My mom always makes a dish called niú jiàn (牛腱), or stewed beef shank. It’s one of my favorite ways to eat beef. You can serve it cold or hot, and it equally enjoyable both ways. If eating it cold, a dipping sauce is essential, and you get a nice thin slice of chewy beef. Hot, you have a soft and tender chunk of beef. The stew by-product of making the beef is great as a base for soup noodles too. Because I’m currently at home, my mother has put so much energy into making many of my favorite foods, so I thought I would document her delicious braised beef.
This recipe doesn’t have any specific measurements, as my mother’s style of cooking rejects exact measurements with a passion. Just adjust to taste, and always start with less than you think. Adding salt is easy; evaporating salt out of stew is pretty difficult. The stew should be significantly saltier and more flavorful than the beef shank, however, in order to get the beef shank properly seasoned.
There are a lot of ingredients listed below. Most of them are spices to add into a spice bag to flavor the stew. My mom is real fancy and has the actual spice things, which she puts in a little cloth bag so things don’t get too crazy, but using the McCormick versions of each of these is fine as well.
- Beef shank
- Brown sugar
- Soy sauce
- Cooking wine
- Scallions, chopped
- Chili peppers, chopped and de-seeded
- Garlic, chopped
- Ginger, chopped
- Licorice root
- Cumin seeds
- Sichuan peppercorn
- Dried orange peel
- Star anise
- Cinnamon bark
- Bay leaves
- Soy sauce
- Garlic, minced
- Chili pepper, minced
- Blanch beef shank in boiling water to rid it of its excess blood. Fill spice bag with spices.
- Drain water and remove shank. Set aside. Oil the pot (we used a Dutch oven) and sauté garlic, ginger, chili peppers, and scallions just to get the aromas going.
- Mix in soy sauce and sugar. Add beef and coat beef in the sauce. Let it brown a little on high heat.
- Add water and soy sauce in about a 1:1 ratio so that the water level covers about 75% of the beef. Add some cooking wine. Toss in the spice bag.
- Let it come to a boil, then cover, lower the heat, and let it simmer for at least 1 and 1/2 hours. The beef should be soft and easily pulled apart when done.
- Once it’s the desired tenderness, remove the pot from the heat. Let it cool before cutting into slices; otherwise, the beef will fall apart. To let it absorb more flavor, let it sit overnight in the sauce.
- Make the dipping sauce out of soy sauce, vinegar, and minced garlic. Cilantro and chili peppers are optional but a tasty addition.
Check out this nifty little spice diagram below! I had to look up most of these, as I had no idea that this is what cardamom pods looked like nor that cinnamon bark is a thing people used. Thankfully, my mom has all the Mandarin names of these written on her jars, so everything was just a Google search away.
Now check out this more artsy depiction of our lovely spices.
Here is the beef right after the soy sauce, water, and cooking wine have been added. Even before simmering, the sauce and the beef itself is already pretty dark. This is both because of the soy sauce and the brown sugar. The brown sugar really gives it a nice, deep color.
Below is the first serving, once the beef has cooled enough to be cut. We served it with the stew drizzled on top and cilantro on the side.
You can slice it even thinner than this once it’s totally cooled and has become pretty sturdy.
So, it sounds difficult but it really is just assembling all the ingredients and simmering some beef for a while. Freeze some of the shanks before cutting into them, and a month later, when you’re sad and digging through the freezer, hoping for some store-bought dumplings at best, you can have stewed beef shank!
Pro tip: the freezer is a great place to store treasures for future you. Danielle and I put an extra layer of cake in there, and I found it a month later during finals. It was like the heavens had opened up and angels were singing to us, but the heavens were the freezer door and the angel song was funfetti cake.