China’s Great Cooking Discovery – Stir-Frying

Do You Stir-Fry?

The discovery of how to stir-fry foods, in deepest antiquity, was one of China’s greatest contributions to world gastronomy. It is not only a safe way to prepare food, but it is delicious and one of the things that gives Chinese food is distinctive character.

Yu Cai Chao Ji Pian
Yu Tsai Stir Fried with Chicken Slices

Stir-frying is very ancient and is a style that makes Chinese food taste Chinese. It has its own special word in Chinese, chao 炒, which according to  Matthews Chinese dictionary means literally, “to roast in a pan, to fry.” [note 1]. There is a misconception among many non-Chinese cooks who try to do it about just what this term means and how to stir-fry.

A problem comes from the use of the English word “fry” to translate the Chinese chao, since what English-speaking people do when they fry food is quite different from the special technique Chinese cooks use to chao.

To fry food in English, according to the Oxford Dictionary,  means “to cook or be cooked in hot fat or oil” [note 2]. Actually, it means in lots of oil, which is the opposite of the Chinese technique. This is the sense used by Rombauer in The Joy of Cooking.

The eminent American cook and food writer James Beard said frying means cooking food “in deep fat raised to a high temperature so that the entire surface of the food is quickly seared and becomes brown and crisp.” [note 3]

When Western cooks attempt to stir-fry and begin to fry the vegetable or other ingredient, stirring quickly, this is not really stir-frying and the result won’t taste the same as a Chinese cook would do.

So the Western cook attempting to stir-fry normally uses too much oil and this ruins the dish.  There is also a problem with the temperature and timing.

The Chinese cook uses much less oil than Western counterparts and in a different way.  In fact, Chinese stir-fried food is not really fried at all, in the common Western sense, but rather seared in a very small amount of hot oil, then braised in liquid at a lower temperature for a longer but still quite short time.

The Chaos – who are sometimes credited with inventing the term “stir-fry” in English – describe stir-frying or chao as “a big-fire-shallow-fat-continued stirring-quick frying of cut-up material with wet seasoning. We shall call it ‘stir-fry’ or ‘stir’ for short.  The nearest to this in western cooking is saute.” [note 4]’

So a critical element in this essential Chinese cooking technique is the cook’s understanding  of the two factors of fire and time

In Mandarin, huo-hou, 火.侯  or fire-time “Means that the proper degree of heat and the proper length of time should be used….The cardinal idea is that the thing should be tender without losing is original flavour.”. This understanding is fundamental to all Chinese cooking, just just stir-fry, according to Chinese gourmet writer F. T. Cheng.. [note 5]

There are two other aspects of stir-frying that are commonly missing when enthusiastic non-Chinese cooks try to make stir-fry dishes: ginger and the heat control.

Ginger is essential for a good stir-fry, and after the key ingredient has been quickly cooked, the process is finished by adding a stock mixture that contains typically soy sauce, Chinese wine or something like dry sherry, sugar and sometimes garlic and other aromatics.

When this is added, the fire is lowered, the wok covered and the dish is braised at low temperature for a few minutes, say three or more or less, depending on the ingredient.

Western cooks often make the mistake of adding oil to a wok and heating it up, then proceeding to the stir-fry.  Chinese cooks always heat the wok first before putting anything in.

How do you now the wok is hot enough before you put in the oil? In her classes at the Taipei YWCA, Chef Xiao-hui Wu said, “I sprinkle a few drops fo water on a hot wok and listen for the sound of .’dee-dee da-da’ – you’ll learn to recognize the right kind of sizzle by experience. Or I look to see the water evaporate quickly, say in a second or two.  Then I know the wok is hot to start cooking.”

Here’s a check-list from Gloria Bley Miller, of how to do an authentic stir-fried vegetable:

  • Start with the pan dry
  • Heat the pan until a drop of water sizzles
  • Add the oil and heat until bubbling but not smoking
  • Add the salt and stir once or twice.
  • Add scallions and ginger if used and stir briefly. Then add any other seasonings like fermented black beans or brown bean sauce
  • Add meat if used and stir
  • Add vegetables and stir-fry briefly
  • Add the stock mixture, combine, lower heat, cover and cook for perhaps 3 minutes
  • Add cornstarch or other thickening agent if used, stir quickly to mix and

Serve immediately, taking care to pour off any excess stock liquid when the dish is served [note 6]

This method works with most vegetables.  There are few vegetables that cannot be stir-fried, including ones like potatoes, lettuce and tomatoes, which are all good stir-fried. There are differences between vegetables in how long they need to be cooked and some work best if par-boiled or blanched before stir-frying. We will discuss some of these variations and special points on stir-frying in another article.

Random Notes Some recipes for stir-fried dishes in this site include: Stir-Fried Eggplant.

For Further Information:
[note 1] R. H. Mathews, A Chinese-English Dictionary for the China Insland Mission (Shanghai: China Inland Mission and Presbyterian Mission Press, 1931. This is further clarified by Professor Charles Hockett’s definition in the Dictionary of Spoken Chinese ((Washington, D.C.: War Department, 1945): “To fry over a very hot fire, stirring constantly.”
[note 2] The Compact Oxford English Dictionary, Second Edition (Oxford: Oxford University Press, 2003). The same dictionary defines saute as “fried quickly in a little hot fat,” implying a distinction from the English term “fry,” which would imply a greater amount of fat being used.  A standard American cookbook distinguishes between deep-fat frying, saute frying and pan frying, in which a small amount of fat is melted in a heavy pan and a piece of meat is browned first on one side, then turned and browned on the other. This is the common sense of “fry” in American English, while the French term “saute” is closer in meaning to the Chinese concept of chao. Note that the American definition of pan-frying also involves melting and heating the fat int he skillet, while the Chinese method involves putting oil into an already hot skillet. Irma S. Rombauer and Marion Rombauer Becker, The Joy of Cooking (Indianapolis: Bobbs-Merril Co., 1931)
[note 3] James Beard, James Beard’s Theory & Practice of Good Cooking (New York: Knopf, 1977).
[note 4] Buwei Yang Chao, How to Cook and Eat in Chinese (New York: John Day, 1949).note 5] F. T. Cheng,Musings of a Chinese Gourmet (London: Hutchinson, 1962)
[note 6] Gloria Bley Miller, The Thousand Recipe Chinese Cookbook (New York: Atheneum, 1966).

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