What is in Hunan Beef? A Look at this Iconic Chinese Dish

With its savory beef, crisp veggies, and spicy sauce, Hunan beef has become a favorite Chinese takeout order. But what exactly is in this addictive dish? Hunan beef features a dynamic mix of ingredients that creates complex, bold flavors.

A Brief History of Hunan Beef

Hunan beef originated in the Hunan province of southern China. Known for its liberal use of chili peppers and other pungent seasonings, Hunan cuisine packs some serious spice and flavor. Common ingredients include garlic, ginger, vinegar, fermented beans, and chili oil.

When Chinese immigrants brought Hunan cuisine to America in the mid-20th century, local chefs adapted it to suit Western tastes. The ultra-spicy preparations were toned down and modified with more readily available ingredients.

Over time, Hunan beef emerged as a takeout favorite at Chinese restaurants across America. Diners were drawn to the dish’s sweet, salty and spicy profile. Although adapted from traditional Hunan cooking, Hunan beef captures the province’s signature bold, complex flavor.

The Main Ingredients in Hunan Beef

An order of takeout Hunan beef typically contains these core ingredients:


  • Thinly sliced flank, sirloin or round steak provide beefy flavor

  • Quick cooking over high heat keeps the beef tender

  • Strips or small cubes allow the beef to cook fast


  • Broccoli, bell peppers, onions, etc. provide color and crunch

  • Quick-cooking veggies match the fast cooking time of the beef

  • Crunchy textures contrast the tender beef

Hunan Sauce

  • Chili paste brings signature Hunan heat

  • Soy sauce adds saltiness and savory umami flavor

  • Rice vinegar contributes bright acidity

  • Oyster sauce gives rich, meaty notes

  • Sugar balances out the other flavors

  • Cornstarch thickens and binds the sauce

Creating the Signature Hunan Beef Flavor

While the ingredients themselves sound simple enough, it’s the precise combination that creates Hunan beef’s complex flavor profile of sweet, salty and spicy.

The sauce forms the backbone. Chili paste brings the heat, while soy sauce boosts savoriness. Oyster sauce gives meaty depth, and vinegar brightens it up. Sugar rounds out the flavors.

The beef is typically marinated which allows it to soak up extra flavor. Then it’s flash cooked over high heat to create a nice sear while keeping the inside juicy.

Finally, the crisp vegetables provide great textural contrast and visual appeal. Common additions like broccoli, bell peppers and onions also offer subtle flavor and freshness.

It’s the synergy of the spiced-up beef, bright vegetables and umami-rich sauce that produces the classic Hunan beef experience. The components balance and play off each other beautifully.

The Steps to Making Hunan Beef

Part of Hunan beef’s appeal lies in how quick and easy it is to prepare. Here is an overview of the basic steps:

  • Prep the ingredients – Slice the beef and vegetables. Make the sauce.

  • Cook the beef – Sear the beef over high heat until lightly browned.

  • Cook the vegetables – Stir fry the veggies until crisp-tender.

  • Add sauce and combine – Toss the beef and veggies with the prepared sauce.

  • Simmer briefly – Allow the sauce to thicken and coat the ingredients.

  • Serve immediately – Hunan beef is best fresh out of the wok!

The entire process from start to finish takes about 30 minutes. The hands-on cooking time is under 10 minutes. Easy peasy!

Tips for Making the Best Homemade Hunan Beef

Follow these tips for restaurant-quality homemade Hunan beef:

  • Use flank or sirloin steak – Affordable cuts that stay tender when thin sliced.

  • Cut beef across the grain – This keeps the slices tender when cooked.

  • Use real chili paste – For authentic flavor, not just heat. Sambal oelek is a good choice.

  • Mix up the veggies – Broccoli, peppers, mushrooms, etc. Anything crisp and colorful.

  • Prep ingredients before cooking – Things move fast, so have everything ready to go.

  • Cook beef in batches – Avoid crowding so it can properly sear.

