Pepper steak, authenticity, and do I care?

While cooking my own version of pepper steak tonight, I recalled a strident conversation/argument with some people in the past

First, here’s my recipe (measurements aren’t exact, because I improvise when I cook, but consider them close to reality)

6 oz lean beef, sliced into thin strips
2 bell peppers, also sliced thin
1 large onion, sliced into thin pieces
4 oz mushrooms, sliced thin
1 tablespoon oil
1 tablespoon (maybe a bit more) lower salt soy sauce
a few dashes of ground black pepper

1 cup of brown rice.
2 1/2 cups of water

Cook rice in water. Start well in advance of the rest of it, because the rice will take a while to cook.

In a wok (or frying pan) add oil, soy sauce, and ground black pepper. Heat until sizzling. Add onion and stir until sizzling again. Add meat and stir until the outer surface of meat changes to “cooked” color. Add sliced peppers and mushrooms for a few more minutes of cooking.

Divide the rice into two bowls, divide what’s in the wok and put it on top of the rice. Mmmmm… serves two.

Now, first argument is that I’ve had some people react with horror that this is a high-fat, high sodium meal. Certainly, typical restaurant stir fry/Chinese food can be that way, and it’s fried, so it has to be bad, but really, that’s 3 oz of lean red meat, 1/2 tablespoon of oil and… well, honestly, I haven’t looked at how much sodium is in Kikkoman’s “lite” soy sauce, which is suposedly less salt than their regular soy sauce. No other salts or oils added. Is this really so terrible, when spread over 1 1/2 cups of brown rice, 1 bell pepper, 1/2 a large onion, and 2 oz of mushrooms for each person? I personally think it’s pretty healthy.

Anyhow,the second debate - I’m told that my cooking is horribly non-authentic. Whatever that means. When I’m done I have real food that I eat for a real dinner. I’m not from Asia. I happen to cook this in a wok, but that’s in part because it’s a convenient shape for this sort of cooking. On a certain level I don’t care because it’s my food, my house, and I like it, but moving right along…

First of all, it would not surprise me if your average Chinese (or other representative Asian person) has never seen or eaten “pepper steak”. Bell peppers, after all, are native to the Americas, not Asia. Then again, Chinese (and other Asian peoples) are just as capable as anyone else of adopting food from elsewhere so maybe this IS known in Asia - is it? Or would this be seen as something foreign?

Also, according to some people I’m a bad person because I don’t add cornstarch to make a thick sauce. Well, cornstarch, in the sense of starch refined from maize, would be a relatively recent introduction to Asia, and certainly not known before 1500. It wouldn’t surprise me if folks over there use a different plant starch. However, I don’t particularly care for thick, gloppy sauces and much prefer the thin, tasty juice resulting from the above. My kitchen, my rules. But that got me thinking - in Chinese cooking in China, is the typical sauce/juice thick and gloppy or thin and runny? I realize this will, of course, vary with the dish, the cook, and so forth but I’m curious as to which is something you are more likely to encounter in China (or other stir-frying place).

And, of course, there’s the cultural value of white vs. brown rice. I would never object to someone serving me white rice (I don’t usually get a choice in restaurants, anyhow) and for some things, like sushi, it appears essential (yes, I know sushi is Japanese not Chinese and typically involves no cooking). However, for cooking at home I prefer brown rice (although sometimes I’ll go crazy, use white, mix half and half, whatever). I realize to some people this makes me look all low-brow and peasant, but hey, I am of peasant background (Russian, not Chinese). Anyhow, my home, my kitchen, my rules. Still - is there a role for brown rice in modern Chinese cooking? Or is it viewed as, say, eating raw potatoes would be in the US (a little weird)?

Apparently, also, I’m not adding enough spices or seasoning. Not just quantities - not enough different ones. Well, I don’t really enjoy recipes that require 14 different spices, 12 herbs, and a partridge in a pear tree. Those recipes can be good, of course, but keeping a large stock of a large variety of such things, properly rotated before they go stale, is not something I want to be bothered with. I’d rather spend my time picking succulent vegetables and excellent meat and enjoy their flavors.

I also have my doubts as to just how elaborate the daily cooking of the average Asian housewife is. I’m not talking about celebrations or special occasions, I’m talking about ordinary daily food. My impression is that typical daily fare is rice and lots of it, with some cooked vegetables and maybe some meat on top. I had a Phillapino lady sternly correct me on this, insisting her relatives back in the old country visited the market daily, used elaborate sauces and spice combinations, and so forth. Well, yes, if you don’ t (or didn’t) have much in the way of refrigeration you’d go shopping fairly often for perishables. But I’m thinking that, between seasonal variations in food and income limitations, not to mention the time required for household and childcare duties, that a lot of pretty plain food got and still gets cooked and eaten.

