Why It Works
- Sichuan red-braising relies on chile bean paste as the main flavoring agent.
- The addition of Sichuan peppercorns and a lesser-known spice, Chinese cao guo, gives the braise the signature Sichuan tongue-numbingness.
The term "red-cooked" in Chinese cuisine typically refers to a braising preparation in which meat is stewed in soy sauce, wine, sugar, along with cinnamon, cloves, and star anise as spices. Out comes a very rich, very sweet meat dish that you'll see throughout eastern China.
Red-braising for the Sichuanese, however, is not soy-sauce based but rather, relies on chile bean paste as the main flavoring agent. The bean used in the paste is labeled as "broad bean" on the jars, but we know it better as the fava bean.
The best Sichuan-style bean pastes use nothing more than fava beans, chiles, salt, and wheat flour. Other kinds of bean pastes that contain soy beans and additions like sugar may be used as well, though you'll find that such pastes generally aren't as flavorful. If you're unsure what to buy when faced with all the jars of red paste at the Chinese market, look for chile bean paste that appears chunky but blended, and tastes like chiles and bean.
Of the three bean pastes above, one has the distinctly red, well-blended look of a good chile bean paste (top), the other is less blended and contains soybeans (bottom left), and the third is too blended and has too many additions, like sugar and MSG (bottom right).
Though the main flavoring for a Sichuan-style red braise comes from the savory and spicy bean paste, the addition of Sichuan peppercorns and a lesser-known spice, Chinese cao guo, gives the braise the signature Sichuan tongue-numbingness. Cao guo is often called "false cardamom" because of the similar flavors and shape. Olive-shaped, this dried fruit is ridged and has the hardness and size of nutmegs. You'll find the spice in most Chinese supermarkets labeled as "tsao kuo" or "drafting fruit."
If I had to choose one red-braise to live with for the rest of my life, I'm not sure I could turn my back on the sweet, indulgent flavor of fatty pork braised in soy sauce and sugar, a flavor that I associate with my mother and home-cooking. But over the years, I've come to appreciate the deeper, more mature flavors: the salty umami-ness of bean pastes, the spiciness of chiles, and the ineffable magic of Sichuan peppercorns. It's red-braising, take two.
Adapted from Land of Plenty by Fuschia Dunlop.
2 to 2 1/2 pounds fatty stewing beef, such as oxtail or short rib
1 tablespoon vegetable oil
6 tablespoons Sichuan-style chile bean paste
5 cups meat or vegetable stock
1/4 cup Shaoxing rice wine
1 to 2-inch piece ginger
1 tablespoon dark soy sauce
1 teaspoon Sichuan peppercorns
1 star anise
1 tsao kor (cao guo) (false cardamom)
1 medium size daikon
Cilantro to garnish
Cut beef into 1 to 2-inch chunks. Cut scallions into 2 or 3-inch sections.
Heat oil in a Dutch oven over medium heat. When it is hot, add chile bean paste and stir-fry for 30 seconds until the paste starts to smell fragrant. Add stock, beef, wine, ginger, scallions, soy sauces, and spices. Bring liquid to a boil; then turn heat down and gently simmer until beef is tender, about 1 1/2 to 2 hours.
When beef is almost done cooking, peel the daikon. Add vegetables to the beef, adding water if necessary so that the liquid covers all the items. Continue to simmer until just tender. Garnish with chopped cilantro.
In most Chinese supermarkets, cao guo is labeled as "tsao kuo" or "drafting fruit."
|Nutrition Facts (per serving)|
|Servings: 4 to 6|
|Amount per serving|
|% Daily Value*|
|Total Fat 27g||35%|
|Saturated Fat 11g||54%|
|Total Carbohydrate 26g||9%|
|Dietary Fiber 8g||29%|
|Total Sugars 7g|
|Vitamin C 18mg||88%|
|*The % Daily Value (DV) tells you how much a nutrient in a food serving contributes to a daily diet. 2,000 calories a day is used for general nutrition advice.|