Sunday, 13 January 2013

Guangdong - Stir-fry Beef with Oyster Sauce

I've only been to mainland China once (in Beijing and the North) and one of the things that surprised me most about my trip was the quality of the food!  I guess, like most Westerners, I thought that I already knew Chinese food, thanks to the myriad of Chinese restaurants I've frequented in the UK, Ireland and elsewhere.  I realise now that when we (in the West) think of Chinese food, we're mostly talking about Cantonese-style Chinese food.  A large part of the Chinese diaspora overseas came from Guangdong and brought their cooking traditions with them.

The Four Great Traditions

Whilst 'Western' Chinese cuisine is a fast food - often not very healthy - my experience in China was completely different.  Cooking is something akin to an art form in China and the Chinese expect food which is tasty, fresh and beautifully presented.  It's hardly surprising, in such a big country, that there are many different regional cuisines - the exact number is a subject of debate - but, during my research, I've come across the phrase the Four Great Traditions, time and again and I feel that this is a good starting point to understanding Chinese cuisine. 

Cantonese cuisine is, of course, the most familiar Chinese cuisine outside China.  In the hotter climate of southern China, where ingredients can spoil easily, the Cantonese tradition involves a lot of wok frying at high temperatures.  Cantonese cuisine is also characterised by small bite-sized portions of vegetables, seafood or meat, generally known as dim sum.  An ancient Chinese idiom asserts that 'In Beijing, people talk, in Shanghai, people shop but in Guangzhou, people eat!'

A Northern feast
The other three main traditions are, Sichuan (or Szechuan) - which is spicier than other Chinese cuisines and becoming increasingly popular, both outside China and in the big cities of China's eastern seaboard.  Cuisine from the Yangtze delta, around Zhejiang, Jiangsu and Shanghai is known as Huaiyang and is often seen as the most prestigious of China's four great traditions.  It seems to involve a lot of seafood and steamed dumplings!  The fourth great tradition is the one I experienced, Northern cuisine.  It might surprise many to know that this tradition isn't focused on rice, but much more so on 'bready' products like noodles - closer to Mongolian cuisine and more suitable for a colder climate.

In my very first blog post on Learning about the World, I mentioned Sweet and Sour Pork which I made as part of my research on Hong Kong.  I've also cooked a Mongolian dish called Tsuivan which included making my own noodles!

Choosing a Cantonese dish

Oyster sauce mixed with sugar and water
I was spoilt for choice when it came to Cantonese dishes.  In the end, I plumped for something very straightforward and typical, Stir-fry Beef with Oyster Sauce.  The Chinese seem to love pork and chicken, so I thought it would be nice to do something with beef instead.  Also, I'd never cooked with Oyster sauce before and I was keen to get my hands on a bottle of this curious condensed mixture! 

Like many great ingredients and recipes, Oyster sauce was the result of a culinary accident.  It's probably a good idea if I explain to casual readers, at this point, that I'm no great cook and this blog post is not meant to provide a definitive guide to making this dish but is, rather, a record of my attempts to learn about the cuisine of Guangdong!  I looked at various different recipes before I made this dish, but I was mostly influenced by a recipe on

The ingredients

Stir-fry Beef with Oyster sauce, the ingredients
500g Beef frying steak (cut into thin slices)
A small piece of fresh ginger
Some mushrooms
One small carrot
Oyster sauce
Soft brown sugar
Vegetable oil
Half a cup of water

For the marinade

Dark Soy sauce
Chinese rice wine
Corn flour
Vegetable oil

I haven't put exact quantities on this recipe, as I think it's matter of personal taste - less is more is often a good rule when it comes to strong ingredients, of the type found in Chinese cooking.

How I made Stir-Fry Beef with Oyster sauce

I started by slicing the beef into thin strips about 2 centimetres in length (enough for a forkful).  I mixed together the ingredients of the marinade, in the order given above and popped this in the fridge for twenty minutes or so.

Slices of beef for the stir-fry

With a marinade of rice wine, dark soy sauce, vegetable oil and corn flour

Meanwhile I prepared the ginger, mushrooms and carrot - cutting each of them into equally thin slices.  I also prepared the Oyster sauce by adding soft brown sugar and water (probably a little bit too much water). 

Prepare the ginger, carrot and mushrooms

Once the beef had marinated, I heated up oil in the wok and stir-fried the pieces of ginger, before adding the beef slices and stir-frying these until they had turned a soft brown colour. 

Cantonese cooking involves wok frying at high temperatures
Stir-fry the beef until it browns

Once the beef had fried through, I removed it, wiped down the wok and started again, with fresh vegetable oil.  I started by stir-frying the pieces of carrot, before adding the mushrooms.  Once the carrots and mushrooms had cooked a bit, I added the Oyster sauce mixture and covered the wok to bring everything to the boil.

Stir-fry the pieces of carrot
Add the mushroom
Add the Oyster sauce mixture and bring to the boil
As soon as the mixture reaching boiling point, I added the cooked beef and ginger pieces and let them heat through. 

Add the cooked slices of beef and ginger and heat through

Finally, I served the stir-fried mixture with rice - a very simple, but tasty recipe that I would recommend to anyone who wants to cook an authentic Cantonese dish. 

Stir-fry Beef with Oyster sauce - served with rice

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