Wok Fajitas! Fajitas in the Wok! Fajitas con Wok!

I bet you all think I live on tortillas and cookies, yearning for cheese and chocolate and fearfully snubbing the culinary options that surround me here in Shanghai.

I mean, that’s pretty much what this blog indicates in its persistent quest narrative, chasing after elusive sachets of gelatine or powdered sugar (found the sugar but not the gelatine), with long hours spent over a hot keyboard trying to figure out how to make mozzarella cheese without rennet (or citric acid or lightly pasteurized milk, for that matter).

I probably come across as a laowai so firmly jammed into her expat bubble that the thought of backing away from the toaster oven sends waves of homesickness and palpable fear coursing through her body.

This is actually more indicative of how I eat outside the flat, on a day to day basis:

Dumpling porn

See, I can get marvellous stuff like this for cheap (these were 10rmb, or $1.50) everywhere around me.

Most of my breakfasts are made up of a pot (or two) of coffee at home followed by steamed buns stuffed with tofu and greens or drippy barbecued pork, or hot and savoury tea eggs, or crispy fried rice cakes or savoury mung bean flour crepes stuffed with crispy fried wonton wrappers, chives, minced pickled veggies, cilantro and hoisin sauce en route to wherever I’m going.

I like to maintain a balance. Cheese, chocolate and tortillas on the homefront; tofu, lotus root and grated radishes outside.

We’ve been on a bit of a Tex-Mexico via Middle-Kingdom bender in recent months, going through the Xinjiang noodle dough tortillas like mad: tacos of all sorts, enchiladas, quesadillas, chili.

We’ve tried cooking the meats in the crock pot, in the wok, fried, braised, shredded, poached, grilled.  Generally, I’ve found that chicken has been most reliable here (we don’t tend to eat pork, which is the fleisch of choice in China), though it’s often pumped full of water to increase the weight and spits like mad in the wok. Ground beef is also decent, though occasionally a bit dubious and pale looking.  Beef… beef is iffy. Beef here is frequently like shoe leather and really needs to be marinated in a bath of acid overnight then cooked slowly in the crock pot all day to make it edible.

Which is why, a few weeks ago, I made fajitas.


Fajitas were invented specifically to make use of crappy cuts of shoe leather beef.

I didn’t use any particular recipe, as fajitas are pretty straight forward: tortillas, strips of broken down and submissive marinated beef, lots of sizzling slices of sauteed peppers and onions, salsa, guacamole (if you have access to avocados), sour cream (or yogurt, as we do).

You want to start with the beef at least the night before, longer if you’re using crappy slabs of leather from Tesco on Zhaojiabang lu.

Rubbed with cumin and lime, with salt and pepper, getting ready for an overnight sleepover in the fridge.


Marinade for the shoe leather:

  • Juice of 1 lime (or more, if really tough)
  • 2 Tablespoons of olive oil
  • 2+ cloves garlic, peeled, minced
  • 1 big, rounded teaspoon (or hell, go for a tablespoon- won’t hurt) ground cumin
  • salt and pepper


I used two slabs of dreadful beef, each about the size of my palm. Rub the marinade into the leather like you’re giving it an exfoliating scrub. Stuff it all into a ziploc baggie in the fridge and go about your day. It’ll need about 24 hours.

The Xinjiang noodle dough tortillas

  • 3 cups flour
  • 1 cup water (I used the whey left over from the cheese making experiment, which made it lovely and tender)
  • 2 tsp salt


This is the same recipe I always use.  Make a dough ball and knead it for a few minutes until it feels like a baby’s bottom, then wrap it in a moist towel in a ziplog baggie and let it rest for at least an hour before making the tortillas.

Here’s one I made earlier.

The multitasking noodle dough, this time with whey!

The fajitas call for smaller, thinner tortillas than, say, quesadillas, so you want to pull off golf ball sized rounds to roll out.

Sad knobs.

Roll them out thin thin thin on a well floured surface. If you’re using whey instead of water, they’ll be slightly more prone to sticking.

A tortila can never be too rich nor too thin.

Have your wok pre heated to medium low, ungreased. Just a hot, clean surface works fine. Fling the tortilla in, about a minute on each side, until they start puffing up like a puff adder.  If they don’t puff, they’re either too thick or it isn’t hot enough. We have a gas stove and even low is quite hot. An electric range may need more pre heating at a higher heat.

Tiny little thin tortillas. Practically toddlers.

See how mine are still deflating from being puffed in the wok? It’s adorable.

Wrap them up in a cozy towel to keep them warm and pliable.

The Meat

I have no photos for this part of the process because, frankly, I’m still a bit squeamish about the sight of meat, even though I haven’t been a vegetarian since around 2001.