So… I’m not planning on changing my cooking, and I personally don’t care if it’s “authentic” or not, but I am curious as to how far away from authentic I am. I can offer some of my other stir fry recipes for further comparison, if anyone is interested, which may or may not be more “authentic”.



OK, now I’m curious…

I was going to say I had never, in my life, ever, heard of pepper steak as being Chinese food. It’s like complaining that someone said your meatloaf’s not authentic Indian food, or asking if you used kosher bacon…

I always thought of it as Chinese-American - that is, American food inspired by Chinese cooking but not part of it. Apparently, according to some, I was mistaken. On the other hand, many people are idiots.

Yes, it was a long, rambling OP. I do that once in awhile.

Here’s another one of my pseudo-Chinese recipes:

6 oz chicken, cubed
1/2 pound of greens - basically, a mix of whatever I have which may include any or all of the following: bok choy, spinach, turnip, parsley, radish tops, dandelions, mustard greens, collard greens. Lately, it’s been half and half bok choy and spinach.
4 oz mushrooms, sliced thin
1 can of sliced water chestnuts
1 tablespoon oil
1 tablespoon lower salt soy sauce
1/4 teaspoon ground ginger

1 cup of brown rice.
2 1/2 cups of water

Cook rice in water.

In a wok add oil, soy sauce, and ginger. Heat until sizzling. Add meat and stir until the outer surface of meat changes to “cooked” color. Add water chestnuts, mushrooms, and greens.

Divide the rice into two bowls, divide what’s in the wok and put it on top of the rice.

I’m with Darth Nader. Pepper steak is German in our house – Pfeffersteak. It’s never ever occurred to me that it might be Chinese, just something that my German great-grandmother taught my mom how to make. Despite the soy sauce, I guess, though I think my great-grandmother’s recipe called for Worcestershire sauce, which nobody in our family likes. That’s not German either, so who the hell knows?

Just make it tasty. That’s all that matters.

While I’ve never thought it sounds particularly Chinese, all the local Chinese places sell pepper steak.

I’m not sure why you would care whether it’s authentic, short of a dinner party where the food is supposed to be authentic. My parents were a part of a dining group which met at various houses and cooked authentic recipes from various countries for a while.

Um, I think that’s confusing. May would be Mexico month, so the hosts would send out a pamplet of authentic Mexican recipes, each person or couple planning to attend would RSVP and announce that they would bring Flan or Guacamole or enchiladas. Then they’d get together, eat the food, discuss cooking difficulties, and the culture of Mexico, and the next host would announce that July would be Japan.

It was fun, but the group no longer exists. Too hard to keep getting that many people together, etc.

I have no helpful insights into whether your recipe is authentic. I do know I’ve eaten pepper steak in Chinese restaurants, and am unlikely to cook it myself. I don’t much like bell peppers.

I’m not certain, but I think pepper steak as it’s usually made involves oyster sauce. Not sure about that, but I do know it’s not just soy sauce, because there is no soy, not even my favorite brand, that’s anywhere near as tasty and addictive as the sauce pepper steak is usually cooked in.

Can I, just briefly, change the subject from pepper steak to authenticity?

Authenticity, at the end of the day, is about narrow-mindedness, rigidity, black-and-whites, non-negotiables. A thing must be one way or it’s wrong. It’s my way or the highway.

An X that is not also Y may be lovely and cute and peachy and all kinds of faint-praise words, but if it’s not Y it’s not X. Never mind that it may be a lot like X, highly evocative of X, even, in some situations, preferable to X. Never mind that it may stand admirably on its own merits. X means X. 100 percent, no deviations, no compromises, nothing.

Needless to say, then, authenticity isn’t everything. Sometimes (rarely) it’s vital. Almost always a good try is enough. Sometimes “close enough” is fine. But those who hide behind authenticity will find it stunts the spirit and hardens the soul.

Idle curiosity.

It’s my kitchen and I’ll continue to cook the way I want to, but I was mostly just curious how far from the original I’ve “strayed”.

Pepper steak? That’s when a grilled steak or steak strips are pounded with cracked pepper.

Pepper steak? That’s when a grilled steak or steak strips are served with a peppercorn-wine-cream-gravy sauce.

Pepper steak? That’s when a grilled steak or steak srips are served with sauteed peppers and onions.

I don’t think there is any such thing as “authentic” pepper steak.

BTW, your recipe looks darn tasty. :slight_smile:

Fair enough.

Ahhhh. But zat, mon ami, ees steak au poivre! (trans: “pepper steak”, or “Doug’s last meal, if things ever come to that”. :p)