~ Hong Kong's Cantonese-Style Tomato-Beef Stir-Fry ~
Sit down in any Chinese western-style restaurant in China, or, in any Chinese-American restaurant in the USA and peruse the menu. Allow me to point out, there will be just as many, or almost as many beef options as there are poultry, pork and seafood choices. Beef will priced accordingly too -- right up there with seafood, meaning more expensive than poultry and pork. This would lead anyone with an enthusiasm for Chinese fare to conclude: the Chinese must eat a lot of beef. They don't. In fact, most Chinese diners prefer pork to the stronger flavor of beef.
The tomato -- a relatively new ingredient to Chinese cuisine.
The tomato is a relative newcomer to Chinese cuisine, arriving via ports like Hong Kong in the latter 1800's -- less than 150 years ago. The Chinese embraced them, especially the Cantonese who are known for stir-fries full of crunch-tender fresh vegetables. Tomatoes were easy to grow, producing fruit almost year round and were/are a great source of much-needed vitamins A and C -- important to a big land-mass country with an even bigger, mostly-poor population. As a tomato-lover, it's no surprise they added fresh tomatoes to soups, salads, stir-fries, and, egg, rice and noodle dishes. Over the decades, China has even become one of the world's largest producers of American-style ketchup and tomato paste, with both beloved products being used to make some of their wonderfully tangy, mild, hot, sweet and sour sauces.
In China, quality beef is a luxury for the working class. That's mostly due to environmental circumstances. China can't afford to dedicate large parcels of land for cattle grazing and roundups. They've got a huge population to feed, and land as a commodity is best used to grow grains and vegetables. It also explains why beef is somewhat more prevalent in the less-populated northern regions of China, but, even at that, cows and oxen in China mostly earn their keep as beasts of burden -- they're not what's for dinner tonight, unless it's an old, retired animal.
America is the land of high-quality beef, and we began transitioning many of China's pork dishes to beef when soldiers began returning home from World War II (at least as early as 1948). Due to our public's dissatisfaction with the wartime rationing of red meat, this transition from pork to beef was almost immediate -- red meat in the USA was considered the prime source of energy for the working man, and, its mere presence on a dinner plate with a starch and a vegetable, the definition of a proper meal. Chinese-American restaurants were quick to pick up on this.
Not to be confused with pepper-steak, meet tomato-beef:
2-2 1/2 pounds flank steak, thinly sliced as directed below
1 tablespoon garlic paste
2 tablespoons ginger paste
2 teaspoons coarsely-ground peppercorn blend (120 grinds)
1/2 cup tomatoey-stir-fry sauce, to use as marinade, from recipe below
2-3 tablespoons sesame oil
1 1/2 cups large, 1"-diced green bell pepper
1 1/2 cup large, 1"-diced sweet onion
lo-mein, ramen or, steamed white rice, for accompaniment
1/2 cup high-quality unsalted vegetable stock (Note: beef stock may be substituted, but vegetable complements tomato flavors better.)
6 tablespoons soy sauce
4 tablespoons ketchup
2 tablespoons Chinese rice wine
2 tablespoons brown sugar
2 tablespoons firmly-packed cornstarch
~ Step 2. Place the beef strips in a 1-gallon food storage bag. Add the garlic paste, ginger paste and coarsely-ground peppercorn blend. Give the stir-fry sauce a thorough stir and add 1/2 cup of it to the bag of sliced beef. Seal the bag and squish the meat around until thoroughly coated in the sauce. Set aside to marinate*, 30-60 minutes at room temperature, or, 8-12 hours/overnight in the refrigerator.
Note: A common misconception is: to marinate is to tenderize. It doesn't work that way. In the food world, marinades for proteins act as flavorizers, not as tenderizers, meaning: the longer you marinate, the more flavor will be infused into the beef. If you are pressed for time, even 15-minutes will go a long way to flavoring the finished dish. Moral of the story: The tenderness of the protein being cooked is dependent entirely upon knowing the proper cooking method.
~Step 3. In a 12" nonstick wok, stir-fry pan or skillet, heat the oil over medium-high -- just enough to coat bottom and/or sides of pan you're using. Add the beef, along with all of its marinade. Using a large slotted-spatula, stir-fry/sauté the beef strips until lightly-browned around their edges and a bit pink-tinged towards their centers, about 2 1/2-3 minutes maximum. Use the slotted spatula to transfer steak to a medium-large bowl, allowing all of the excess juices to drizzle back into the skillet. Do not overcook the beef strips.
~Step 4. Add the bell pepper and onion to the beef drippings remaining in skillet. Stir-fry/sauté for about 1 1/2-2 minutes. Do not overcook the peppers and onions. Error on the side of undercooking them. Using the slotted spatula, transfer and toss the veggies into the the bowl of beef, allowing those flavorful drippings to remain in the skillet.
~Step 5. Add the tomato chunks and continue to stir-fry/sauté until just beginning to soften, about 45 seconds to 1 minute. Using the slotted spatula, transfer the tomatoes to the beef mixture in the bowl (once again, allowing all of the excess juices to drizzle back into the skillet). Do not overcook the tomatoes. Do not toss the delicate tomatoes into the beef mixture just yet.
~Step 7. Transfer the thick tangy sauce over the beef and tomato mixture, then toss, like you would a salad, until beef and veggies are evenly coated. Serve atop steamed rice or tossed into lo-mein or quick-cooking ramen and serve immediately.
Serve tossed into lo-mein or quick-cooking ramen...
Special Equipment List: 1-cup measuring container; cutting board; chef's knife; 1-gallon food storage bag; 12" wok, stir-fry pan or nonstick skillet; large slotted spatula
Cook's Note: Sweet and sour pork is one of the most well-known Chinese dishes in the world, especially here in the USA. Marinated, crisply-fried cubes of pork, and, stir-fried bell peppers, onion and pineapple unite at the end of the cooking process when they get tossed together in a perfectly-balanced sweet and savory, ginger-laced ketchup-based sauce. Click here to get my recipe for ~ A Chinese Cantonese Classic: Sweet & Sour Pork ~.
"We are all in this food world together." ~ Melanie Preschutti
(Recipe, Commentary and Photos Courtesy of Melanie's Kitchen/Copyright 2018)