Sear the slabs of leather in a few spoonfuls of oil for about 3 minutes on each side (for medium rare) or 4 minutes on each side (for more medium done-ness).  Put them aside for about 5 minutes to rest.

After resting, slice them super thinly.

The Peppers and Onions

I used a variety of peppers (both very hot and not) and about half of an enormous purple onion. This made for 2 fajitas each, for two people.

Cut everything into thin strips.

Mix and match your colours as you see fit. We don't colour coordinate here.

Get your wok all heated up again. If there are stuck bits from the beef, do a quick deglaze with a squeeze of lime juice. Squirt it in, stir it strongly around the stuck bits, then pour it out over the beef. It adds good flavour.

I had the wok on medium for this, as these want to sizzle.  I used the gorgeous roasted chili-garlic oil as lubricant.

Aren't they pretty?
Keep it sizzling until softened enough to pliable and attractively limp but not mushy

When they’re ready, pour them out into the most heat-retaining container you have. I used a heavy bowl covered in foil. You don’t want them to get lukewarm and gross while you’re getting the table ready.


We had some cheddar (grated finely), plain Greek yogurt, and hot salsa.

Note: my beef got cold because I was distracted by vegetable photography so I had to throw the slices back into the wok to reheat. I added a spoonful of salsa while sauteeing, just for the hell of it.

Do you like my bright yellow tea towel?

Throw everything together onto your tortilla, fold up as well as you can, eat. You know you want to.

When it's slathered in cheese it looks almost exactly like the tacos I made last week...


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  1. Num, num.

    That is all.
    Camden Luxford recently posted..Adjusting to Life as an Expat: Interviews and ResourcesMy Profile

  2. Sally says:

    Omigod. WANT WANT WANT.
    Sally recently posted..Weeklyish Challengey Thingie: Go To the GymMy Profile

    1. Younes says:

      Have to admit, I use packet taco aessoning when I make ground beef tacos, even though I have recipes that I’m sure are awesome. My mom used the packet – so I think it’s a nostalgia thing. 🙂 Death-by-sodium? Oh well. In moderation. :)@Jenny Thank you!

      1. TracyAnn0312 says:

        I also admit admit that these is really awesome and tastes delicious. Thank you for sharing these wonderful recipe you have.

  3. Kirstin says:

    Do you get kiwis in Shanghai? Kiwi juice also makes excellent meat tenderizer. For some reason, kiwis are always plentiful here in Bishkek.

    1. MaryAnne says:

      We do, but not regularly. At the moment, they aren’t in season so they’re rare and very pricy. Actually, limes aren’t in season either but I consider them a worthy investment 🙂 I’ll give a kiwi marinade a shot next time I find them. I love kiwis.

  4. i love your big chopping knife! two serrated blades AND a bottle opener! multitasker! AND it kinda looks like a shark!

    1. MaryAnne says:

      Isn’t it awesome? I love my knife. I probably shouldn’t say that out loud…

  5. also, I’ve definately seen gelatin at Metro and maybe even at Walmart.

    1. MaryAnne says:

      I must go to Metro, pronto! We’ve run out of coffee too, so I need to go buy another dozen packets of 20 kuai Rumba…

    2. William says:

      these look yummy!I made some with a similar mix of psecis. I put cumin, cayenne, chili powder, crushed red pepper, lime, cilantro and a bit of nutmeg together — with some hot sauce and some olive oil — and marinated the same way. YUM.

  6. mjskit says:

    I would give anything to be able to buy the type of street food you can get. YUM! Wow – what a battle to get decent meat! Sounds extremely challenging. I’m in love with your homemade tortillas. It impresses the hell out of me that you make your own and even keep the little ready-to-make balls in the fridge! The tortillas look great and so do these fajitas! I’m doing the New Mexican route tonight. Made some red chile sauce today so we’re having red chile cheese enchiladas, but I’m NOT making the tortillas from scratch! 🙂
    mjskit recently posted..Capellini, Garlic, Lemon and Egg PastaMy Profile

    1. MaryAnne says:

      Given that tortillas here cost about $12 for a packet of 10 gluey, crumbling Old El Paso ones (found only in one import store in the city), the dough ball has been a miracle worker! I do wish we had access to fresher, less-chemically enhanced pre-packaged ones for those nights when I’m just too tired to roll out a half dozen fresh ones…

  7. Holy hell… Those look amazing!

    My wife last night successfully made toaster oven meatloaf. I’d never tried meatloaf before but it was fantastic. A real triumph over the confines of our tiny kitchen.

    1. MaryAnne says:

      They were amazing! China has really improved my cooking skills- mainly through the need for so much sheer determination and effort and creative substitution…Meatloaf is on my list of things to tackle still. My mother makes an awesome one and I plan to nick it when I go home in June. Always amazed by what can be done with two gas burners and an oversized toaster oven…

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