Stir-frying is a simple Chinese ancient cooking technique. It was developed from the ingenuity of common Chinese people who had to be resourceful during times of scarcity. With stir-frying, the Chinese have been able to make culinary masterpieces using few ingredients. Always piquant, tasty, and textured to perfection, the food has adapted well to all Chinese migratory settings.In India, Chinese stir-fries using local ingredients and fiery chilies have given “Indian – Chinese” a culinary name of its own. Our ‘chicken Manchurian’ and ‘Sichuan vegetarian fried rice’ are quite unique to India and are rarely found on the menus of Chinese restaurants in China, US, or any other part of the world. It is spicy and flavorsome but often times unhealthy — unfortunately much of the Chinese food available is laden with heavy sauces, fried items and monosodium glutamate (ajinomoto), a flavour enhancer known to cause headaches.
Traditionally however, this cooking technique calls for more vegetables, less meat and little oil, making it extremely healthy and a useful tool for the weight conscious. The best part is that stir-frying in this method is surprisingly uncomplicated and can be quite rewarding if mastered correctly. With authentic ingredients easily available and the abundance of local produce, appetizing stir-fries should be a regular on your home menus. And yes, it is ok to have rice as an accompaniment – preferably plain brown rice in reasonable proportions.
Keep these tips in mind when stir-frying:
The ideal oil for stir-frying is one with a high smoking point because it allows the oil to be heated at high temperatures without the fatty acids in the oil breaking down. Reaching the smoking point changes the chemical structure of the oil, destroying all its nutrients and emitting an unpleasant flavour. Traditionally the Chinese used peanut oil for cooking but canola, rice bran, and safflower are all good options. Olive oil and sesame oil have low smoking points and should not be used. Flavoured sesame oil is often used as a seasoning at the end of cooking.
A Chinese cast iron ‘wok’ is the utensil of choice for Chinese cooks, but a stainless steel pan will substitute just fine. Non-stick pans are not meant for high heat cooking and should be avoided. Allow the pan to heat well before adding oil – this will help prevent food from sticking to the pan. To test for heat, add a few drops of water and make sure it sizzles and evaporates immediately.
Learn how to control the heat. If the pan is too hot then your oil will smoke and ingredients will burn when added to the pan. After the pan is heated and the initial oil is added, turn down the heat to avoid smoking. Enjoy the sizzling sounds – you should hear it when stir-frying at all times. Keep stirring frequently and food will cook well and not burn. The disappearance of the sizzling sound means the pan has lost its heat.
Do not crowd the pan. The ingredients should be touching the bottom of the pan quite often during the cooking process for evenness in texture. If there is too much in the pan, then this will be difficult to achieve and vegetables may cook too long or unevenly. If your quantities are large you are better off making two batches – but first practice with a meal for 2 please.
Stock the pantry with some key ingredients. Soy sauce, rice wine, vinegar, fish sauce, hoisin sauce, chili garlic , and oyster sauce(available in both veg and non-veg varieties)are the main sauces you will need.
Cut the ingredients into uniform bite sized pieces for even cooking. Keep all the ingredients measured and ready to use – no time for last minute ingredient hunting or measuring when you are stir-frying. The ingredients should be as dry as possible, so you may have to towel dry some of the vegetables.
Categorize the vegetables by texture and add the hardest ones first to the pan for cooking. Hard: broccoli, carrots, cauliflower and potatoes. Medium-hard: bell peppers, French beans, mushrooms, brinjals, corn and bok choy. Soft: spinach, baby bok choy, cabbage, Chinese cabbage, bean sprouts and tomatoes. At times, blanching of the hard vegetables may be needed. If they are not blanched then they will take longer to cook, calling for more oil. Do not overcook the vegetables.
Preferably a stir-fry should be eaten immediately after it is cooked, so with practice learn to time your cooking time with your meal times just right!
The following recipes are adapted from the “Stir Frying until The Sky’s Edge” by Grace Young, a guru on this cooking method.
Stir-fried Ginger Broccoli – A delight to make and to eat. It is also a perfect place to begin your stir-fry cooking!
6 cups broccoli florets cut to the same size
1 tablespoon soy sauce
2 teaspoons ginger juice(see below)
2 tablespoons peanut or vegetable oil
3 slices ginger, mashed
¼ teaspoon sugar
¾ teaspoon salt
Bring about 1litre of water to boil over high heat. Add ½ tsp of the salt and broccoli and cook, stirring the broccoli, one minute or until the broccoli is bright green and water has returned to a boil. Drain the broccoli in a colander, shaking well to remove the excess water. In a small bowl combine soy sauce and ginger juice.
Heat the pan over high heat until a bead of water vaporizes within 1-2 seconds of contact. Swirl in the oil, add ginger slices, and stir fry for 10 seconds until the ginger is fragrant. Add the broccoli, swirl the ginger juice mixture into the pan, sprinkle on the sugar and the remaining salt, and stir-fry one minute or until the broccoli is crisp tender.
To make ginger juice, grate ginger, and squeeze with your fingers extracting only the juice.
Spicy Stir-Fried Tofu With Corn, Green Beans and Coriander
The ingredients to this dish are easily available and if preferred, you can substitute firm paneer for tofu.
One 14-ounce package firm tofu, (approximately 400 grams) sliced about 1/4 inch thick
1 tablespoon soy sauce
1 tablespoon rice wine
2 teaspoons dark Asian sesame oil or any flavoured sesame oil
1/4 to 1/2 teaspoon salt (to taste)
1/4 to 1/2 teaspoon ground pepper, preferably white pepper
1/4 teaspoon sugar
2 tablespoons peanut oil or safflower oil
1 tablespoon minced garlic
1 tablespoon minced ginger
1 jalapeño or green chili seeded and minced
1/2 pound tender french beans, trimmed and cut to 1.5 inches
1 ½ cups corn kernels
2 tablespoons minced green onions
1 cup roughly chopped coriander leaves
Cut the tofu into 1/4-inch sticks, and place them on paper towels. Place another paper towel on top, and prepare the remaining ingredients.
In a small bowl or measuring cup, combine the soy sauce, rice wine, and the sesame oil. Combine the salt, pepper and sugar in another small bowl. Have all the ingredients within close reach to your pan.
Bring a medium saucepan of lightly salted water to a boil, add the green beans and blanch one minute. Transfer the beans to a bowl of cold water, drain and dry on a kitchen towel.
Heat a steel skillet over high heat until a drop of water evaporates from the surface within a second or two. Add 1 tablespoon of the oil to the sides of the pan and tilt the pan to distribute. Add the tofu. Stir-fry one to two minutes until it begins to color. Add the garlic, ginger and chili, and stir-fry for no more than 10 seconds.
Add the remaining oil and then the green beans, corn and green onions. Stir-fry for one minute. Add the salt, pepper and sugar, and toss together. Add the soy sauce mixture. Cover and cook 30 seconds. Uncover; add the cilantro and stir-fry for another 30 seconds to a minute until the green beans are crisp and tender. Remove from the heat and serve.
Published in Pune Mirror, September 20, 2011