China / Life

Stir-fries capture spirit of the wok

By Pauline D Loh (China Daily Europe) Updated: 2016-05-01 14:29

Editor's note: To understand China, sit down to eat. Food is the indestructible bond that holds the whole social fabric together and it is also one of the last strong visages of community and culture.

Stir-frying is a uniquely Chinese kitchen skill. It is a cooking style that combines science and economics, and generations of chefs have fine-tuned it to an elevated art.

It does, however, command certain conditions. It must be executed over an open fire, whether it be on a gas stove or wood burning. Do not try to stir-fry on a hot plate. All you will get is a batch of sad, wilted vegetables.

 Stir-fries capture spirit of the wok

Stir-fries are best done in a specially shaped Chinese frying pan called a wok. Provided to China Daily

First, let's talk about the science.

Stir-fries are best done in a specially shaped Chinese frying pan called a wok. It has a wide rim, generally with a handle on each side, and gently sloping sides.

It is a multipurpose utensil that can utilize the heat of the open fire so efficiently that you can steam, boil, braise, stew, deep-fry and of course, stir-fry.

The Chinese cook knows every inch of his wok.

The bottom of the pan, where the heat is strongest, is best for searing and browning. The sloped sides are perfect for pushing aside fritters when deep-frying so that they can gently finish browning in the residual heat.

Deep-frying in a wok is also efficient. The shape of the sides allows the hot oil to gather at the bottom so you can deep-fry without using too much oil.

When adding cooking wine, the experienced chef will pour it down the inner surface so the heat of the wok will sear off the alcohol while retaining the flavors of the wine. Soy sauce and vinegar, too, acquire depth of flavor after being heated on the sides before they join the rest of the ingredients at the bottom of the pan.

The best Chinese wok is hammered out of iron and carefully seasoned and cleaned. I know some chefs who only briefly rinse their pans clean with a straw brush without ever allowing a drop of detergent to come into contact with them.

We have Teflon-coated frying pans these days, but nothing beats a well-seasoned iron wok in the kitchen. There are many ways to season the wok, and every housewife will tell you her method is the best.

I have been told to cook a kilogram of chives in my wok, slowly, until the herbs are totally brown and crisp. Another expert tells me to render pork fat in the wok until it acquires a deep, dark sheen. Yet another says to use a new wok only for deep-frying until the iron is "totally moisturized".

You can tell that these chefs are serious about maintaining their wok in top condition.

Certainly, the Teflon-coated frying pans would never allow you to experience that special flavor we call wok hei - the spirit of the wok.

It is that special tingle to the taste buds that combines the aroma of hot oil and the best flavors of the ingredients brought out by rapid cooking over high heat. It is the crunch of vegetables that are clearly cooked but still with plenty of tactile appeal. It is the tenderness in slices of meat with all their natural juices expertly sealed in.

That is why I cringe when I see the inexperienced attempt stir-frying, especially since many Westerners think of it as a healthy option to their accustomed cooking methods.

Here is an easy and quick guide to proper stir-frying.

First, get a proper frying pan. The best place to get one is in Chinatown, where the shopkeepers may even stock woks that are already seasoned. These may gleam with grease, but do not use harsh soap or detergent on your pan.

Nothing works better than high heat to kill any germs that dare to linger.

My method of seasoning is to render fat in the wok, so on that same trip to Chinatown, remember to drop by the butcher's for some pork fat. Cut the fat into cubes and slowly cook in your new wok until you get a nice simmering pan of oil. Allow to cool, safely pour away the oil, and then wipe the wok clean with clean kitchen or paper towels.

Now you can start stir-frying.

First of all, a classic Chinese stir-fry is often 80 percent vegetables and about 20 percent finely sliced meat for flavoring.

Whatever the combination, the stir-fry always starts with aromatics such as ginger, garlic, shallots or leeks.

The oil is first added to the heated wok, and by the time you can see a slight haze rising, it is time to add the ginger slices, minced garlic or chopped onions. These aromatics infuse the hot oil, and as the fragrance rises, you can choose to discard or keep them.

Next to go in are the slices of meat - fish, pork, beef or even lamb. Some chefs will quickly sear the meat until just cooked and remove it. This is especially advisable if you are cooking them with root vegetables that take a longer time in the pan such as lotus roots, bamboo shoots, carrots or radishes.

If you are cooking greens, remember to add the hard stem ends first, and the softer leaves next.

Always keep the fire on high. As soon as the vegetables are done, return the meat to the wok, season and dish up immediately. The average stir-fry should not take more than five minutes, and possibly less.

Another secret to a good stir-fry is to have your mise en place ready. Have your oil and sauces by the stove, your meat cut and marinated, and all your vegetables prepared to toss into the wok. A stir-fry turns into a braising very easily.

Because stir-frying is such quick cooking, make sure your vegetables are cut so that they can cook in more or less the same time.

Meat is more like a flavoring, but it, too, must be prepared so it takes the shortest time to cook. Cut meat against the grain for tenderness and massage your sliced meat in a little cornstarch dampened with water or stock. This is a process we call "velveting", and it gives the meat a wonderfully smooth texture.

It is worth every effort to master the art of the stir-fry. Where else and how else can you have healthy meals in minutes?

Kale with beef stir-fry

This is one of the easiest and most popular dishes both in China and abroad. Just pay attention to the prep work.

400 g Chinese kale (kailan)

150 g beef fillet, sliced against the grain

5 cm piece of ginger, minced, juice extracted

2-3 slices of ginger

1 teaspoon cornstarch, 1 tablespoon oyster sauce, 1 teaspoon water

Salt and pepper to taste

Wash and rinse vegetables. Peel stalks so only tender ends are left. Cut into 5 cm sections, and halve them if they are too thick. Cut leafy ends into 5 cm lengths.

Marinate beef slices with cornstarch, ginger juice and oyster sauce. Add water to moisten and massage to mix well. Set aside.

Heat wok, add cooking oil. When oil is hot, add ginger slices. They should sizzle immediately.

Add beef slices and toss with spatula to separate. Meat should be removed as soon as it turns color.

Keep heat high and add kale stems, toss till they just turn color and add leaves. Toss for about a minute, sprinkling in a little water to help the cooking.

Return meat to wok and toss to mix vegetables and beef. Season with salt and pepper and plate immediately. Serve hot.

Rainbow stir-fry

An all-purpose meat and vegetable stir-fry that makes use of pantry basics.

1 can young sweet corn, sliced

1 can bamboo shoots, sliced

1 can water chestnuts, cut into half

1 carrot, peeled and sliced

100 g sugar snap or French beans, topped and tailed

2-3 cloves garlic, minced

1 small or half a large chicken breast, sliced against the grain

1 tablespoon cornstarch, salt and pepper, 1 egg white

Salt and pepper to taste

Prepare vegetables and have ready on plate. Marinate chicken slices in egg white, cornstarch, salt and pepper. Massage well and leave aside.

Heat wok, add cooking oil and throw in minced garlic. As soon as garlic turns color, add chicken slices, toss to separate. Remove when chicken turns color. Set aside.

Add sliced carrots and water chestnuts to wok. Add beans, followed by bamboo shoot slices and corn. Keep tossing vegetables until beans are cooked but still crisp.

Return chicken to wok and toss to mix. Season to taste.

If you like a bit of sauce, you can add a little water. The cornstarch on the chicken will thicken it into a gravy.

Plate and serve.

Note: You can mix and match, just keep an eye on colors and textures. The above ingredients were chosen because they all cook fairly quickly. Chicken can be replaced with tofu for a vegetarian option, but skip the marinade.

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