Szechuan beef and Hunan beef are two famous dishes from various regions in China. Unfortunately, not many people know what the difference is!
With both dishes becoming increasingly popular in everyday settings, it’s important to know what they are made from and how. That is because these are worlds apart, despite both looking almost exactly the same!
So, what are the key differences between Szechuan and Hunan beef? The source of the spice! Szechuan beef uses Szechuan peppercorns, which give a numbing, burning sensation. Hunan beef uses fresh or pickled chili peppers, which are hot and spicy. There are also differences in the marinade recipes used and additional ingredients, but it’s mainly the spice.
In this packed article, we will explore every aspect of both Szechuan and Hunan beef, including the ingredients used to make them, how they are made, and their overall texture and flavor — this will enable us to compare them side by side.
What Is Szechuan Beef?
Szechuan beef is an incredibly flavorful and spicy beef stir-fry from Sichuan cuisine.
This cuisine, also known as Szechwan cuisine, is a style of cuisine that typically falls under Chinese cuisine.
What makes it unique, including Szechuan beef, is the use of Szechuan peppercorns found in this region!
While Szechuan beef is incredibly rich in flavor, in comparison to other traditional Sichuan dishes, it is seen as simplistic.
Sichuan cuisine generally boasts bold flavors that are often spicy and pungent. They also always include a ton of garlic and some chili peppers in their dishes.
Szechuan beef is made from marinated beef strips fried with garlic, chili, Szechuan peppercorns, onions, nuts, and water chestnut.
These ingredients are set in stone for Szechuan beef recipes, but you can also include other vegetables like carrots, zucchini, or broccoli.
This dish is typically served with brown rice to increase the nutritional value of the entire dish. But, in many Western settings, restaurants also serve this stir-fry with noodles, sticky white rice, or on a bed of sautéed greens.
Specific Ingredients For Szechuan Beef
Szechuan beef is made up of a couple of elements. The first is the marinade, which adds most of the flavor to the dish. Then, of course, you get the beef strips. And finally, you get accompanying ingredients like herbs and vegetables.
Each of these components has flexible recipes to some degree, but the basic ingredients should always remain the same. Otherwise, you’re just not creating Szechuan beef!
So, to start, you’d naturally need to prepare your meat. The best cut we like to use for stir-fry dishes includes flank steak or top sirloin steak. The meat can be sliced into strips and placed into the marinade.
This salty mixture will help tenderize the beef strips and add a ton of umami and spicy flavors.
Other ingredients that are commonly included are rice wine or general cooking wine. Many cooks and chefs also like to add sugar, ginger, and sea salt to help create a more balanced and complex flavor.
The exact combination of ingredients used for the marinade varies from recipe to recipe — but soy sauce, Szechuan peppercorns, garlic, red pepper, and cornstarch are set in stone.
And finally, any other ingredients that go into this recipe are added after the marinated beef strips have been fried!
There aren’t that many add-ins — the recipes for Szechuan beef are all pretty minimalistic. It’s the ingredients that you do use (and how you use them) that add the delicious flavor this dish is known for!
Now, you may be wondering where exactly the Szechuan peppercorns come into play. Well, they are added in every stage of the process!
Szechuan peppercorns are included in the marinade and also are added when the stir-fry is being made. If you choose to make a sauce along with your Szechuan beef, you can add some more Szechuan peppercorns along with it!
But, keep in mind that the spicy flavors of this dish come mainly from this peppercorn. The amount of chili you add is minimal in comparison to other traditional Szechuan dishes.
How Szechuan Beef Is Made
This dish is fairly simple to make.
First, you’ll need to make your marinade. You can just whisk together all the prepared ingredients until they are well combined.
Then, you can place your sliced beef strips into a zip-lock bag with the marinade — make sure all of the strips are coated well. Leave the beef to marinate for at least 20 minutes.
Once marinated, remove the strips from the bag and fry them over high heat in a wok. You can also add the marinade to create a Szechuan sauce.
After the strips have been cooking for a couple of minutes, you can add any accompanying ingredients (vegetables first). Then, flash fry the ingredients so they cook but don’t lose their crunch.
Finally, any leafy greens or herbs can be mixed in off of the heat with the peanuts. You can adjust the flavor if you’d like at this point.
Now, Szechuan beef is incredibly flavorful — if made properly it should boast wonderfully umami, sweet, salty, and slightly bitter (or sour) flavors.
Szechuan beef is also noticeably sweet because of the added sugar. The sugar is added to help balance the spice and saltiness of the Szechuan peppercorns, soy sauce, and red pepper flakes.
This beef stir-fry isn’t as spicy as other dishes in this cuisine, but you can still pick it up immediately. However, another feature that makes this dish unique is the type of spice you’ll experience.
These peppercorns will give you a slightly numbing and tingling burning sensation — it’s not like regular chili peppers that just burn your mouth. It also adds some lemon-like undertones to the overall dish.
Overall, this dish has a bunch of textures. But again, they vary depending on the recipe you use.
