The flavor is indescribably good. It's flavored with soy sauce, sugar (in the form of rock candy), rice wine, and star anise. That's it. And yet the transformation of the meat once it's been braised for hours is quite incredible.
Most commonly this dish is made with beef brisket, but my mom likes to make it with beef banana shank because it has less fat content. Once it's all been cooked, the beef is so tender and falling apart that the difference between the two is minimal, so I'm good with going with the healthier version.
Just as important as the beef is the tendon, a creamy white substance that connects muscle to bone. The only way to eat it is when it's been cooked for a long time, so that it becomes soft, melty, slightly sticky, and delicious. Both the beef and the tendon need to be pre-boiled, to get rid of some of the surface blood and impurities, and when you do this, they both become very hard and solid. Only hours of cooking will coax them into being as tender as they need to be.
The recipe I got from my mother is imprecise ... she's a wonderful cook, and as is the case with most wonderful cooks, does no actual measuring. Grrr. So I had the ingredients and the general method down, but actually making it turned out to be more challenging. I made this about 3 times (always too salty) before I finally perfected it this last time. The key is not to use too much soy sauce. It'll seem like it's not enough, just a small amount sitting at the bottom of the pot, with huge hunks of beef and tendon on top -- what chance does the soy sauce have of seasoning it all? Don't worry, it will.
Speaking of soy sauce, the absolute key to red braising is using dark soy sauce. If you don't, it won't get that deep, dark, 'red' color, which is what makes a red-braised dish so appealing. However, you also don't want to use only dark soy sauce, which contains molasses, as it hasn't got the same flavor as regular soy sauce. You want to use a mix of both. Dark soy sauce is available at Asian markets like 99 Ranch, but in this day and age your local Safeway may carry it also.
If you find that you have star anise but it's in bits and pieces, use a cheesecloth and some kitchen twine to make a pouch for it. It's important not to let a bunch of stray pieces of star anise get lost in the pot, because at some point you'll need to fish them out (if you leave them in for the entire duration of cooking, your dish will end up bitter -- at least according to my mom). As for the rock candy, it's traditional to use it (and very common in Chinese grocery stores, so if you're there for the star anise, might as well pick up a box), but ultimately it's really just sugar, so if you don't want to bother, substitute with plain sugar and I'm sure it'll be fine. Here's the rock candy that's popular in our household:
Finally, you can cook this in a pot on the stove (as my mother does), but that requires a little more attention as you don't want the sauce to burn. If you're more like me and want to use something you can turn on and pretty much not have to worry about, use a slow cooker.
Red-Braised Beef and Tendon
- 1.5 lb beef tendon
- 1.5 lb beef banana shank (whole)
- 1/4 cup dark soy sauce
- 1/4 cup regular soy sauce
- 1/2 cup water
- 2 tbsp rice wine (I like Shaoxing)
- 2-3 slices of ginger (about 2 inches in length)
- 1 medium-sized chunk of rock candy or 1 scant tbsp sugar
- 1 1/2 whole star anise (phonetically called "bak gok" in Cantonese)
- Boil a large pot of water. Add tendon and shank and boil for a few minutes, to let the blood and other impurities out -- there will be foamy gunk. Remove tendon and shank from water and put them into a clean slow cooker or pot, arranging the pieces so that you get maximum surface area.
- Pour the soy sauces directly over the meat, doing your best to splash a bit on every surface of the meat and tendon. Tuck the ginger in between the pieces of beef. Add the star anise, making sure that it's in the soy sauce (same thing if you're using a pouch). Add the water and rice wine. It will seem like there's very little liquid in the pot; resist the temptation to add more.
- Set your slow cooker to 'high' (or simmer this on the stove using low heat) and cook for a few hours. Periodically, about once an hour, check on it and turn the pieces, as well as skim off any fatty oil that accumulates on the surface.
- After about 3 hours, remove the star anise and add the chunk of rock candy. Cook for another 2-3 hours, again turning the pieces every so often and skimming off fat.
- After 5-6 hours, the beef will be soft enough to cut. Remove the meat and the tendon from the pot and cut into smaller pieces (the meat may be so tender at this point that you can just use tongs to pull it apart). Add the meat back into the sauce, stir everything to coat, and cook an additional 30 minutes to an hour.
- Serve with rice and some veggies (like garlic stir-fried spinach)!