Stir-Fry 101

by abbamoses

I’ve been enjoying Every Grain of Rice, Fuchsia Dunlop’s book on everyday Chinese cooking, and as a result we’ve been eating more stir-fried meals. It’s very easy to whip up a stir-fry that tastes authentically Chinese, but you have to know a few things. Here’s a very general outline.

You’ll need a decent-sized skillet. A wok is perfect if you have one, but a regular western-style skillet works fine if you don’t overfill it.

Before you start frying, cut up your vegetables (and tofu if you’re using it) into bite-sized pieces. Some hard vegetables like broccoli won’t cook adequately in the few minutes they spend in the skillet, so it’s good to pre-cook them quickly. If you’re using broccoli pieces, for example, put them in a pot of boiling salted water for a few minutes; remove them while they’re still bright green.

Pour a generous amount of cooking oil — a couple of Tablespoons or more — in the skillet and turn the heat under the skillet to medium-high or hotter. (Note: if you avoid oil during the fast, Chinese cooking is probably not for you; it makes generous use of oil.). Peanut oil is traditional in Chinese cooking, and has a distinctive, if very mild, flavor. But any standard cooking oil will do.

Finely chop a couple of cloves of garlic and a comparable amount of fresh ginger. Work fast so the oil doesn’t start to smoke. If you don’t think you can work that fast, cut up the garlic and ginger before you turn on the burner.

When the oil is hot (a small piece of food sizzles when you drop it in the oil), toss in the garlic and ginger and stir them into the oil. If you like spicy food, throw in a big pinch of red pepper flakes too (or use some hot pepper as one of your vegetables). Let them cook briefly, just until you can smell their aroma. Watch the garlic like a hawk: it will brown very quickly in the hot oil, and burnt garlic has a very unpleasant taste. Next, toss in the rest of your vegetables. Stir them constantly for the few minutes that it will take for them to cook. Taste little pieces as you go to decide when the vegetables are cooked; you’ll quickly get a feel for how long it takes.

Remove the skillet from the heat, stir in soy sauce to taste, and you’re done. You can also stir in a small amount, maybe a teaspoon, of sesame oil. Don’t use sesame oil as your cooking oil: it’s expensive and the flavor will in my opinion be too strong. I think it works best in small amounts as a flavoring.

Serve over rice or noodles. Eat with chopsticks if you know how.

On rice and noodles: Rice is more popular in southern China, noodles in the north. If your supermarket has an “ethnic foods” section you can probably find several kinds of authentic Chinese noodles there. Wheat-based noodles are a popular variety, and for the life of me I can’t see how they’re different from spaghetti, so spaghetti is what I use, pre-tossed with a dash of sesame oil.

On green onions/scallions: These are a mainstay of Chinese cookery. If you use them in your stir-fry, cut them up and reserve them till near the end of cooking. When the rest of the vegetables are partly cooked, toss in the onions, stir them in and let them cook just until they’re not completely raw.