Your beef strips should be incredibly soft and tender in texture. Any additional vegetables should only be flash-fried so they will be cooked but keep their crunch. Leafy greens will also become incredibly soft and juicy.
And, if you add whole peppercorns or roasted peanuts at the end, you’ll naturally have some added crunch with these elements.
What Is Hunan Beef?
Hunan beef is a beef stir-fry dish from the Hunan region in China.
Just like Szechuan cuisine, this sub-cuisine has many noticeable features. For one, almost all their dishes are incredibly hot and spicy.
They also love using fresh aromatics and colorful ingredients and often use smoked meats in their dishes to add more depth to the flavor profile.
An authentic Hunan beef dish is hard to come by these days.
Many restaurants throw together a couple of “traditional” ingredients and call it a day. In actuality, this dish is incredibly rich in flavor and requires specific forms of these ingredients.
Hunan beef should be made with dry, smoked beef — this is very similar to beef jerky but even more flavorful.
This dish (and cuisine) also uses many types of chilies. They can be dried, fresh, or pickled. Either way, these add a ton of spicy flavors to your dish!
However, the spice isn’t numbing like with Szechuan peppers. So, you’ll just experience a burning sensation.
Recipes for Hunan beef vary a lot. Generally, they include garlic, ginger, fermented black beans, and other smoked or cured ingredients. However, the vegetables and greens you add depend on your personal preference.
And finally, there is no accompanying sauce or marinade with Hunan beef. It is considered to be a “dry stir-fry.” The only juiciness the dish has is from the tender meat and juicy vegetables.
It’s also served with brown rice or thick noodles. But, many people love this dish on its own alongside some beer or Chinese wine.
Specific Ingredients For Hunan Beef
The ingredients for this dish are very simple — most of the flavor comes from garlic, ginger, and a lot of chili peppers!
Let’s break down the components of Hunan beef to get a better idea of what goes into it.
As we have mentioned above, Hunan beef is made with dry, smoked beef strips — this can be a very hard-to-find ingredient. While beef jerky is rather similar, it just doesn’t have the smoky flavor you need.
Many restaurants make their own dried and smoked meat to cut out the middleman. Since this isn’t feasible or practical for most people, you can try looking at your local Asian grocery store or even butcher.
If you cannot find anything similar, you will need to use fresh beef. A cut like flank steak is best. This cut is firm enough to be thinly sliced and has a very tender, juicy texture.
These thin, fresh beef strips will need to be pan-fried over incredibly high heat to help them dry out a little bit and crisp up.
The main flavoring ingredients (other than the chilies, which we will discuss shortly) are garlic, ginger, and celery. The celery adds crunch and flavor; the others just add rich, complex flavors without any texture.
These aromatics are added to a liquid base to create a marinade. The base is made of any Chinese condiment — it can include light or dark soy sauce, oyster sauce, rice wine, or a Chinese marinade.
Salt isn’t added to the marinade as it contains more than enough from the condiments and smoked dried beef (if you are using it).
You also don’t add any sweetness to balance the spicy and salty flavors, unlike Szechuan beef.
Now, Hunan beef contains loads of chilies. There isn’t a specific type of chili you need to use — you can choose between fresh, dried, or pickled chilies.
Most restaurants choose pickled or fresh chilies as they add texture and juiciness to the dish.
If you can get your hands on some pickled chilies, try finding Chinese pickled chilies. These include spices and herbs that are incredibly flavorful.
You can use dried chilies, but they won’t help add any juiciness to your dish since Hunan beef is cooked without the marinade — adding juicy ingredients is the only way to ensure the dish doesn’t come out tough and dry.
After the meat has been marinated and cooked, you can add any accompanying ingredients. Again, these ingredients should only be flash-fried to ensure they are cooked but retain their crunchy texture.
Hunan beef always contains onions and fermented black beans. Any other additions are entirely optional and versatile.
Some people like to add bell peppers for color and crunch, along with carrots. We also often see cooked broccoli in Hunan beef with spring onions and sesame seeds.
How Hunan Beef Is Made
The exact steps for making Hunan beef largely depend on the type of beef you are using.
If you are using dried and smoked beef, you don’t have to marinate it.
You can do so if you want for 20 minutes so the dried strips can absorb some flavor. Or, you can cook the dried strips inside a little bit of Hunan sauce.
If you are using fresh beef, you will have to marinate it for a long time. You can place the thinly cut beef strips in a Ziploc bag with the marinade. Leave it inside the fridge for 2 hours.
After the fresh meat has been marinated, you can remove it from the sauce and cook it over high heat. Do not add any liquid ingredients.
Lastly, your chilies can be added along with any accompanying ingredients. Herbs and leafy greens are always added last to avoid them becoming overcooked.
Hunan beef is very spicy — the exact amount of spice will depend on the chili pepper you used and even the amount. However, they all will provide a pure burning flavor with none of the numbing effects of Szechuan peppercorns.
