#19 How to stir fry like a pro
It's one of the most common cooking methods in Asia. Food and travel shows make it look intimidating but, armed with a few tricks, any cook can learn to stir fry restaurant quality food at home.
In the mid-80s, a TV show called Wok with Yan started airing in the Philippines. The host was Stephen Yan (not to be confused with Martin Yan) and most of the dishes he cooked before a live audience were stir fries.
Little did I know that the show had been airing since the 1970s, that it was made in Canada, and what we were getting in the local channel was already several years old. But, never mind its age. Never mind too that the host was Canadian (Mr. Yan moved to Canada in the 1960s). Wok with Yan was one of the most instructive shows about Asian cooking that I had encountered in that decade.
What is stir frying anyway?
Let me start by illustrating what stir frying is NOT.
Several years ago, an aunt-in-law passed on and she left behind the hugest collection of cookbooks I had ever seen in my life. None of her children were interested in cooking and they asked who wanted the collection.
There was no way that the entire collection could fit into our existing book shelves. My husband picked out the ones he thought I’d be most interested in and brought them home. I pored over them, one by one, and I bookmarked the pages with recipes that looked good.
There were some though that I immediately discarded. One of them, a cookbook published in the 1960s by an American brand that has long been a household name, sticks to my mind. In that book, there were recipes for stir fries with the same basic cooking instructions. Cook the meat and vegetables over low heat, add a bit of liquid (broth or water), cover the pan, and leave for 20 minutes or so.
I got rid of the book.
It was during my early years of blogging, around 2005, when the comments were on and mostly unmoderated. I posted my first Chinese-style fried rice recipe.
An American reader (readers’ locations can be traced via their IP addresses, in case you didn’t know) vehemently remarked that it was greasy and unhealthy as all Asian stir fries are.
I replied that stir frying is NOT deep frying but she wouldn’t hear any of it.
What I learned from Anecdote #1 and #2
My experience with the cookbook from the 1960s taught me that, in that decade and in the decades before that, real stir frying was unknown in North American kitchens. Not surprising, I suppose, since it is an Asian thing and North American kitchens were not (probably are still not) equipped with the correct equipment for stir frying.
My experience with the American reader taught me that as late as 2005, outside Asia, stir frying may still be greatly misunderstood. Never mind that Stephen Yan’s show aired for years before then, and North Americans had better and more timely access to it than we had here in the Philippines.
What then is the correct way to stir fry?
Perfect stir fried dishes do not happen by magic. You need the right pan, cooking oil with high smoking point, and prepping the components of the dish before you start cooking. Here are three articles to get you started:
A few stir fries to practice with
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Chili peanut sesame chicken - Reminiscent of Southeast Asian satay with its sweet-tangy-salty flavors, this chili peanut sesame chicken has hoisin sauce and lime juice to perfect the flavor balance. Get the recipe.
Pad see ew (literally, “fried soy sauce”) is the Thai adaptation of the Chinese chow fun, much like the char kway teow of Singapore and Malaysia. Get the recipe.