There are many regional variations on red-cooked dishes, so named because of the colour of the sauce (although, in truth, it’s more brown than red, but “brown-cooked” doesn’t sound as appetising). Beef cheeks are wonderful in a red-cooked dish but brisket – preferably layered with tendon – is also delicious.
There are two ways to do this (well, three, if you count sous-vide, but not everyone has the equipment for that): in a pressure cooker (here's a chance to use your Instant Pot!) which will result in tender meat in 30 to 45 minutes, or low and slow in a heavy pot on the stove, which takes about three hours. I’ve given the recipe for the latter method.
Chun pei is dried, aged tangerine peel; it adds a deep, complex note to savoury and sweet dishes. It's usually peeled from the fruit in three or four sections, joined at the base. For this dish, you need two or three sections.
Put the Sichuan peppercorns into an unoiled skillet and place over a medium flame. Shake the pan constantly so the peppercorns don’t burn and cook them until lightly toasted. Pick out and discard the shiny black seeds, leaving behind only the fragrant husks.
Lightly crush the ginger by hitting it with the side of a cleaver. Rinse the dried chillies under running water, then drain with paper towels.
Cut the beef cheeks or brisket into 3cm (1¼ in) pieces. Bring a large pot of water to the boil, add the beef and blanch for about 30 seconds. Drain the beef, rinse with cold water and drain again. Dry the beef with paper towels.
Heat the cooking oil in a heavy pan (preferably enamelled cast-iron) placed over a medium flame. When the oil is hot, sear the beef chunks on all sides (it will spatter); do this in batches – do not crowd the pan. When the pieces are browned, put them in a bowl while searing the rest of the meat.
If there’s a lot of fat in the pan after browning all the meat, pour off most of it, leaving behind about 15ml (1tbsp). Place the pan (no need to wash it) over a medium flame and add the ginger and whole dried chillies. Cook, stirring often, for about a minute, to lightly brown the aromatics.
Put the star anise, whole black peppercorns and toasted Sichuan peppercorns into a cheesecloth and tie it shut, or into a small disposable filter bag (the type used for loose tea) and seal the top (the bag makes it easier to remove the spices from the dish before serving). Place in the pan and add the cinnamon stick and chun pei. Stir in the rice wine, soy sauce, sugar and salt, then add the beef into the pan. Pour in the chicken or beef stock and stir well.
Bring to the boil then lower the flame, cover the pan with the lid and cook at a low simmer for about an hour. Taste the sauce and correct it if necessary (be sparing with the soy sauce and/or salt, as the sauce will intensify as it cooks). Continue to cook until the meat is tender; start testing after two hours, although it usually takes longer. If there’s too much liquid, simmer the meat uncovered to reduce the sauce to a very light coating consistency. Taste the sauce again and correct the seasonings, if necessary.
When the dish is ready, remove the bag containing the spices, and fish out the cinnamon stick and chun pei. Cut the spring onions into 5mm (¼ in) pieces and scatter them over the meat before serving with steamed white rice.