During an exhibition trip to Africa in 2008, the group that I was with were riding through a muddy region of forest. We were led by a young ambitious Kenyan tour guide named Zedy. Zedy told his driver to try a faster way, but the driver hesitated because it was starting to rain and the path Zedy wanted to take was riskier. I understood all this because someone translated it to me. The jeep had strong tires able to stand tough terrain, thought Zedy, what would be the risk? We started going through the riskier path and the young Zedy smiled believing he had been right.
Unfortunately, the rain got heavier and the ride became uncomfortably bumpy. We were holding on for our dear lives. The passenger sitting next to me in the back seat lost his grip and within the next big bump, flew out of the car. Zedy did not notice this because he, too, was trying to hang on to the jeep for dear life. My screams of the lost passenger were drowned by the bumping of our ride. Suddenly, a big pop could be heard and we already knew what had happened: one of the jeep wheels was severely hit. Our ride started rocking left and right. To my dismay, the driver leaped out of the jeep and Zedy leaned over to grab the steering wheel while remaining on the passenger side. The jeep was heading right toward a big tree. Because of luck, Zedy managed to swerve the jeep in an angle where we did not hit the tree head on. Instead, the jeep ran into a soft patch of mud and we were stuck. With the engine still running but the jeep held to a standstill, we collected our breaths and stared at the disaster before us. Although it was a mess, we were fortunate it did not end worse.
This incident has taught me an important lesson. Even though it is not as exciting to stick with the tried and true way, you will be glad you have taken it. In the past decade, the famous Chinese Pepper Steak dish has transformed into something risky, seemingly adventurous yet more often than not a disaster. A dish that has been around since the Shang Dynasty, that has not been changed for many centuries, is suddenly cooked differently. Much like my Kenyan friend Zedy, many young, ambitious cooks try going a different route. They add fruits. They add extra corn starch. They mix vinegar into it. Most of all, they add garlic. It is very heavy and strong so that when one eats it, it's challenging you. It is fighting you. This was not the way Chinese Pepper Steak is meant to be cooked!
When cooking for a proper Chinese Pepper Steak dish, the preparation is the most important. You stick with the original recipe: red bell peppers, strips of steak, ginger, corn starch, a touch of hot pepper and soy sauce (* Editor's Note: See the side bar on the right for a full list of the ingredients). The simplicity of the ingredients can lead many impatient cooks to bring in other ingredients. Resist the temptation and stick to the path.
If you think of cooking pepper steak as three groups, it will make it very easy.
Group A: Chopped Vegetables (3 things)
Put the following in one group: one chopped onion, one chopped green pepper, one chopped red pepper. If you must exceed the amount, do it with the red pepper only. The green will make it vastly more bitter while the onions will overwhelm the rest. Again, stick to the path.
Group B: Sauces, Etc. (6 things)
Keep these on the side because you will be adding them in-between certain steps: black bean sauce, sugar, corn starch, mushroom dark sauce, soy sauce and a can of chicken broth. **Notice there is no salt!** The mushroom dark sauce, black bean sauce and soy sauce have enough salt in them.
Group C: Steak (1 thing)
Choose the highest grade steak like the flank. Any beef that is low grade or even substitute beef like ground beef will destroy the purpose of the dish. It will no longer be Pepper Steak but something else. Stick to the path.
2. MARINATE THE STEAK AND WATERY CORN STRATCH
Cut slices of the flank steak and marinate in a bowl with a teaspoon of soy sauce, a teaspoon of sugar and put in a little water. Let this sit for thirty minutes. While waiting for that to marinate, create a watery corn starch by mixing a tablespoon of corn starch with water. This will prevent the meat from absorbing all the corn starch. The amount of corn starch is *extremely* important. If you exceed one teaspoon, the entire dish will become extremely heavy and it will make everything taste like rubber.
3. COOKING THE STEAK
With a good sized pan, put in the corn oil and let it sit for a minute. Once the oil is ready, put in the marianted steak. Mix with it a 1/2 teaspoon of sugar. Having too much corn starch would be like having the flat tire in the jeep. At that point, your dish is out of control and most people eating it will abandon the dish. Let this all cook for a several minutes so that the beef absorbs the "juice".
4. ADDING THE CHOPPED VEGETABLES
Pour in the chopped vegetables. The pan should make a SHAAA! sound, which is how you know the beef is really embracing the vegetables. In cooking, harmony is everything. The meat must be balanced with the vegetables so that its taste remains humble, but the vegetables are given excitement. Be sure to mix!
5. BLACK BEAN SAUCE AND CHICKEN BROTH
About thirty seconds after the vegetables are added, put a tablespoon of black bean sauce and a clove of chopped garlic. Then put a 1/2 cup of chicken broth. Again, stick with the path. If it is one tablespoon then it is one tablespoon. 1/2 cup is 1/2 cup. There are consequences if there is improvising. For example, too much chicken broth will turn the meat loose and watery.
6. COVER WITH LID AND SIMMER
Put the lid on top of the pan and let the dish simmer for thirty seconds. You can use this time to wash some plates, watch tv, or do excerise. I am old so I do some easy excerise. After two minutes have passed, add a teaspoon of soy sauce and, very, very carefully, a drop of mushroom dark sauce and one tablespoon of sugar. The mushroom dark sauce is very strong so be very careful. If your dish ends up too salty, this is the misstep it happened.
7. WATERY CORN STARCH AND SESAME OIL
Include the watery corn starch from Step 2 and put in a tiny bit of sesame oil. Simmer for thirty seconds and the dish is ready.
The Chinese Pepper Steak dish is very quick to make. I covered it in seven steps, but when you are used to cooking it, it will feel like three. Prepare, cook the steak and add the rest. Even in the old days, this dish was not difficult to cook...with today's technology, it is almost instant. But only if you keep the original way and not try to do something radically different.
When Zedy and I finally grasped enough reality to check on the other two passengers, we found the one who fell out safe but the driver had tripped over a rock and hurt his ankle. It took us hours to reach back to our hotel on foot. The others of our tour had made it in 15 minutes. All of this could have been prevented if we had just stuck to the established path.