Sunday, May 3, 2015

The satay sauce of Chaozhou

Chaozhou is considered by most Chinese culinary experts to be one of Guangdong's three main cuisines, in addition to the dishes of the Hakka and, of course, the foods that are more typically Cantonese. But other than the fact that Chaozhou is located in the upper section of Guangdong province, that's pretty much where the similarities end, for just like Hakka cooking, this is more a case of geographic proximity than stylistic resemblances.

As Chinese food writer Tang Zhenchang wrote in his Yongsun ji (Breakfast and supper journal), "Chaozhou cooking is not one of the Eight Great Cuisines, probably because it was assumed that Chaozhou cooking could be categorized with Guangdong cuisine. This also is not correct; generally speaking Cantonese cuisine cannot encompass the special characteristics of Chaozhou cuisine, something that that all diners know."

L to R: Veggie, original, & numbing-spicy
One of the main things that sets Chaozhou cuisine apart from the rest of Guangdong's cooking its marvelous shachajiang, or satay sauce. And although it bears the same name as the famous Indonesian sauce, Chaozhou's satay is completely different. Here it is a pungent and thoroughly addictive combination of dried shrimp, garlic, shallots, chilies, and dried fish. (Vegetarians can also enjoy this sauce, for meatless versions are available; these will usually have a Buddhist swastika on them.)

This satay is often used, as here, with another sauce that shows evidence of Southeast Asian influences: fish sauce, which for some reason is often referred to as "shrimp oil" (xiayou) in Chinese. These two come together to offer a delicious funkiness to the dishes of Chaozhou, but it remains a subtle undercurrent that beguiles the tongue and amplifies the freshness of the other ingredients. 

Satay sauce can also be used as a base for some delicious soups, as part of complex dipping sauces for meats and vegetables, and as a component in grilling sauces, but it is almost always first fried to release its fragrance and shrug off any canned aromas. In fact, it's this preliminary frying that gives depth and soul to satay dishes, elevating them into something pretty much approaching the sublime.

Torn oyster mushrooms
A couple notes about the vegetables here. First, I've added oyster mushrooms to the mix since I like the juiciness and extra layer of flavor they provide. So, if you're a vegetarian, you can use all mushrooms here instead of the beef. Do note the way that the mushrooms are prepped: they are torn down the length into long strips, rather than sliced, which gives them more of a "meaty" texture and helps keep them from falling apart.

Celery provides a really delicious herbal note here, as well as a nice crunch. You'll see that I've recommended a deep green celery because that's the kind that has all of the flavor; pale celery is rather bland. And if you can find it, Chinese celery is terrific here since it has an even more pronounced flavor than the Western kind. Finally, mung (green bean) sprouts lighten up the dish so that it doesn't become too intense from all of the sauce's strong flavors. 

Bean sprouts can be a bit of a pain because they seem to self-destruct within minutes of getting them home. The secret to keeping your sprouts happy is to submerge them in cool water and store them in the fridge as soon as you can. Change the water every day and use them as soon as humanly possible. They won't last forever, but this does eke a couple of more moments out of their limited lifespan.

Coat the beef
You'll notice that I have you cook the beef, vegetables, and sauce separately. Feel free to just scoot the beef and vegetables up the side of the wok if you feel confident enough, and that is what I've done in the picture below. The main thing you want to be sure of is that nothing gets overcooked. Freshness is the hallmark of Chaozhou cooking, so keep the meat tender and the vegetables crisp, and then bind them together at the last second with this savory sauce.

If you want, serve this by itself over rice or in stir-fried fresh rice noodles (hefen) for a simple and delicious meal that will satisfy just about every sense you possess.

Satay steak and bean sprouts 
Yínyá shāchá níuròu 銀芽沙茶牛肉  
Serves 6 to 8 as part of a multicourse meal, or 2 to 3 as a main course

1 pound skirt steak
2 teaspoons cornstarch
4 teaspoons light soy sauce

¼ cup Chinese satay sauce (shachajiang), preferably the Niutou (Ox Head) brand from Taiwan
2 tablespoons sugar
1 tablespoon fish sauce
¼ cup lightly salted stock
4 teaspoons dark soy sauce

Everything else:
1 inch fresh ginger, peeled
2 or 3 deep green celery stalks (Chinese celery preferred)
1 pound very fresh mung bean sprouts
4 green onions, trimmed
6 ounces oyster mushrooms, optional
10 tablespoons (or so) peanut or vegetable oil, divided

1. Rinse the meat and pat dry with a paper towel. Cut the meat against the grain into ½-inch strips. Place them in a work bowl and toss with the light soy sauce and cornstarch. Allow the meat to marinade while you prepare the rest of the ingredients.

2. Mix the sauce ingredients together in a small work bowl.  Taste the sauce and add more sugar, satay sauce, fish sauce, or soy sauce as desired, since there's a wide variety of differences among the various satay and fish sauces. You can also adjust the seasoning at the end.

3. Slice the ginger against the grain into very thin pieces, and then cut these up into thin strips. Wash the celery stalks carefully and trim off both ends; if the strings are tough, then remove them too. Slice the celery crosswise into 2- or 3-inch pieces, and then slice them lengthwise into thin julienne. Rinse the beansprouts and drain thoroughly. Cut the green onions in half lengthwise and then into pieces that are the same length as the cut celery. Clean the mushrooms, if you are using them, and tear them into shreds, starting at the caps and pulling them gently down their stems until they are about the same size as the steak strips.
Scoot up the veggies & boil down the sauce

4. Heat 6 tablespoons of the oil in a wok until the oil smokes, add the ginger, and stir-fry it for a few seconds to release its flavor. Toss in the beef and any of its juices, and stir-fry the beef until most of the pink is gone. Remove the beef to a clean plate or work bowl.

5. Heat the rest of the oil over high heat and add the mushrooms. Stir-fry them until they are lightly browned all over, and then toss in the celery for a few seconds to take off the raw edge. Add the bean sprouts and just barely cooked - you do not want to have them anything other than crisp, so be careful. Remove the vegetables and add them to the beef.

6. Get the wok hot again and pour in the sauce. Reduce it very quickly until it is syrupy, and then add all of the vegetables and beef to the wok. Quickly toss them all together over high heat to combine, and then serve immediately.


  1. I made this over the weekend...very tasty. I had often wondered how to use the "barbecue" sauce. Thanks!

    1. Glad you liked it. "Barbecue" is one of the worst translations, don't you think?

  2. Hi Carolyn, I've tried a few of your recipes and they are absolutely fantastic ! I got your book and am so excited to read through it. Question: I'm wondering why you changed this recipe in your book?

    1. Many thanks for the kind words. Recipes are merely templates, and you or I should be able to alter them as we go. Perhaps we run out of a certain condiment, or have more meat than is called for in the recipe, or like things spicier, or whatever. I do this all the time, and I often note on this blog how something has been updated. At times it's a new technique I figured out that makes the recipe simpler, at other times I might be lazy. But no matter what, the dish will still taste good. Hope you agree!