My kitchen is in need of some serious re-organising. My spice cupboard, especially, is threatening to burst open. It has come to the point where I get ambushed by a packet of cloves whenever I open the cupboard door so, much as I hate packing, it's time to stop pretending that the kitchen elves will sort it out for me. My problem is, I can't really throw anything out. Like my dad, I'm a hoarder, just that instead of hoarding old newspapers and books, I hoard pretty plates and ingredients. In my own defence, I do use almost all of these spices. I do use my star anise for a soy braise, my coriander for a rempah or satay, my cinnamon for puddings, and my turmeric to stain everything golden. And as for the rest, I do need them all for a curry or biryani. So I really can't throw anything out. See?
Funnily, the one spice I don't really use much is perhaps the most basic spice that every cook has and uses most often- black pepper. Perhaps because of my mum's influence on my cooking, I reach for white pepper more often than I do black. The flavour of the white is less harsh and bitter than the black, and it generally rounds out the asian flavours of soy sauce or ginger much better. But even for mashed potatoes, I quite like using white just so I don't see the random flecks of black and I've also recently taken to using white pepper when I make the best scrambled eggs for breakfast.
That said though, there are times when I want the more earthy, gutsy kick of black pepper, and not just for the very non-asian things like meatballs. Black pepper beef is a classic tze char hawker favourite back home. It's one of the only few instances you'll see a Chinese chef using black pepper instead of white, and liberal amounts at that, and it's also the reason why black pepper made the top 8 in the end.
BLACK PEPPER BEEF
serves 2-3 as a side
200g beef flank (or sirloin if you're feeling particularly generous)
1 large brown onion, sliced
1 inch ginger, sliced thinly
3 cloves garlic, minced
2 tbsp of groundnut oil
2 large dried red chilli, soaked and deseeded but left whole (optional, for extra heat and colour. If in summer, feel free to use bell peppers)
1/2 tbsp good (traditionally brewed) soy sauce
1/2 tbsp Chinese rice wine
1 tsp homemade stock, or water
1 tsp (yep. not a pinch) freshly ground black pepper
1 tsp unrefined sugar
1 tsp tapioca/ cornstarch
few drops of toasted sesame oil
3 tbsp of homemade stock, or water if desperate
1 tbsp good soy sauce
1 tsp of Chinese shaoxing rice wine
1 tsp Chinese black vinegar
1 tsp toasted sesame oil
1 tsp unrefined sugar
1tsp of tapioca/ cornstarch mixed with 1 tsp water (to thicken)
1. Slice the beef thinly against the grain, at an angle. Mix well with the marinade and then leave it aside for 30 min.
2. Meanwhile, you can prep your ingredients, like chopping onions and mixing the sauce ingredients (except the cornstarch and water) so you can have a relaxing stir fry later.
4. Add oil to a screaming hot wok and flash-fry the beef for 1 min, the outsides should be seared but the insides still pink. Remove from the wok and let drain and set aside.
5. Add the onions and fry till translucent and slightly softened. Push aside and add the dried chilli, ginger and garlic to the hot oil and fry till fragrant.
6. Add the sauce, which should help deglaze the pan. Let it come to the boil, then reduce the heat.
7. Stir in the cornstarch slurry a little at a time till you get the consistency you want. It will thicken after it cools, so don't go pouring everything at a go!
8. Return the beef to the wok and stirfry for 2 min or so, making sure everything's coated. Serve hot with steaming bowls of rice.
See my old post on secrets to a chinese stirfry if you are one of those kids who have to know the "why" behind each step.
The black pepper here isn't sprinkled on as an afterthought; rather than a seasoning, think of it as the main flavour of the dish itself. Slightly bitter and nutty, it goes really well with the sweet, charred onions to give a very earthy sort of heat and flavour to the beef. I used the brown onion here, not because I have a couple of papery ones crying to be used, but because they stand up to the strong black pepper better than their milder spring onion cousins. If you have a wonderfully pristine spice cupboard with nothing but salt and pepper, and an equally bare fridge with no fresh vegetables in it, you could still make this.