  • Make extra sauce – It’s delicious on noodles, rice, chicken, etc.

Popular Additions and Substitutions

While the core ingredients are straightforward, there’s room for personalization based on preferences:

  • Meats: Chicken, pork, shrimp or tofu can sub for beef.

  • Veggies: Water chestnuts, baby corn, carrots, snow peas, bok choy and more.

  • Sauce: Adjust chili paste amount to desired spice level.

  • Seasonings: Ginger, sesame oil, garlic, white pepper.

  • Thickeners: Arrowroot or tapioca starch instead of cornstarch.

  • Sweeteners: Honey, brown sugar, agave for the sugar.

Feel free to swap ingredients to suit your tastes – just maintain the essential sauce flavors and quick cooking method.

Serving Suggestions for Hunan Beef

A steaming platter of Hunan beef over rice is a complete meal. But here are some other serving ideas to consider:

  • Lo mein noodles – Tossed with the beef and sauce.

  • Fried rice – The savory beef flavors this rice dish.

  • Spring rolls – Crispy rolls complement the tender beef.

  • Dumplings – Pan-fried potstickers match the Asian flavors.

  • Soup – Hot and sour soup or egg drop soup.

  • Salad – A citrusy salad balances the rich flavors.

  • Sides – Steamed veggies, pickled ginger, sesame seeds.

Mix and match different accompaniments to create a customized Hunan beef meal.

Frequently Asked Questions

What cut of beef is best? Flank steak and sirloin tips are ideal. They have good flavor and texture.

Can I use already thinly sliced beef? Absolutely, just look for even sizing.

Do I need a wok? No – a large skillet or frying pan works fine.

Can I use frozen vegetables? Yes, just thaw them first and pat dry.

Can I make it mild instead of spicy? Omit the chili paste or use sriracha instead.

How long does the dish keep? 3-4 days refrigerated. The veggies get mushy when frozen.

What if I’m gluten-free or dairy-free? Use tamari instead of soy sauce. Swap the oyster sauce for coconut aminos.

Can I use chicken instead? You sure can. Cook it the same way as the beef.

The Last Word

Hunan beef has become a staple on Chinese restaurant menus because of its craveable flavor profile. The savory beef, fresh vegetables and spicy Hunan sauce create a dynamic combination of tastes and textures. While takeout versions satisfy the craving, homemade allows you to control the quality of ingredients. Follow an authentic recipe and you can enjoy restaurant-caliber Hunan beef in your own kitchen for a fraction of the cost. Once you realize how easy it is to prepare, this lip-smacking Chinese classic may become one of your go-to weeknight meals.

Quick and Easy Hunan Beef Recipe!


What is Hunan beef made of?

Hunan beef stir fry is the top beef stir fry from Hunan cuisine. It is made with beef slices, garlic, ginger, and a large number of fresh peppers and pickled pepper. As a foodie who loves spicy food, Hunan food is one of my top choices. It has a lovely Chinese name “小炒黄牛肉” meaning a small beef stir fry.

What’s the difference between Hunan beef and Szechuan beef?

Hunan typically uses smoked or cured beef and fresh ingredients. It is notably different from Szechuan cooking because the ingredients tend to change with the seasons since it uses mainly local ingredients. Szechuan relies more on dried, pickled, and salted ingredients.

What are the ingredients in Hunan food?

With its liberal use of chili peppers, shallots and garlic, Hunan cuisine is known for being gan la (干辣; gān là; ‘dry and spicy’) or purely hot, as opposed to Sichuan cuisine, to which it is often compared. Sichuan cuisine uses its distinctive ma la (麻辣; má là; ‘spicy and numbing’) seasoning and other complex flavour …

What does Hunan chicken contain?

Hunan Chicken is a favorite Chinese American stir fry made with juicy, thinly sliced chicken breasts, broccoli, carrots, bell peppers and celery blanked in a dynamic savory, spicy, garlic, ginger sauce.

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