Stir-fried Beef with Shrimp Paste

October 3, 2017

This post was written last week, before events in Las Vegas or Tom Petty’s untimely death. Much as I’d like to add some sensitively worded writing about either event, words fail me.

Thank you for reading.

Last week found me at the used bookstore, where I found the companion volume to Thailand The Beautiful Cookbook.

At a mere $3, China The Beautiful was a steal. Authored by the late Kevin Sinclair, a longtime columnist for the South China Morning Post, the book has none of the condescension marring Thailand The Beautiful Cookbook.

The only weird thing about China The Beautiful is the dearth of rice recipes. By “dearth” I mean none. What kind of Chinese cookbook has no rice recipes?

Looking past this oversight to test driving a recipe or two, you’ll soon discover China The Beautiful isn’t written for beginners. Taken directly from the text, this recipe for this classic stir-fry is hard to follow, with the beef marinade ingredients at the bottom instead of the top (you want to marinade first). The ingredient list calls for ginger, but doesn’t use it in the recipe. It’s assumed readers know what to do with shrimp paste, a condiment requiring pre-cooking.

Finally, conventional spinach is suggested as a reasonable substitute for water spinach, a vegetable that can be difficult to locate outside Asian communities. The vegetables are not interchangeable. Spinach is too soft and watery to hold its own against the strong salt flavors in the beef marinade. Should water spinach elude you, seek out crisp green leafy vegetables like bok choy, pak choi, chard, mustard greens or even cabbage. You want a strong, sturdy green that won’t wilt against the salty beef, balancing your meal and making it sing.

Rice, of course, is an absolute must.

Stir-fried Beef with Shrimp Paste

Adapted from China The Beautiful Cookbook by Keith Sinclair

yield: 3-4 servings with rice

For the vegetables:

High heat refined peanut, grapeseed, or sunflower oil, for the wok

8 ounces water spinach, bok choy, pak choi, chard, mustard greens or cabbage

about 1 1/2 teaspoons salt

For the beef marinade:

1 tablespoon water

1 teaspoon dark soy sauce

1 teaspoon fish sauce (nam pla)

1 teaspoon potato starch (cornstarch is fine, too.)

6-10 ounces lean beef (use top round, sirloin, thinly sliced flank steak)

For the beef stir-fry:

2 teaspoons shrimp paste (see notes for substitution)

high-heat refined peanut, safflower, or grapeseed oil, for the wok

1-2 scallions, trimmed and cut into 1-inch lengths

2 garlic cloves, crushed, peeled, and minced

small piece of fresh ginger; about half-teaspoon sized, smashed and finely minced

1 teaspoon Shaoxing rice wine (or dry sherry)

3 tablespoons unsalted chicken stock (water or unsalted vegetable stock also ok)

four ounces rice cake (optional; I love them)

Sesame oil, for drizzling over finished dish

Rice, to serve


A wok is ideal for preparing this dish, but a large–12-14 inch–heavy bottomed frying pan will also work.

Put the rice on to cook.

Start with the vegetables. Wash, shake dry, and cut vegetables into pieces small enough to be eaten with chopsticks.

Place wok over high heat. Once wok is hot, add about two tablespoons oil. Add vegetables and stir-fry until just cooked through; you want them crisp-tender, though I prefer them toward tender.

Remove vegetables to platter. Salt lightly. Either wipe out wok with paper towels or allow wok to cool and wash.

Make the beef marinade. Have a 4-quart ceramic or glass bowl ready.

Mix the water, dark soy sauce, fish sauce, and potato starch in the bowl. It will seem scant. That’s okay.

Slice the beef into equally-sized pieces that are small enough to be picked up with chopsticks. Add to the marinade and stir to distribute. I find my hands to the best job, but use a large spoon if you prefer.

Prepare the shrimp paste by wrapping it in a piece of tinfoil and placing it in a small frying pan. Place pan over medium heat for three to five minutes. It will smell awful. Don’t worry–it won’t taste this way. Allow to cool, then unwrap and proceed with recipe.

Heat wok on high heat. Add enough oil to just coat the bottom and add the scallion, garlic, and ginger. Stir-fry for about thirty seconds, until the aroma rises.

Add the beef and marinade to the wok. Stir fry briskly, until the beef changes color, from pink to brown, then add the shrimp paste, rice wine, chicken stock, and optional rice cakes. Stir-fry on high heat, 3-4 minutes, until ingredients are melded and beef is cooked through.

Drizzle sesame oil over finished dish. Serve with stir-fried greens and rice.


While stir-fries are all about wok hay–eating immediately, to capture the elusive “breath of the wok”–I noticed the shrimp paste dominated the moment this was served. The dish mellows considerably after few hours.

Shrimp paste is an emotive ingredient. If you utterly despise it–or keep kosher–one to two teaspoons of fermented black beans adds the same umami kick. Rinse them under warm water and pat dry with a paper towel. Fermented black beans are sold in Asian markets and some supermarkets in plastic bags. They keep forever.