An Iconic Canadian Recipe

The Ultimate Cowtown Ginger Beef


Origin: Calgary, Alberta

A Calgary ginger beef recipe that was developed in my home kitchen after hours of experimentation. The Ultimate Cowtown Ginger Beef is the first post in an on-going series of posts entitled “Iconic Canadian Recipes” where I search for well-known, and not-so-well-known, local regional dishes, and try to recreate them in my home kitchen.

Calgary Alberta at night

The Backstory of this Calgary Ginger Beef Recipe

Growing up in the southern Okanagan, there wasn’t much for 12-year-old me to do outside the tourist season. It was too cold for the beaches, and I didn’t have enough money for the ski hills. In fact, my friends and I were often found hanging out at Cherry Lane Mall on Sunday afternoons spending the little money we made collecting pop cans during the week prior. One of my favorite things about those visits to the mall was ordering a combo meal at Sizzling Rice, a Chinese food restaurant in the food court. Yes, I had to add rice and a side of steamed vegetables to make it a combo, but if the nice Chinese owner who greeted me every Sunday would let me have my way, I would have ordered three portions of just ginger beef—a dish composed of crispy deep-fried beef slathered in a hot ginger sweet sauce. There was nothing else like it, and it ended up becoming a comfort dish that I’d routinely order throughout the rest of my childhood and early adulthood.

Calgary-Style Ginger Beef
Calgary-Style Ginger Beef

Fast forward 13 years. I had just finished my undergrad at the University of Calgary and moved all the way out to the east coast of Canada for a change of scenery. I settled in Halifax, Nova Scotia and luckily found employment helping to administrate a cancer research study at Dalhousie University. For the first couple months, I was living out of a rented bedroom with limited kitchen space, so eating out was a common occurrence. Chinese food has always been a comfort food for me, so it didn’t take long before I started hitting up all the Chinese food joints on the peninsula. While I enjoyed this exploration of Haligonian-Chinese cuisine, I quickly came a sinking realization; ginger beef, the Chinese takeout dish that of my childhood, did not exist in this part of Canada!

Sure, Jean’s Chinese Food, popular among students for their extra-large portions, was just around the corner from my office. They served something called ‘ginger beef’, but it was not the ginger beef I had known and loved. Black sludge served over soggy beef was a more apt description.

The Great Wall on Bedford Row came closest with their rendition of ginger beef; the sauce was the right consistency and the gingery-spiciness was on point, but it was significantly sweeter than I had been accustomed to and the beef wasn’t very crispy. On its own, it was a great dish, but it just didn’t quite hit the spot when I had a hankering for ginger beef.

Being a western Canadian, I had taken for granted the existence of this sweet gingery dish. Anyone from western Canada knows that ginger beef is synonymous with Chinese food. But the fact is the dish isn’t even from China. Instead, it was developed in Calgary, Alberta during the mid-1970s by chef George Wong at the Silver Inn. The dish was originally named “deep fried shredded beef in chili sauce”, and word quickly spread around Calgary about this tasty dish. Serving ginger and beef in the same dish isn’t anything foreign to Chinese cuisine, but the crispy chewiness of the beef slathered in a hot gingery sweet sauce undoubtedly originated in Calgary.

Calgary cowboy hat
Calgary
Fresh Organic Ginger
Ginger
Brown cow on green pasture near Calgary
Beef

When I finally got my own apartment in Halifax, I attempted to make ginger beef myself, finding only a few recipes on the internet. But every time I made it, the beef wasn’t crispy enough, the sauce was too runny, it wasn’t gingery enough, or it was lacking the subtle sweetness that defines the dish.

A few years later, I moved back to Calgary. One of the first things I did upon returning was order some ginger beef. I must have romanticized the dish, or I just don’t know where to get the good stuff anymore, because I was sorely disappointed in every order. Either the meat was too soggy, or the sauce lacked the punch that was reminiscent of my childhood memories in Chinese food restaurants. I couldn’t believe I was having such trouble finding good ginger beef in Calgary of all places.

Good thing I’m stubborn. After many attempts at recreating this dish, I’ve settled on a recipe. What follows is an explanation of the choices I made in developing this recipe.

