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Quest for Ginger Beef

Is this Alberta favorite an authentic Chinese recipe?


Stir Fry Ginger Beef
dunham_1/Flickr/CC BY 2.0
Ginger beef - the ultimate comfort food. The famous dish consisting of marinated beef deep-fried in batter and coated with a sweet and sour sauce is a staple of Alberta Chinese restaurants. However, it is very difficult to trace the origins of this popular recipe. Does the ginger beef that Albertans know and love represent true Chinese cuisine? For that matter, is ginger beef - no matter how it's prepared - an authentic Chinese dish?

A search through several Chinese cookbooks quickly reveals that the idea of marrying beef with ginger is nothing new. For example, in Ginger East to West, Bruce Cost provides a recipe for "Real Ginger Beef" that is quite different from the typical restaurant version, using a full cup of ginger and two cups of fresh coriander leaves. In Joy of Wokking, Martin Yan has a recipe for "Spicy Ginger Beef" seasoned with five spice powder. Finally, Madame Wong's Long-Life Chinese Cookbook contains a ginger beef recipe that uses preserved red ginger and red pepper, with a sauce made from chicken stock, cornstarch, hoisin sauce and dark soy sauce.

In fact, ginger beef is based on a northern Chinese dish that is much drier and less sweet than the restaurant version. Although his name is lost to history, it is thought that a Chinese chef working in Calgary came up with the crunchy "Americanized" ginger beef with the sweet sauce that is so popular in Alberta. Even today, it is difficult, although not impossible, to find Alberta-style ginger beef outside the province. But whatever its origins, ginger beef is a great way to introduce people to Chinese food. And, while definitely not a dish for calorie-counters, it has the advantage of containing healthy ingredients such as ginger - thought to help cure colds.

Tips for Making Restaurant-Style Ginger Beef

  • To make it extra crispy, deep-fry the beef twice. This technique is often used in restaurants: staff prepare a batch of ginger beef and set it aside. When a customer places an order, a portion is deep-fried again.

  • To make the ginger beef extra tender, use only cornstarch for the batter (instead of half cornstarch and half flour).

  • Don't put all of the meat in the wok at once - that will lower the wok temperature. Start with adding about 1/4 of the meat mixture. (If you're new to deep-frying, I have a page of deep-frying tips.)

  • Mix the batter thoroughly. Test with chopsticks or a wooden spoon - it should just drop without sticking.

Ginger Beef Recipe
1 pound beef (rouladen)
1 celery stalk
1 carrot
3 hot chili peppers
2 tablespoons fresh ginger, minced
2 cloves garlic, minced
1 teaspoon Asian sesame oil

2 tablespoons dark soy sauce
1 tablespoon Chinese rice wine or dry sherry
1 teaspoon sugar
2 tablespoons ginger juice (storebought or homemade)

1 egg white, lightly beaten
1/4 cup water
1/4 cup flour
1/4 cup cornstarch
1 tablespoon hot chili oil (optional)

1 tablespoon wine
2 tablespoons light soy sauce
1 tablespoon vinegar
4 tablespoons sugar (can substitute brown sugar or honey, if desired)
1/2 teaspoon Asian sesame oil
2 tablespoons water
chili oil or chili powder to taste

4 to 5 cups oil for deep-frying

Cut beef into matchstick strips, cutting along the grain. (The meat is easier to cut if it is partially frozen).
To make ginger juice for marinade, peel and grate ginger. Squeeze out juice.
Mix four marinade ingredients. Add to beef and marinate for 30 minutes.
Begin preparing vegetables. Cut carrots, celery, and pepper into thin strips. Mince garlic. For ginger, use the leftover minced ginger from the preparation of ginger juice.
Mix the sauce ingredients. Set aside.
Beat the egg white and add water. Add flour and cornstarch. Mix the batter thoroughly. Drop the batter into the marinated meat. Heat wok. When heated, add 3 - 5 cups of oil. When the oil is ready, add about 1/4 of the meat/batter mixture. Deep-fry the beef until golden brown. Remove and set aside. Let oil come back to original temperature and add more meat.
When meat is cooked, clean the wok. Heat and add 1 tablespoon oil. When oil is ready, add the vegetables and begin stir-frying. Pour in the sauce and let come to a boil. Add the deep-fried beef. Toss quickly, and remove.
Sprinkle with sesame oil and serve hot.

More Ginger Beef Recipes...

Ginger Beef in Tabasco Sauce - a simplified version of the classic recipe

"Food is our common ground, a universal experience." (James Beard)
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