the black bean sauce, stirring for about 2 minutes. Add the garlic and ginger, stirring for just a minute.
- Return the meat and all it's juices back to the wok, stirring for 1 minute until it's heated through. Add the chicken/vegetable stock and cook until it starts to boil.
- Remove wok from heat. Serve with rice or noodles.