Ginger. It’s my favourite flavour, deliciously lemony, woody, earthy, with a backbite of spicy heat. I eat crystallized ginger almost every day. Plus it’s good for me – it soothes gastric upsets, lullabyes an overstuffed belly, calms nausea, eases arthritic inflammation, and perhaps offers antioxidant resistance to heart disease. When cooking, I put one or more of three versions – crystallized, powdered, and fresh – into gingersnaps that snap back, ginger tea, ginger lemonade, ginger peach tart, ginger rhubarb shrub, ginger chocolate biscotti, ginger shrimp or chicken or beef, to name just a few.
Ginger beef, now, there’s a thing. It arose in Calgary’s Silver Inn, owned back in the day by sisters Louise Tsang and Lily Wong. Lily’s husband George, a chef, introduced the dish soon after their arrival from Hong Kong in 1975, but the dish has roots in traditional Szechuan Chinese fare. Famous in Canada, ginger beef has earned a mention in a British book, The Flavor Thesaurus: Pairings, Recipes and Ideas for the Creative Cook, by Niki Segnit (2010, Bloomsbury Press). In Segnit’s pairings index, ginger is partnered with more than twenty other ingredients as diverse as rhubarb (you bet, in crisps, cobblers pies, and old-fashioned shrubs), chocolate (in biscotti!) and cabbage.
My late dad spent many kitchen shifts working through ways to make ginger beef at home without a deep fryer or shallow pan of oil. Like my dad, I have spent time in the kitchen tinkering with dishes derived from ginger beef, but often I take left turns: I devise dishes that follow the original ginger beef’s flavour profile, but usually cut to the chase by deleting the batter, grilling or sautéing the protein instead, and drizzling the finished result with a sweet-tart lemon and ginger sauce. It works just fine, but ginger beef it ain’t.
I loved the Silver Inn’s ginger beef, and I love it still from my own stove – sticky, chewy, gingery, sweet and spicy, and utterly satisfying with nothing more complicated than a bed of rice or fat noodles. Recently after a day spent tending a garage sale with my mom, my brother and our neighbor, we were revived by the surprisingly good ginger beef served at the Chinese café in the small prairie town where Mom lives. I decided to revive the ginger beef all-star revue as an occasional guest-star in my omnibus of homecooked dishes. Here’s my tweaked version. So first we eat, then let’s find some gingersnaps and ginger tea to share.
In this version, I dip strips of flank steak in batter, then shallow panfry them in hot oil. If that sounds too messy or caloric, roast or grill the flank, slice it against the grain, then dress it with the sauce, and garnish. Alternatives include shrimp, dense-textured fish like halibut, chicken, squid, and cauliflower. Reheat leftovers in the oven. Serves 4
2 Tbsp. vegetable oil
¼ cup minced or grated fresh ginger
6 garlic cloves, minced
1 onion, sliced
1 carrot, julienned
1 bell pepper, julienned
2 stalks of celery, julienned
½ cup shredded cabbage
2/3 cup light soy sauce
2/3 cup packed dark brown sugar
¾ cup water
¼ cup dark soy or kejap manis
¼ cup rice vinegar or lemon juice
1 tsp. hot chili flakes
1 Tbsp. roasted sesame oil
beef and batter:
vegetable oil for the pan
1 lb. flank steak, sliced thinly against the grain
salt and pepper to taste
1 cup cornstarch
¼ cup all purpose or gluten-free flour
1 large egg
¾ cup cold water
3 minced green onions
¼ cup minced cilantro
2 Tbsp. toasted sesame seeds
Heat the oil in a wok or sauté pan, add the ginger and garlic, then sauté the vegetables to tender-crisp, adding 1 -2 Tbsp. water to the pan at several intervals.
Make the sauce by combining all the ingredients. Pour over the vegetables (or use a separate pot) and bring to a quick boil. Set aside.
Preheat oven to 375 F and line a baking sheet with parchment. Pour vegetable oil to a depth of ¾” into a heavy-bottomed wide shallow pot. Heat oil to 350 F over high heat. Season the meat very generously with salt and pepper, then combine remaining ingredients into a batter. Mix well.
Dip one slice of meat at a time into the batter, coating thoroughly. Gently place the meat in the hot oil. Repeat with enough strips to form a single layer in the pan. Cook until very brown, covering the pan with a mesh splash guard, turning the meat at least once with tongs. Use a slotted spoon to frequently remove any debris from the pan.
Transfer the meat to the tray, drizzle sparingly with sauce and keep warm in the oven while you cook the rest of the meat in batches.
Reheat the vegetables and sauce. Pour over the meat, and garnish before serving.