Deep frying Calgary Ginger Beef

Technique Used in this Calgary Ginger Beef Recipe

Deep Frying the Beef in Less Oil

First of all, I really wanted to avoid heating up a whole pot of oil just for a stir fry. But the dish’s crispiness is ginger beef’s signature. I tried to just straight up pan-fry some marinated beef, and while the dish was still tasty, it was missing a vital textural component. So I settled for 3 cups of oil in a sauté pan or dutch oven, and deep frying the beef in 13 batches. These small batches prevented overcrowding of the pan and ensured that the temperature remained high so that the beef was actually fried rather than steamed.

An Unusual Batter and Marinade

The batter and marinade contains many strange ingredients. I borrowed from Modernist Cuisine’s Korean deepfried wing recipe, my favourite wing recipe ever. The wings are made from a batter of potato starch and “easy blend” flour; a flour you will find in smaller shaker cans–in Canada, it’s “Robin Hood Easy Blend”, whereas in the United States, it’s “Wondra”. A batter made out of this combination of potato starch and easy blend flour crisps and browns wonderfully, and it stays crisp even when it’s sitting in a wet sauce for an extended period of time. The marinade, which is eventually incorporated into the batter, contains vodka.  Vodka has a low boiling point and will evaporate quickly during deep frying, resulting in a very flaky and crispy crust.

Potato starch, Robin Hood Easy Blend Flour, and Vodka make a crispy and delicate crust
Some unusual ingredients in this batter, but each play a part in making a crispy delicate crust that stays crisp for a long time. I’m using Banff ice vodka in particular in order to commemorate the origins of ginger beef.
Wondra flour for a delicate crispy batter
In the United States and can’t find Robin Hood Easy Blend flour? Try Wondra.
Modernist Cuisine Korean chicken wings made using the same batter
Modernist Cuisine Korean chicken wings made using the same batter
Muscle fiber direction of flank steak
Notice the wide muscle fibers on this piece of flank steak. By cutting against the grain, or perpendicular to the fibers, you will shorten the muscle fibers, resulting in a much easier to chew beef strip.
Optimizing Tough Cuts of Beef

Flank steak is a tough cut of meat. By cutting it against the grain, much less force will be required to bite down on the beef strips; this is because flank steak contains wide muscle fibers and lots of connective tissue. By slicing against the grain, you are shortening those muscle fibers and making it much easier to chew.

Three Layers of Ginger

To create a more complex ginger profile, I incorporated three layers of ginger into this ginger beef dish: first, I sweated a generous 14 cup of ginger with the chile peppers in order to create a base for the sauce; second, I quickly stir fried some julienned ginger along with some garlic and Szcheuan peppercorn  after the main vegetables were done cooking; and third, I mixed in a small amount of powdered ginger into the batter.

Tingly Mouthfeel

Ground Szcheuan peppercorns are used to add a tingly mouthfeel to the dish that makes your taste buds extra senstive. Researchers have discovered that a molecule called hydroxy-alpha-sanshool found in the peppers is responsible for this sensation. The molecule activates your cells’ touch receptors, making them feel as if they are actually being rapidly touched. It’s a very cool sensation and a fun pepercorn to experiment with in the kitchen. 

Grinding Szechuan peppercorns with a mortar and pestle for Calgary Ginger Beef
Grinding Szechuan peppercorns with a mortar and pestle
Finely Cut Vegetables and Aromatics for a Quick Stir Fry

Don’t forget to finely julienne your vegetables and finely mince your aromatics. It’s the key to a quick stir fry.

Minced garlic and ginger
Finely julienned carrot, red bell pepper, and green bell pepper for quick cooking in a stir-fry

The Ultimate Cowtown Ginger Beef

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DifficultyIntermediate

Calgary ginger beef is a regional dish that has expanded outwards. The dish is a combination of sweet and spicy flavours; each restaurant develops its own balance. This recipe tilts towards spicy, thanks to generous amounts of ginger used. Feel free to play around the proportion of ingredients to come to your own balance.

This recipe uses a small amount of monosodium glutamate (MSG) in order to subtly enhance the savoriness of the beef. If you are concerned about this ingredient, I encourage you to read my blog post on this ingredient. If you are still uncomfortable using the ingredient, it is optional.

