When I was a child, long before the celebrity chefs of today graced our TV screens, there existed the Chinese cooking shows. These shows were usually led by a very able looking and authoritative sounding Chinese lady who would throw ingredients into a steaming hot wok while tossing deftly with one hand and delivering a non-stop narrative on what exactly she was doing. In Chinese, of course. No subtitles. The lack of actual language comprehension aside, I was entranced. I looked at her, so confident, hypnotized by the bullet-fire cadence of her voice, and when she poured that glossy, smoking food into a porcelain dish I already knew that, in a sense, we did speak the same language.
This was my first introduction to cooking on TV, but not my last. After many years, although still a while before the time when the phrase “celebrity chef” would take the world by storm, there was Yan Can Cook. Finally I could understand what was actually being said! It was like cooking shows in general, and Chinese food in particular, suddenly became 3D and Technicolor. His energy, his jolly demeanor, and his delicious looking dishes made cooking seem fun and (more importantly) easy.
So, you can imagine my thrill when Sabrina of Sinfully Sabrina asked me if I wanted to attend a dinner organized by SKY cable and AFC, and prepared by Martin Yan (with a live cooking demonstration!!!)! That was an easy yes!
After much dithering about what to wear, and a few fervent prayers that I wouldn’t sound like an absolute dolt, off I went. And let me tell you, he is as energetic and jolly, and skilled, as he was all those years ago. He has that easy, confident manner in the kitchen that (I imagine) you only get after doing things a million times over…and still loving it afterwards. Because it really is the love for what he does that shines brighter than anything else about him.
Although, yes, he really does have the knife skills of a ninja!
I did get a chance to speak with him briefly. He was talking about cooking and food and I nervously asked, “How did you know?” He looked at me and recounted the story of his childhood in Guangzhou, growing up in his father’s restaurant, from his earliest memories surrounded by the sight, sounds, and smells of the kitchen; of his move to Hong Kong when he was just 13, and working at restaurants there; of hot kitchens and short-tempered cooks who set the foundation for a young boy who would one day grow up to be able to joint a chicken in 16 seconds without breaking a sweat (there was no room for slowpokes in the Hong Kong kitchens). At the end of it, he paused and said, that apart from everything else, the most important ingredient is passion.
And isn’t that the God’s honest truth?
Here is a recipe for the dish he prepared for us (with the help of the lovely Michelle of Momma ‘N Manila!), which I’d like to share with all of you…in the hopes of sharing some of that night’s great vibes!
- 2 teaspoons soy sauce
- 2 teaspoons cornstarch
- Salt and pepper to taste
- 500 grams beef sirloin or tenderloin (I use tenderloin), cut into 1-inch cubes
- 2 tablespoons cooking oil
- 3 cloves garlic, minced
- 1 red onion cut into 1-inch squares
- 4-5 spring onions cut into 1-inch lengths
- 1/2 red bell pepper cut into 1-inch squares
- 1/2 yellow bell pepper cut into 1-inch squares
- 1 tablespoon fish sauce
- 1 tablespoon hoisin sauce
- 1 teaspoon chili sauce
- 1 tablespoon water
- 2 teaspoons rice vinegar
- 2 teaspoons soy sauce
- 1 tablespoon unsalted butter
– Combine 2 teaspoons soy sauce, cornstarch, salt and pepper in a bowl. Add the beef and stir to coat evenly. Cover and refrigerate for 1 hour.
– Mix the fish sauce, hoisin, chili sauce, water, rice vinegar, and the other 2 teaspoons soy sauce together in a small bowl and set aside. This is your sauce mixture.
– Heat a wok over high heat. When the wok is hot add the oil and swirl to coat the sides. Add the beef and cook until the sides are seared, about 3 minutes. Take care not to over-cook the beef or it will become tough! Remove the beef from the pan and set aside.
– Add the garlic, red onion, and peppers and cook until fragrant. Add the green onion and stir-fry for 1 minute.
– Return the beef to the pan along with the sauce mixture and toss to coat beef evenly. Shake the pan around to get everything coated…this is where the “shaking beef” comes in!
– Add the butter and mix until the butter is melted and evenly distributed, giving the dish a nice sheen.
-Serve with steamed broccoli and lots of rice!
I took some liberties in adapting the recipe to suit my taste. For example, the original called for red and green bell peppers but I just can’t do green capsicum, sorry! I am really, really not fond of it. At all. So I changed the combination to red and yellow…which suited me much better. I added them earlier on in the cooking process too, as I like my peppers not too crunchy. The original also called for sirloin, but I have just been so unlucky with sirloin in my life. Maybe I just have too heavy a hand to successfully cook it. In any case, I opted for tenderloin, which is much more tender, as the name rightfully implies. You still need to be vigilant, as with sirloin, about not overcooking it. Also, the recipe originally included a red jalapeño (or any red chili) and the chili sauce was at 1 tablespoon, but since my children’s spice tolerance isn’t up to my standards yet nixing the red chili and reducing the chili sauce worked fine. You are supposed to flambé the beef in rice wine when it is almost done…a feat I was not going to attempt in my small kitchen with two children underfoot. Lastly, the whole lot is supposed to be placed on a pile of watercress but I didn’t have any, so I settled for steamed broccoli, which I think works very well with this dish.
This is perfect for a quick dinner mid-week. The beef is super flavorful and tender, and really, the only accompaniment you need is steaming hot rice and the steamed broccoli (which you can very easily replace with the vegetable of your choice). Feel free to up the spice factor if you don’t have small children who can’t eat spicy food (yet!). This is also the perfect recipe with which to practice your pan tossing skills in private. I only lost one piece of pepper to my tossing! Small victories.
I hope you enjoy this!
And, although life may throw some wrenches in our path, and maybe not all of us are ardently doing what we could definitively call “our life’s passion”, and there could be moments when the weight on our shoulders keeps us from seeing the sunshine outside our windows, there is still always room for passion in our lives, even if we need to channel it down different paths.
And, if all else fails, you can at least have a good meal and think about it tomorrow!
***You can catch Martin Yan’s latest show on AFC, Martin Yan’s Taste of Vietnam every Friday until November 27 at 7PM (4 episodes back to back!) 🙂