I’m fortunate to live in an area with a large Asian population and have ready access to high-quality traditional Chinese food. And I occasionally like to tell myself that I’m somehow fancy or cultured because I can distinguish regional cuisines or appreciate cold, spiced jellyfish, but I also have a soft spot in my heart for the Americanized Chinese restaurants I grew up with. They’re still around: restaurants where they serve you chow mein noodles and ketchup as an appetizer and egg foo yung drenched in canned beef gravy. I will eat at my local old-school Chinese restaurant from time to time to remind myself that food doesn’t need to be authentic to be delicious or even culturally important. The dishes invented by mid-century Chinese-American restaurateurs are traditional in their own right, and don’t need to be validated by some fetish of geography to have intrinsic worth. It’s kind of fun to say you’ve eaten (and enjoyed) dry-fried spiced frog, but there’s no shame in liking American Chinese food.
Which brings me to the “Chinese” recipe below – Tomato Beef Chow Yuk with Pea Pods – adapted from No Regrets, a 1974 cookbook compiled by the Junior League of Portland (Oregon). Judging from the surnames of the cookbook contributors alone I can guarantee this is not a traditional Chinese recipe, and the ingredient list will quickly confirm this. I’m sure that chow yuk has some distant roots in traditional Chinese cuisine. As best as I can tell chow yuk translates loosely as “stir-fried meat”, which is certainly a thing that’s done in China, but it seems that most chow yuk recipes are adapted to American palates but prepared using Chinese cooking methods. My local old-school Chinese joint serves a variety of chow yuks, with various permutations of stir-fried meat and vegetables coated in a savory sauce. The sauce has the consistency of a thin gravy, thick enough to bathe the meat and veggies but without added cornstarch or flour to cause it to gel and stick to the surface.
One of the things that drew me to this recipe was that it relies exclusively on fresh vegetables instead of canned Chinese vegetables, which are much more common for community cookbooks of this era. I’ve got dozens of 1970s “Oriental” recipes in my backlog that involve canned bean sprouts or water chestnuts and just can’t bring myself to make them. The canning process preserves just enough of the crunch to make them exactly wrong – neither fresh nor flaccid – and I just can’t deal with them. I suspect that fresh Asian veggies were hard to come by in 1970s Portland so the most “exotic” ingredient we get in this recipe is fresh pea pods. In context snow peas seem to be the right choice, but I’ve made this recipe with sugar snaps as well and everything works out just fine. The other joy of Tomato Beef Chow Yuk with Pea Pods is that not much is required in the way of forethought. It takes longer to cook the rice than the meal itself, and the marinating time for the meat is blissfully short – just enough time to chop the veggies.
In my adaptation I considered adding some more “authentic” ingredients to the mix but it seemed counterproductive. Tomato Beef Chow Yuk with Pea Pods is what it is, and even though it might not be familiar to China’s citizenry it does just fine on its own merits. It tastes like my youth. I’ve instead made some aesthetic adjustments, mostly for convenience in preparation. The general recommendation for stir fries is to cut all the ingredients to a uniform size – meat, veggies, the whole works. In general I think this is sound advice but I don’t like what it does for onions and peppers. Both tend to “cup” during the stir-fry, which means they make uneven contact with the wok and tend to cook awkwardly. You may prefer to have onion bits with nicely browned tips and a raw crunchy center, but I’m not feeling it. I’ve chosen instead to slice onions and peppers thin, as I would for cheesesteaks, which allows them to cook evenly and improves taste and texture. This makes it more difficult if you’re planning to eat this with chopsticks, but who are we kidding? This is fork food.
The resulting dish is quite good and unashamedly old school. The vinegar in the marinade tenderizes the meat and lets you get away with using cheaper cuts. I’m not sure if I’d go with round stea, but I got great results with inexpensive petite sirloin. And don’t be put off by the tomato sauce; there’s not enough of this to turn this into a stealth Italian dish. It adds some acid and saltiness but is just enough to coat the stir-fry – the fresh veggies are the predominant flavor here. It should go without saying that Tomato Beef Chow Yuk with Pea Pods should be served with hot, long-grain rice. In a million years you could serve this with noodles, but it really needs rice to soak up the gravy. In our family we serve this with a green salad or fresh fruit. Pineapple seems to work particularly well, even if it gets a little bit of the sauce mixed in with it. And don’t worry about authenticity. It is what it is, a collaboration of American flavors and traditional Chinese prep methods, and it’s delicious. Enjoy!
For marinating the beef:
- 2-3 lbs top sirloin steak
- 1 ½ tbsp rice flour
- 1 tsp salt
- 2 tbsp brown sugar
- 1 tbsp white vinegar
- 1 tsp sesame oil
For the stir fry:
- ½ sweet onion (sliced into half rings)
- 1 stalk celery (bias-sliced)
- 1 anaheim or pasilla pepper (sliced into thin strips)
- 8 oz pea pods
- 3-4 tomatoes (cored, and sliced into thin wedges)
- 8 oz sliced mushrooms
For the sauce:
- Trim excess fat from the steak and cut into ½ inch thick strips against the grain. Put the steak strips in a large plastic bag with brown sugar, salt, and rice flour and shake to coat. Then add soy sauce, sesame oil, and vinegar and combine with your hands. Let stand for 10 minutes or more while you prepare the vegetables.
- Heat a wok over high heat - add 1 tbsp of cooking oil. Add the peppers, onions, and peapods to the wok and stir fry for 2-3 minutes, then add tomatoes, mushrooms, and celery and stir fry 1-2 minutes more.
- Add tomato sauce, soy sauce, and vinegar to the vegetables. Allow liquid to come to a boil, stir a few times, and then pour the vegetable mixture and sauce into a large bowl.
- Wipe out the wok and add another couple of tablespoons of oil. Working in batches, stir fry the beef for about 3 minutes until nicely browned but still tender, then add everything back to the wok and cook about a minute more.
- Serve with long-grain rice, and eat with a fork 😉