The joys of stir-fried beef and broccoli enhanced with a jolt of dark, saline-sweet oyster sauce can’t be overstated. Whether the vegetable is the standard variety or the Chinese type, gai lan, the trio comes together seamlessly, producing a savory, mineral-y synergy that belies its simplicity.
Like many such long-standing favorites, beef and broccoli is thought to have originated in the mid-1800s when Chinese workers migrated from the Pearl River Delta to coastal California. We don’t know precisely when the dish emerged or exactly what form it took—documentation of the food these workers prepared is virtually nonexistent—but it presumably followed the trajectory of similar staples: Nascent recipes catered to Chinese tastes but shifted toward the Western palate over time. To wit: A once vegetable-forward stir-fry of gai lan, beef, and oyster sauce has morphed into something that’s heavy on beef; features broccoli florets instead of gai lan; may include carrot, bell pepper, or onion; and is napped with a savory-sweet sauce.
But the form all depends on the cook. “Everybody has a different interpretation, a different presentation,” explained one of my culinary heroes during a recent phone conversation. Martin Yan isn’t just a restaurateur, cookbook author, and global television host. He is also a native of Guangdong and a resident of the San Francisco Bay Area—two geographic regions that were instrumental in shaping Chinese American cuisine. When I pressed him for advice on creating my own interpretation, he encouraged me to do my own thing: “It doesn’t matter as long as it pleases your palate.”
That’s not to say he didn’t offer opinions. His take features the gai lan, beef, and oyster sauce that scholars think appeared in early iterations, as well as soy sauce, sesame oil, Shaoxing wine, and fresh garlic and ginger—more ingredients with centuries of history in the Chinese kitchen.
The Beefiest Beef
We think of beef as supremely umami‑tasting—“beefy” is almost a synonym for “savory”—but it often gets an accompaniment of tomato, cheese, or mushrooms. That’s because, although beef contains the umami compounds glutamate and inosinate, it really shines when it’s augmented by a second source of umami. Just as tomato ketchup adds glutamate to a burger, oyster sauce, which contains a whopping 40 milligrams of glutamate per teaspoon, is the key to supersavory beef and gai lan. –Paul Adams
I planned to follow Yan’s lead and pay tribute to the three original ingredients while pulling back on the sweetness level that’s common in modern versions of the dish.
A pound of gai lan, along with half as much beef, would serve four nicely with rice. Although the brassica is related to broccoli, its taste—delicately nutty, mineral-y, and bitter—and form—wide, succulent leaves and tender stalks—are altogether different, not to mention incredibly delicious.
For the beef, Yan sometimes steps up from the usual flank steak in favor of filet mignon. What a brilliant idea. The ultratender cut is ideal for quick, high-heat cooking and easy to find in pretrimmed, 8-ounce portions. Since I needed only a small steak, it wouldn’t break the bank.
Most of the work for a stir-fry happens before you light the stove: I quartered a thick center-cut filet and popped the pieces into the freezer to firm up and make them easy to slice thin. While the beef chilled, I sliced the gai lan leaves into wide ribbons and the stalks thin on the bias.
I cut the wedges of nearly frozen beef into thin slices and then coated them in equal parts soy sauce and Shaoxing wine (the amber alcohol provided acidic depth and a sweet aroma) along with cornstarch to help the liquids grip the meat. After I’d minced garlic and grated ginger, my last task was to stir glossy oyster sauce together with heady sesame oil; chicken broth; and more soy sauce, wine, and cornstarch.
An Early Chinese Import
When Chinese immigrants first set sail from the entrepôt of Hong Kong to San Francisco, labor contractors provided the sojourners with “all kinds of necessities and luxuries,” according to Anne Mendelson, author of Chow Chop Suey: Food and the Chinese American Journey (2016). Among the bountiful provisions “were seeds for everything that you could grow in both Guangdong and California . . . and I’m sure that gai lan [Chinese broccoli] was among them,” she said. Later, as the settlers spread to the suburbs, cooks without access to purveyors of Asian produce swapped broccoli for gai lan. (The two vegetables are different varieties of the same Brassica oleracea species.) Gai lan’s broad, waxy leaves offer hints of minerality and bitterness and branch from smooth, fleshy stalks (mature specimens may have started to flower) that are prized for their crispness and delicate nuttiness.
With the components neatly lined up stoveside, I fired up my wok. Garlic and ginger crackled when they hit the hot oil just before I briskly stir-fried the voluminous pile of gai lan. I scooped the vegetable from the wok, cooked the marinated beef, and then tumbled everything together with the sauce.
The filet was meltingly tender and the gai lan stalks wonderfully crisp, but the leaves were sodden, the sauce trapped in their folds. What’s more, the overall flavor fell flat, lacking what Yan characterized as “the breath, the aroma, the steam.” He was referring to the intangible quality called wok hei—a smoldering, singed-oil essence that “you can smell two blocks away.”
How to Slice Filet Thin
This supertender, premium cut is optimal for quick, high-heat wok cookery.
- Cut beef into 4 equal wedges and freeze until very firm, 20 to 25 minutes.
- Stand each wedge on its side and slice against grain 1/4 inch thick.
A Stirring Arrangement
Some cooks mitigate saturated, droopy greens by stir-frying the leaves first, heaping them onto a platter, and then cooking the beef and stalks separately with the sauce. It was worth a shot.
I started anew, stir-frying the oblong stalk pieces in oil. Without the leaves to fill and cool the bowl of the wok, the pieces seared beautifully. As I tossed the stalks, they passed through the clouds of steam and smoke that rose from the sizzling-hot carbon steel, taking on the electric, fleeting taste of wok hei. I set aside the pale stalks, now spotted with brown, and tossed the leaves in garlicky oil. A drizzle of sesame oil joined the mix, sending up a toasty fragrance with the charred, vegetal ones. As soon as the emerald strips darkened, I splashed in some chicken broth to steam them tender.
After transferring the wilted (but not gloppy) leaves to a serving dish, I stir-fried the beef until it lost its rosy hue, returned the stalks to the wok, and drizzled in the sauce mixture. Not 60 seconds later, the savory-salty liquid was glossy and thick, so I piled the stalks and beef atop the glistening leaves.
I’d reached my destination, and it was just as satisfying as the journey: Each bite of lush beef and greens had just the right amount of velvety, savory sauce spiked with garlic, ginger, and hints of smoke.