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 recipes.
What is Hunan Cuisine
According to the Hunan beef wiki page, 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. When you’re eating a Hunan beef sauce, you know it’s going to have some sass to it!
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.
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!
Hunan Beef Ingredients + The Spice Factor
Thai chilies, also known as bird’s eye chilies, bring the spice to this dish. 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. But if you’re making this dish 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.
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.
But even when you think you’re making a health-ier choice, there are some sneaky suspects, to look out for. The main violator is cornstarch. You’ll find in the recipe below, I included this as an optional ingredient. I find this recipe to be just as tasty without cornstarch, or any thickener — but I’ll live that decision to you and your carb count!
Cornstarch, used in a number of Chinese foods, is meant to thicken sauces or to tenderizing meat. Sure, you might be thinking, most recipes don’t call for all that much cornstarch, but just one tablespoon contains 7.3 grams of carbs — sort of a lame ingredient to blow a good chunk of your carb load on, at least I think so.
You’ll find a lot of low carb or gluten free recipes call for arrowroot powder instead of cornstarch — the funny thing is, despite it’s flour like appearance, cornstarch is gluten free. Not to mention, arrowroot has the 7 carbs per tablespoon as well!
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. If you don’t know what this means (don’t worry, I didn’t either) check out this video for some tips:
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!
Homemade Hunan Beef Recipe
Sometimes these Chinese food recipes sound a little more complicated than they are in practice — this Hunan beef recipe is one of my favorite low carb meals and it takes only 20 minutes to cook! (No need for slow cooker Hunan beef recipe!)
It’s delicious, low in carbs, and healthy (check out the Hunan beef calories below). I hope you enjoy as much as I do!
Hunan Beef Recipe
Beef + Marinade
- 1 Lb Flank Steak thinly sliced against the grain
- 1 Tablespoon Soy Sauce or light coconut aminos if Paleo
- 2 Tablespoon Sherry
- 1 Tbsp Cornstarch I don't use, see recipe notes
- Pinch of Salt + Pepper
- 1 3/4 Cup Vegetable Oil
- 1 Tablespoon Soy Sauce or light coconut aminos if Paleo
- 2 Thai Chile Peppers dry, de-stemmed/seeded, crushed and minced
- 3 Garlic Cloves minced
- 1 Tablespoon Ginger minced
- 1 Teaspoon Toasted Sesame Oil
- 1 Bell Peppers sliced
- Green Onions sliced
- Sesame Seeds
- Preheat to oven to 400 F
- Slice and deseed bell peppers.
- Spread bell peppers in an even layer on a greased baking sheet, and toss them in the oven for 25 minutes, or until they start to brown.
- Cut beef against the grain, as thinly as possible. You can freeze the beef for around 10 to 15 minutes before cutting for an easier cut.
- In a large bowl, whisk together sherry, soy sauce, salt and pepper (and corn starch if you're using it).
- Add the sliced beef to the bowl, and toss it around so the beef gets coated. Set aside for 15 minutes.
- Heat the cooking oil in the wok until the oil is hot and begins to shimmer.
- Add the beef and stir gently so it doesn't stick together. Cook for about 2-3 minutes.
- Transfer the meat to a plate heavily lined with paper towels. Dab off access oil.
- Pour most of the oil out of the wok, leaving about 1/2 Tablespoon worth.
- Turn heat in the pan to high, allowing it to smoke slightly.
- Add the garlic, ginger, Thai peppers, soy sauce and sesame oil — stirring constantly until they become fragrant(about 30 seconds).
- Add the beef and mix everything together.
- Remove from heat, and serve beef over roasted peppers. Sprinkled with sliced green onions and sesame seeds. Enjoy!
- Cornstarch is used the thicken the sauce and tenderize the meat, however I skip it to keep this recipe lower in carbs — up to you!
- Check out video above for tips on slicing the meat!
- This dish is very spicy! If you'd like to cut down on the spice, use one Thai Chile, or use jalapeños (they're less spicy than these chilis).
Ditch the simple carbs, Serve with Low Carb Rice Instead
Hunan Beef is traditionally served over rice— which, despite our wishes, isn’t one of the low carb grains.
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.