Hunan Beef is one of those classic Chinese dishes that conjures up savory food memories of Chinese takeout enjoyed with diet-free abandon…
…But it’s not exactly known for its place within a low carb meal plan, as it’s traditionally served with a heaping pile of steamed rice.
That said, if you’re low carb, or thinking about it, homemade Hunan beef is a great way to expand your repertoire beyond grilled chicken and veggies. Below, I’ll share my favorite way to whip up a plate of this low carb Chinese food dish, plus some tips and tricks on navigating the wok for any low carb dinner recipe.
Table of Contents:
What is Hunan Cuisine
For those who don’t know what Hunan cuisine is, let’s break it down real quick…
Hunan food is a hot and spicy style of Chinese cuisine from the Hunan Province in Western China. It’s also known as Xiang cuisine and can be characterized by its signature blend of sweet and spicy.
As you know, there are many stir fry variations in Chinese cuisine — here’s the difference:
Hunan Beef vs Mongolian Beef—As compared to Hunan’s hot and spicy beef, Mongolian beef is more of a mild dish, one flavored with green onions and savory brown sauce.
Hunan Beef vs Szechuan Beef—Both Hunan and Szechuan cuisines feature pickled yellow pepper—which brings a hint of sourness to the table. So, what is Szechuan beef? It’s a spicy beef with garlic sauce, seared in a hot chili oil.
Szechuan cuisine also often features a unique peppercorn, that has a strange numbing sensation—it’s not for everyone, but it’s certainly interesting.
Additionally, many Hunan dishes contain soy sauce, bean paste and cornstarch — all of which violate the paleo, or low carb foods eating plan. But have no fear, through substitutions I’ve health-ified this and all the low carb recipes on this site!
For everything else you need to know about this spicy style dish, check out the Hunan beef wiki page.
Hunan Beef Ingredients + The Spice Factor
I added Thai chilies, also known as bird’s eye chilies, to this recipe. But, heads up: they can get REAL hot, if you’re not careful.
As a point of reference, these guys run between 50,000 and 100,000 on the Scoville scale—meaning, they’re about 20 times hotter than your standard jalapeno, but not as hot as a habanero.
While Hunan beef is spicy by design—when making it at home it’s your beef, therefore your rules. You can swap these out for jalapenos or serrano peppers, add less Thai chili, or more.
I can’t handle very much spice, and removed the seeds before adding these guys to wok. And, TBH, this dish was still pretty ding dang spicy for me.
Oh yeah, very important— be sure to wash your hands after chopping the chilies—a chili in the eye is one of the many perils facing the home cook.
The Trick to Making Low Carb Chinese Food
As you might imagine, Chinese restaurants aren’t exactly the place to get low carb Chinese food…
Rice, noodles, and hidden ingredients lurking in sauces—your favorite takeout is a minefield when it comes to surprise sugars, starches, and good old white flour.
The more obvious high-carb Chinese staples include things like egg rolls, fried rice, and breaded meats—plus all the lo meins, chow meins and anything with the words, pan-fried and noodle in the same sentence.
But even when you think you’re making a health-ier choice, there are some sneaky suspects, to look out for:
Soy Sauce: Okay, soy sauce isn’t technically that high in carbs, but it’s neither paleo nor gluten-free. So, depending on your dietary limitations, you may want to use coconut aminos. This ingredient is sourced from a low-glycemic sap and rich in nutrients.
Cornstarch: You’ll find cornstarch in a number of Chinese foods. It’s often used in breading, but is also used to thicken sauces or for tenderizing meat. Sure, you might be thinking, most recipes don’t call for all that much cornstarch, but let me tell you—just one tablespoon contains 7 grams of carbs—it’s sort of a lame ingredient to blow a good chunk of your carb load on, at least I think so.
In this recipe, I swapped this cornstarch for arrowroot powder. Arrowroot is gluten-free and provides a flavorless thickening effect when used in sauces.
Flour: You won’t find flour in my Hunan Beef recipe, sure, but it’s in a number of Chinese food dishes for the purpose of thickening sauces and breading meats. Arrowroot is a good sub in this case, too—but almond flour might also be a good choice if you’re looking for that crispy, breaded effect.
For more details on eating low carb Chinese food at a restaurant, check out our guide for all you need to know. Or…
Whip up some of the most delicious low carb meal delivery alternatives at home! Check out my Egg Roll in a Bowl, Pork lo Mein, Kung Pao Beef, Pepper Steak Recipe, or Shrimp Chow Mein for more inspiration!
Low Carb Chinese Food Recipe Tools
Stir-fries are pretty much the easiest ways to make high protein low carb recipes. Add your meat, veggies, and top it all off with your favorite sauce. Boom—low carb dinner at its finest.
The reason a wok is ideal for stir fry is, as the food cooks, it’s pushed upward toward the sides, clearing the way for the remaining food to cook, without burning or drying out the food that has already been cooked to completion. Plus, the sloped sides contain any oil splatter that might escape with a traditional pan.
That said, if a wok is out of your price range or you don’t have room to store it in your kitchen, no big, a large flat bottomed frying pan will do…
…Just be sure you use a dish with enough room so all the ingredients make contact with the pan for even cooking.
…And (very important) use a fry screen. At the high heat you’ll be cooking this dish, the oil will splatter. And if that splatter hits your skin, you’ll be cursing my name. Trust. I’ve learned this lesson a few too many times.