The Szcheuan peppercorn adds a tingly mouthfeel to the dish. This ingredient can be difficult to locate in mainstream grocerry stores. I source my Szcheuan peppercorns from The Silk Road Spice Merchant here in Calgary. They have a wide selection of high quality spices and they ship across Canada and the United States.

Potato starch can also be a difficult ingredient to find. I use Bob’s Red Mill Potato Starch, which you can purchase off Amazon.

Enjoy this Calgary ginger beef recipe!

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Yields5 Servings
Calgary-Style Ginger Beef

INGREDIENTS

Sauce
2 tbsp toasted sesame seed oil
2 Red Thai chile peppers, minced
¼ cup ginger, minced
½ cup soy sauce
½ cup chicken stock
2 tbsp rice vinegar
1 tbsp dry sherry
¼ cup sugar
Marinade and Beef Strips
¼ cup unrefined peanut oil
2 tbsp water
2 tsp vodka
2 tsp soy sauce
½ tsp toasted sesame seed oil
¼ tsp sugar
1 tsp salt
1 lb flank steak
Batter
2 tsp Robin Hood easy blend flour (Wondra in the United States)
1 ½ tsp ginger powder
Stir-Fried Vegetables
1 large carrot, julienned
1 red bell pepper, julienned
1 green bell pepper, julienned
1 inch thumb of ginger, julienned
6 garlic cloves, minced
1 ½ tsp Szcheuan peppercorn, crushed (optional — see note above)

INSTRUCTIONS

Sauce
1

In a saucier or large sauce pan, heat the 2 tablespoons of toasted sesame seed oil over medium low heat. Add the Red Thai chile pepper and ginger; stir to combine. Sweat the ginger and chile pepper for 3 minutes; they should sizzle, but not brown.

Sweating red chili peppers and ginger for Calgary Ginger Beef recipe.

2

Add 12 cup of soy sauce, chicken stock, rice vinegar, dry sherry, toasted sesame seed oil, minced ginger, and sugar to the ginger and chile pepper, and whisk until the sugar is dissolved. Bring mixture to a boil over medium-high heat and let boil for 2 minutes. Reduce heat to a gentle simmer and reduce until there’s 12 cup of a syrupy sauce left, about 20 minutes. Remove from heat.

Reduced Calgary ginger beef sauce

Marinade and Beef Strips
3

In a large bowl, whisk together the unrefined peanut oil, water, vodka, 2 tsp soy sauce, 12 tsp toasted sesame seed oil. sugar, salt, and MSG (optional) until well combined. Set aside.

Marinade for the Chinese food recipe

4

Cut flank steak on the bias and against the grain into 12 inch slices. Then cut each slice into 12 inch strips. Add beef strips to the marinade and combine well with your hands. Cover and refrigerate for 12 hour.

Beef cut on a bias against the grain and marinated

Batter
5

In a medium bowl, whisk together potato starch, easy blend flour, and ginger powder until well combine. After beef is done marinating, sprinkle the dry ingredients above the marinated beef using a fine mesh strainer. Mix together with your hands to cover the beef strips in a batter.

Incorporating the marinade into the batter for Calgary Ginger Beef

Deep Frying
6

Line a large bowl with paper towels. Heat vegetable oil over medium heat to 375°F in a large sauté pan or dutch oven. Add 13 of the beef slices and fry until the batter starts to darken, about 3 minutes. Use a spider or slotted spoon to remove the beef from the pan and place it in the paper towel-lined bowl. Let oil climb back up to 375°F, and repeat the above process twice more.

Deep fried beef strips for Calgary ginger beef

Stir Fry
7

Transfer 2 tablespoons of the shallow frying oil to a 12 inch skillet, and heat it over high heat. Once the oil is shimmering and just beginning to smoke, add the carrots, red bell pepper, and green bell pepper. Stir frequently for about 2–3 minutes; the bell peppers should start to blister and the carrots should start to caramelize.

Stir frying carrots, green bell pepper, and red bell pepper for Calgary Ginger Beef recipe

8

Create a well in the center of the pan, and add the julienned ginger, minced garlic, and crushed Szcheuan peppercorn. Stir constantly until the mixture becomes fragrant, about 30 seconds.