This dish has mainly salty and umami flavors. If you did end up using fermented black beans (like an authentic recipe would), you will also taste an earthy, slightly sour flavor.
And of course, because Hunan beef should always contain vegetables, you will have those earthy and slightly sweet flavors too.
Overall, it is a very flavorful complex dish that primarily showcases umami and slightly sour and sweet flavors.
This is a dry stir-fry, meaning it isn’t cooked in any sauce. That makes the texture considerably less juicy than most stir-fries. However, that doesn’t mean it’s bone-dry.
Hunan beef gets its juices from the juicy and tender marinated beef and crunchy vegetables. If you are using fresh or pickled chili peppers, they will help create a bit of sauce for the meat and vegetables to cook in.
The sesame seeds are the only hard ingredient in this dish that will add some crispness to it, but not in the same way as large seeds or nuts.
Szechuan Beef Vs Hunan Beef —Similarities And Differences
So, as you can already see, there are a few differences between Szechuan beef and Hunan beef, but there are also some similarities.
Both of them are marinated beef stir-fries, and both have some form of spice in them. But other than these similarities, their flavor profiles differ completely.
First, we’ll look at the meat used.
Szechuan beef is always made with fresh meat. Hunan beef should be made with dry smoked beef strips, but if you cannot find any, freshly sliced meat is acceptable too.
Both of these dishes are marinated. However, the marinade recipe varies a lot.
The marinade for Szechuan beef is made with a combination of soy sauce, Szechuan peppers, red pepper flakes, garlic, and cornstarch. A Hunan marinade is made with any salty Chinese condiment, garlic, ginger, chili peppers, and celery.
Once the meat has been marinated, the meat is removed and cooked.
The marinade for Szechuan beef is added to the stir-fry, whereas the marinade for Hunan beef is removed completely. Some people add it to the dish, but traditionally it shouldn’t be added.
Next, we look at the basic aromatic ingredients that go into the stir-fry.
Szechuan beef uses Szechuan peppercorns, more salt, and sugar to balance the flavor of the stir-fry, plus vegetables like baby corn, pea pods, and broccoli. Other common additions include water chestnut, roasted peanuts, and sliced ginger.
Hunan beef has a much broader variety of vegetables that are added, such as red or yellow bell pepper, carrots, onions, and broccoli. It also uses a ton of chilies (fresh, pickled, or dried), which are chopped and added to the dish.
Szechuan beef is much sweeter than Hunan beef because of the added sugar, but it is less spicy. The type of spice that Szechuan beef also has is different from Hunan.
Szechuan beef has a numbing spicy flavor from Szechuan peppercorns, whereas Hunan beef has a burning chili spicy flavor.
Hunan beef contains a lot more vegetables. So, in that regard, you can expect more flavors to come through. And, because the recipe is fairly versatile, the marinade may also add richer, more complex flavors to the meat.
Overall, Szechuan beef has a numbing spice, sweet undertones, and prominent salty and umami flavors. Hunan beef is a lot spicier, very salty, and has smoky and fermented undertones due to the dried beef and fermented beans.
Szechuan beef is far juicier than Hunan beef since it is cooked with its marinade (or a homemade Szechuan sauce).
On top of that, you have added juiciness from the tender meat and vegetables. Szechuan beef is also topped off with crunchy roasted peanuts for added texture.
Hunan beef is generally less moist. It doesn’t get cooked inside its sauce, so it has a dried flavor profile.
The only moisture in this dish comes from within the cooked meat and vegetables.
Szechuan Beef Vs Hunan Beef — Comparison Chart
Here’s a quick breakdown of the key differences between these two flavorful dishes:
|Szechuan Beef||Hunan Beef|
|Beef||Freshly sliced beef (flank steak or top sirloin steak)||Dried smoked meat; can also use freshly sliced meat|
|Spicy Ingredient||Szechuan peppers||Chili peppers (fresh, dried, or pickled)|
|Marinade||Soy sauce, red pepper flakes, garlic, Szechuan peppers, and cornstarch||Chinese condiments, chili peppers, garlic, ginger, and celery|
|Other Aromatics||Sugar, salt, Szechuan peppercorns, rice wine (or cooking wine)||Chili peppers, white pepper, and more sliced ginger|
|Vegetables||Broccoli, water chestnut, carrots, baby corn, pea pods||Onions, fermented black beans, bell peppers, broccoli, carrots, and chili peppers|
|Crunchy Topping||Roasted peanuts||Toasted sesame seeds (usually white)|
|Overall Flavor Profile||Mostly umami and salty; has a mildly numbing and spicy flavor with notes of lemon-like and sweet flavors||Very savory flavors with noticeable salty, smoky, and fermented earthy flavors; less sweet and extremely spicy|
|Texture||Very juicy and moist with tender meaty textures and crunchy textures from flash-fried vegetables; peanuts also provide a lot of crunch||Dry stir-fry with juices coming from meat and vegetables only; meat is tender and soft (tougher if you are using dried meat); vegetables and sesame seeds add a bit of crunch|