If you’re in the market for a wok, check out this bad boy — it’s actually awesome.
How to Achieve Hunan Beef Perfection
When putting this recipe together, I found there were a few things that made the beef just that much better.
For one, the meat needs to be cut into very thin strips. If your knife skills aren’t up to snuff—I’ll admit it, mine aren’t—you can place the raw beef in the freezer for 10-15 minutes—this will allow you to cut more easily.
Cut the beef against the grain. While this sounds really arbitrary, it’s actually really effective in keeping the meat at peak tenderness—you’ll appreciate this when it comes time to chow.
Cutting against the grain also helps to ensure that the meat is easier to chew—meaning, it’s less of a choking hazard. Speaking of keeping things tender, cooking at a super high heat gives your meat a soft and juicy touch—just be sure to use a fry screen!
Ditch the simple carbs, Serve with Low Carb Rice Instead
Hunan Beef is traditionally served over rice— which, despite our wishes, isn’t a low carb grain.
That said, this dish works well with just the beef and veggies alone…
… or, if you’re looking for that classic feel, you might want to try one of these low carb alternatives to grains. There are so many options, from no carb noodles to cauliflower rice. Here are our top picks for swapping out starches.
A solid contender, especially for those of us with mad cruciferous crushes. You can buy broccoli rice or make it yourself by sticking a couple heads of broccoli in a food processor and pulverizing it into oblivion—or rather, until broccoli is transformed into rice-sized grains.
Broccoli contains 6g of complex carbohydrates per cup—but only 4 net—making this a good choice compared to the whopping 46 grams of carbs found in brown rice.
Same idea as the broccoli, but less green and containing slightly fewer carbs. Okay, sure, we’re looking at 5 grams versus 6 per one cup serving, but hey, we’ll take it.
Mix the two veggie-rices together to load up on even more of those nutrients.
Miracle Rice & Noodles
A true carbohydrate miracle, these shirataki noodle pouches come with zero calories and no net carbs.
While they don’t really contain actual nutrients, they basically create the illusion of eating noodles and rice—albeit you need to chew carefully as the texture is a bit unusual.
For those who don’t know—and let’s assume that’s most of us, konjac glucomannan, or konjac flour—the miracle of Miracle Noodles—is a dietary fiber long used in Chinese medicine and for culinary purposes. These noodles bring no added sugars or carbs to the mix.
Unfortunately, while this may be a good low carb option for people trying to lose weight or are on a gluten-free diet, konjac flour may be dangerous to diabetics, due to its ability to lower blood glucose levels with use.
That said, do any fellow diabetes eat shirataki noodles? If so, have you noticed a blood sugar spike or have any shirataki noodles recipes to share?! (Send me an email or leave a comment below 🙂)
Much like riced cauliflower or broccoli, spiralizer recipes are taking low carb meals to the next level. Think squash, zucchini, beets or sweet potatoes—in the shape of a noodle, but veggie only.
Now, not all vegetables are created equal, at least in the carb department. Make sure you pick low carb vegetables for low carb noodles perfection.
Homemade Hunan Beef Recipe
Sometimes these Chinese food recipes sound a little more complicated than they are in practice.
What I really like about Hunan beef and similar recipes is how versatile they can be—it’s easy to swap out a few elements for a healthier, low carb version, or stir-fry different vegetables depending on what you’ve got on hand.
This is one of my favorite low carb meals and it only takes 20 to cook! (Although it taste like a full-day-of-prep kind of dish.)
Every ingredient in this recipe has an important spot on our low carb food list—If you’re new to eating low carb, check out my printable low carb food list printable!
- 1 Lb Flank Steak - thinly sliced against the grain
- 3 Tablespoons Vegetable Oil
- 1 Tablespoon Coconut Aminos, or light soy sauce if not paleo
- 2 Thai Chile Peppers - dry, de-stemmed/seeded, crushed and minced
- 2 Garlic Cloves - minced
- 1 Tablespoon Ginger - minced
- 1 Red Bell Pepper, sliced
- 1 Yellow Bell Pepper, sliced
- 1 Orange Bell Pepper, sliced
- 1 Tablespoon Arrowroot Powder, or cornstarch if not eating low carb
- 1 Tablespoon Coconut Aminos, or light soy sauce if not paleo
- 2 Tablespoon Sherry
- Pinch of Salt + Pepper
- Green Onions
- Sesame Seeds
- Cut beef into thin slices (as thin as possible). If you are not skilled at cutting, freeze the beef for around 10 or 15 minutes before cutting.
- In a large bowl, whisk together sherry, coconut aminos, arrowroot powder, salt and pepper into a paste. Add the sliced beef and toss around so the beef gets coated in this paste. Set aside for 15 minutes.
- Heat the cooking oil in the wok until the oil is hot and begins to shimmer. Fry the beef slices for about 30 seconds on each side. Transfer the meat out of pan (I put mine on some paper towels to mop up the unnecessary oil - up to you)
- Bring pan heat to a medium low and add remaining oil. Add peppers and sautée until soft.
- Add the garlic, ginger and thai peppers.
- Return beef, add light soy sauce and give it a quick fry.
- Serve over your favorite low carb rice, or grain of choice, sprinkled with green onions and sesame seeds. Enjoy!