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Beef with Cumin and Scallions

Beef stir-fried with scallions is a standard in many Chinese cookery books. It is also common on many restaurant menus in the west where it frequently makes an appearance as ‘Mongolian Beef’ (even though the dish actually has little to do with the cuisine of that region).

It is a fairly easy dish to prepare and is thus amenable to all sorts of improvisations. Most restaurant versions, and many recipes you find on the Internet, are generally made with a fair amount of cornstarch-thickened sauce, mostly quite mild, and generally rather sweet. For this experiment, however, I want to depart from that model and do more of a ‘dry-fried’ dish that is somewhat sweet but also incorporates some of the more assertive flavors of western Chinese cookery…

The Ingredients

  • Beef Steak
  • A good bunch of Scallions
  • 1 tsp. Baking Soda (not shown)
  • 1 tbsp. Cornstarch
  • Seeds from one Black Cardamom pod (ground to a powder)
  • 2 tbsp. Sugar
  • 4 large cloves of Garlic chopped finely.
  • 1 – 2 tsp. Crushed Red Chili
  • 1 – 1 ½ tbsp. Cumin Seed (toasted in a dry pan before hand)
  • 1 tbsp. Black Peppercorns
  • 1 tbsp. Rice wine
  • 1 1/2 tbsp. Sesame Oil
  • 1 tbsp. Soy sauce
  • 2 tbsp. Sesame Seeds
  • ¾ cup of oil for frying (not shown)

You can omit the Black Cardamom if you can’t find it. This spice is used a bit more extensively in Indian cookery than Chinese but it does have its uses in that country, especially in Sichuan, Yunnan and Xinjiang dishes. Some people are not fond of the camphor notes it can impart, but it does add a lovely smokiness to meats.

The Method

First, slice the beef into strips approximately 2 x 5 cm in surface area and no more than a half-centimeter thick. Mix the strips in a bowl with the Black Cardamom and then stir in the baking soda, the cornstarch, one tablespoon of the sugar, and a half-tablespoon of the sesame oil. Next, cut the scallions into 4 – 5 cm lengths and keep the white and green sections separate. Mix the Rice wine, soy sauce and the remaining sugar and sesame oil in a little container and set aside. Finally, crush the Black pepper with a pestle, making sure that you stop before it gets completely pulverized and that there are still some fairly coarse grains visible.

Heat the cooking oil to just below the smoking point in your wok and quickly fry the beef strips, stirring well to separate them. When they are just getting nicely crisp and brown on the outside, but still soft and juicy in the middle, remove to a bowl and drain the wok, reserving a tablespoon or so of oil in the bottom.

Heat the wok once again and, just as the oil begins to shimmer, throw in the cumin and the chili. As soon as the chili starts to darken, add the white part of the scallion and stir-fry vigorously. When the scallion is soft, add the garlic and the black pepper, stirring again until the garlic just starts to turn golden. Now add the sauce ingredients and after it has bubbled away for a few seconds add the green sections of scallion and the beef. Keep tossing until everything is heated through and the sauce forms a nice glaze and then add the sesame seeds. Toss a few more times and then plate for service. Scatter a few more sesame seeds on top if you like.

The Verdict

Well, aside from forgetting to add the damned sesame seeds, this experiment turned out beautifully. In fact, my wife said it was the best supper we have had for ages (although she did say she would have liked it better with even more scallions!)

I was a little worried that the Black Cardamom might be a little overpowering, despite the small quantity I used, as the pods I have are still very fresh and had a VERY strong camphor aroma when I crushed the seeds. As it was, though, they mellowed nicely in the cooking and melded wonderfully with the cumin. A large part of the credit for this experiment goes to the beef I chose. The dish would work well with lesser cuts but I used a beautifully marbled rib-eye steak and that really made all the difference in the world. Indeed, you could probably even skip the baking soda in the marinade, which is helpful in tenderizing tougher beef but wasn’t really necessary here.

The only fly in the ointment on this occasion was the choking miasma from the chili and black pepper. When you cook these together over high heat they release fumes that could put mustard gas to shame… not only did we have to open both outer doors to air the place out, I caught a nasty lungful that kept me coughing and hacking through the whole meal. If you try this dish, and I urge you to do so, then bear my caveat in mind and keep the stove fan on high when you cook or, better still, do it outside if you can!

11 thoughts on “Beef with Cumin and Scallions

  1. I had to look up what “scallions” are – we call them “spring onions” in Australia. And obviously “Mongolian Beef” is another one of those recipes that has infinite variations – my husband just made Kylie Kwong’s recipe which is completely different. Both equally yummy no doubt!

  2. Glad you liked my blog post. I am going to post another food item shortly and would like comments on how to repeat the accidental success I had this past week with grilled chicken if you grill–I rarely do. I like your multicultural focus. I mix stuff up from everywhere.

  3. I enjoy the honesty of your cooking, the admission that you missed the sesame seeds and the amusing note of smoke inhalation. I can just picture that, but I can also feel your love of cooking and mixing it up. Cooking is all about the enjoyment and sharing. Pleased that you found me so that I can appreciate your adventures.

  4. Absolutely heavenly meal! I am using quite a lot of cumin myself at the moment.
    I have just photographed my Chinese dinner service (like yours) for my up coming “In My Kitchen post at the beginning of next month.
    🙂 Mandy

  5. I LOVE “Mongolian beef,” and that thick, slightly sweet sauce you mention is all that I can find anymore (I think the version I like was a “drier” version like what you’ve made here). I’m definitely going to have to try this. What an interesting blog you have…thanks for stopping by mine!

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