A Pepper Steak Recipe to Convert the Haters

“The only pepper I cannot abide is a green pepper,” the cookbook author Nigella Lawson once wrote, aptly calling out the fruit’s bitter, undeveloped flavor.

“In an emergency,” she recently told me, “I can eat grilled or pan-cooked green bell peppers, as the heat and char give them a more balanced flavor, but they do really still taste underripe to me.”



It’s understandable. Next to its older siblings in blazing red, orange and yellow, the green bell pepper has never had the best reputation.

But, if you’re trying to capture the edge of bitterness, where savory and sweet intermingle, then the green pepper might be your ideal implement. That in-between flavor can be used to your advantage, whether infusing a gin cocktail with a vegetal aroma or lending clarity and balance in flavor bases, like sofrito, epis and the “holy trinity” of onion, pepper and celery in Cajun and Louisiana Creole cooking.

Perhaps the one dish where the diner must confront the unripe pepper head-on is pepper steak. For many Americans, what comes to mind is the saucy beef stir-fry seen on takeout menus and strewn with crunchy panels of Christmassy red and green bell peppers.

But in the Chinese culinary canon, peppery beef dishes take at least a couple of other forms. There’s a Cantonese-style banquet staple of beef punctuated with black pepper or a homey stir-fry of thin matchsticks of beef, with long hot peppers (which, contrary to their name, actually have a gentle, moderate heat). Sometimes called “shredded beef” on menus, it’s a dish that Sarah Leung, one-fourth of the power family behind the Woks of Life blog and cookbook, has seen linked to Sichuan and Fujian cuisines.

The Chinese American pepper steak, she said, “feels like a culmination of all of those influences.” The Leungs — Sarah, Kaitlin, Bill and Judy — published their first proper pepper steak recipe only recently, in April, using oyster sauce, chicken stock and red bell peppers in addition to the green.

What all these beef and pepper dishes have in common, ultimately, is their reliance on just a handful of impactful ingredients to flavor the meat, including the bell pepper, which lends its grassy (in a good way) fragrance to the sauce. In this interpretation, thin slices of flank or skirt steak, marinated in a simple, pared-down mix of soy sauce, honey and black pepper, cook up gloriously soft, caramelized and burnished.

The stir-frying is easy: A couple of minutes on high heat is all you need to sear the steak, plus enough fire under the wok or skillet to blister onions and the peppers’ delicate skins. (Look for “little brown dots,” Ms. Leung said.)

Handled like this, just charred but still crunchy within, a green bell pepper can positively gleam.

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