Quick cook of aromatics for Calgary Ginger Beef

9

Add the sauce to the skillet, and immediately turn off the heat. Add the beef to the sauce and vegetables. Stir to fully coat the beef strips.

Calgary-Style Ginger Beef

10

Serve over rice.

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Ingredients

Sauce
 2 tbsp toasted sesame seed oil
 2 Red Thai chile peppers, minced
 ¼ cup ginger, minced
 ½ cup soy sauce
 ½ cup chicken stock
 2 tbsp rice vinegar
 1 tbsp dry sherry
 ¼ cup sugar
Marinade and Beef Strips
 ¼ cup unrefined peanut oil
 2 tbsp water
 2 tsp vodka
 2 tsp soy sauce
 ½ tsp toasted sesame seed oil
 ¼ tsp sugar
 1 tsp salt
 1 lb flank steak
Batter
 2 tbsp potato starch
 2 tsp Robin Hood easy blend flour (Wondra in the United States)
 1 ½ tsp ginger powder
Stir-Fried Vegetables
 1 large carrot, julienned
 1 red bell pepper, julienned
 1 green bell pepper, julienned
 1 inch thumb of ginger, julienned
 6 garlic cloves, minced
 1 ½ tsp Szcheuan peppercorn, crushed (optional — see note above)

Directions

Sauce
1

In a saucier or large sauce pan, heat the 2 tablespoons of toasted sesame seed oil over medium low heat. Add the Red Thai chile pepper and ginger; stir to combine. Sweat the ginger and chile pepper for 3 minutes; they should sizzle, but not brown.

Sweating red chili peppers and ginger for Calgary Ginger Beef recipe.

2

Add 12 cup of soy sauce, chicken stock, rice vinegar, dry sherry, toasted sesame seed oil, minced ginger, and sugar to the ginger and chile pepper, and whisk until the sugar is dissolved. Bring mixture to a boil over medium-high heat and let boil for 2 minutes. Reduce heat to a gentle simmer and reduce until there’s 12 cup of a syrupy sauce left, about 20 minutes. Remove from heat.

Reduced Calgary ginger beef sauce

Marinade and Beef Strips
3

In a large bowl, whisk together the unrefined peanut oil, water, vodka, 2 tsp soy sauce, 12 tsp toasted sesame seed oil. sugar, salt, and MSG (optional) until well combined. Set aside.

Marinade for the Chinese food recipe

4

Cut flank steak on the bias and against the grain into 12 inch slices. Then cut each slice into 12 inch strips. Add beef strips to the marinade and combine well with your hands. Cover and refrigerate for 12 hour.

Beef cut on a bias against the grain and marinated

Batter
5

In a medium bowl, whisk together potato starch, easy blend flour, and ginger powder until well combine. After beef is done marinating, sprinkle the dry ingredients above the marinated beef using a fine mesh strainer. Mix together with your hands to cover the beef strips in a batter.

Incorporating the marinade into the batter for Calgary Ginger Beef

Deep Frying
6

Line a large bowl with paper towels. Heat vegetable oil over medium heat to 375°F in a large sauté pan or dutch oven. Add 13 of the beef slices and fry until the batter starts to darken, about 3 minutes. Use a spider or slotted spoon to remove the beef from the pan and place it in the paper towel-lined bowl. Let oil climb back up to 375°F, and repeat the above process twice more.

Deep fried beef strips for Calgary ginger beef

Stir Fry
7

Transfer 2 tablespoons of the shallow frying oil to a 12 inch skillet, and heat it over high heat. Once the oil is shimmering and just beginning to smoke, add the carrots, red bell pepper, and green bell pepper. Stir frequently for about 2–3 minutes; the bell peppers should start to blister and the carrots should start to caramelize.

Stir frying carrots, green bell pepper, and red bell pepper for Calgary Ginger Beef recipe

8

Create a well in the center of the pan, and add the julienned ginger, minced garlic, and crushed Szcheuan peppercorn. Stir constantly until the mixture becomes fragrant, about 30 seconds.

Quick cook of aromatics for Calgary Ginger Beef

9

Add the sauce to the skillet, and immediately turn off the heat. Add the beef to the sauce and vegetables. Stir to fully coat the beef strips.

Calgary-Style Ginger Beef

10

Serve over rice.

The Ultimate Cowtown Ginger Beef

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