Chilies, garlic, ginger, and cumin. That’s a fab foursome for fans of fine, fierily spiced food. And it’s a combo that highlights the full, front-and-center flavors in this spicy Chinese beef with cumin recipe. It’s a deliciously simple, yet intensely rich dish.
This is very much a showcase for the success of simplicity. Except for one outstanding virtue, everything about this spicy beef with cumin recipe is minimal — the ingredients, the prep, and the cooking. And the virtue? Well, it’s a major one. The big, bold aromas and flavors will delight you all the way from your very first taste, right through to your last.
For sure, there’s plenty of fire here — thanks to a plentiful blend of fresh red cayenne peppers and whole, dried bird’s eye chilies. While that type of heat is a distinctive feature of Hunan cuisine, this is definitely not a one-dimensional dish dominated by big burn. Although the list of ingredients might be minimal, they’re all used in generous quantities. That means the other three members of the potent foursome each make their own complimentary and noticeable contribution to the centerpiece pleasures of the velvety, tender beef.
And that balance of strong, very distinctive flavors brings us to something which may well strike you as bit of an oddity in a Chinese dish — the cumin.
Cumin: an unmistakeable, richly aromatic spice
Cumin might not be a spice that first springs to mind when you’re thinking of Chinese food. It’s a flavorful cornerstone in many great Indian dishes, and it plays a big part in the cooking of the Middle East and North Africa. But, China?
Well, that also surprised me until a few years ago when I read Fuchsia Dunlop’s recipe for beef with cumin. Now, Ms. Dunlop is a widely respected, much awarded Chinese cookery writer, and was apparently mightily impressed by this dish at a restaurant in Hunan’s capital, Changsha. In fact, she was so impressed that she featured it in her 2006 book, Revolutionary Chinese Cookbook: Recipes from Hunan Province (affiliate link, folks).
Her praise for cumin with beef makes perfect sense — it’s routinely one of the first spices I look for when making a dry rub for meats I want to grill or bbq. Cumin adds an immediate, earthy, slightly peppery warmth that quickly mellows out as the flavors of the meat shine through. And that’s especially true when the flavors in question are coming from slices of a thick-cut, first-class slab of rump steak.
And then there’s the soy sauce
If cumin isn’t fully mainstream in Chinese cuisine, soy sauce certainly is. Our cumin beef recipe features the two most common variants — light soy for the strength of its salty, umami flavor, and a little less dark soy to give the dish a richer, deeper color.
The two types of soy are paired with rice wine vinegar to create a quick marinade for the beef. When mixed with a little more water, the marinade then becomes the sauce for your cumin beef. The rice wine is fairly astringent and adds a cleansing edge that cuts into the dense savors of the soy. And that contrast brings yet more balance to the strong, insistent tastes of the fab-four spices.
Perfecting the balancing act: A little, smoky sesame oil, and handsome servings of rice
The beef’s sauce is finished with a generous glug of sesame oil. It features more like a last-minute condiment, rather than being used to cook anything. Because it’s added to the sauce just a few moments before serving, its subtle, slightly musky smokiness is clearly retained.
To serve alongside this spicy Chinese cumin beef? Rice. Plain and simple. It’s the ideal, wonderfully calming companion for a dish that’s so alive with such immense tastes.
My rice recommendation? Jasmine. Cooked until it’s just slightly sticky, jasmine rice has a sweetness that sits perfectly alongside the spicy, salty heat of the beef.
Spicy Chinese Beef With Cumin
For the beef
- 4 fresh red cayenne peppers sliced into 1/8-inch rounds, seeds and all
- 20 whole, dried, red bird’s eye chilies finely ground in a pestle and mortar. The ones I used were all about ½-inch long.
- 2 pounds rump steak cut against the grain into ¼-inch slices. The single piece of steak I used was a good one-inch thick, and I took some care to be pretty consistent in cutting those ¼-inch slices.
- 3 heaped teaspoons ground cumin
- 4 heaped teaspoons fresh ginger root finely grated
- 6 cloves garlic peeled and very finely sliced
- 4 scallions or green onions. Cut away the root stem, and any of the green parts which aren’t firm and freshly crisp. Then slice the lot into sections about 1 ½ inches long.
- 6 tablespoons sunflower oil
- 1 ½ tablespoons sesame oil
- 3 cups water
Marinade for the beef
- 2 tablespoons rice wine often sold under the Shaoxing tag
- 2 tablespoons light soy sauce
- 2 teaspoons dark soy sauce
- 2 tablespoons cornstarch
- 3 tablespoons water
Making the marinade for the beef
- This is really straightforward. I start here, and let the beef sit in the marinade while I prep the cayenne peppers, dried bird’s eye chilies, garlic, and ginger.
- So, mix together all the marinade’s ingredients in a mixing bowl that’s easily big enough to hold the marinade and all the beef. I used a balloon whisk to make sure that the cornflour gets thoroughly combined with the marinade’s liquid ingredients.
- Once that’s done, add the sliced beef to the marinade, and give the bowl a good stirring so that all the slices get coated with the marinade. Set the bowl aside and let it stand while you prep the cayennes, bird’s eye chilies, garlic, and ginger.
Cooking your Chinese beef with cumin
- For this, I used a heavy-based, deep-sided 12-inch skillet.
- First of all, remove the beef from the marinade and set it in a colander so that the marinade drains from the beef back into its bowl. You’ll be adding that marinade to the sauce a little later — so don’t discard it. Give the beef a few minutes to allow most of the marinade to drain off. Good.
- You’re now aiming to give batches of the sliced, marinated beef some fast, searing heat to lock in their juices, and to add a little — and I mean a little — charring color. I did this in three batches — that was just fine in my big, wide skillet.
- So, set your skillet on high heat and add 5 tablespoons sunflower oil — the sixth and final tablespoon of oil comes a little later. As soon as the oil starts barely smoking, drop the heat to medium-high, and add the first batch of beef in a single, even layer.
- Fry the slices for 30 seconds on each side, then quickly remove them with a slotted spoon and set aside on a plate. Try to leave as much of the oil as you can in the skillet for the next lot of beef. Repeat this fast-fry process for the remaining two batches. Time now to quickly make the sauce.
- With the skillet set on a medium heat, add the sixth tablespoon of sunflower oil, then swiftly stir in the cayennes, ground bird’s eye chilies, garlic, ginger, and cumin. You’ll find that the mix is fairly thick and pretty dry — that’s fine. Keep stirring over that medium-high heat for about 90 seconds until the mix starts to give off its bloom of spicy aromas.
- Now add the water and the marinade, and stir everything thoroughly until the sauce starts to bubble. As soon as that happens, turn the heat to high and add the sliced scallions / spring onions, the beef, and any juices from its plate. Give the skillet a couple of good stirs to coat the beef and the scallions with the sauce.
- Keep the heat on high until the sauce begins to bubble rapidly. Turn off the heat and add the sesame oil. Give the skillet one good final stir and serve at once over cooked rice.