Hiya. Most of you know me... ;-) Today, I'm going to talk about chinese stir frying, and in particular what they don't tell you in the cookbooks. Warning, this is a little bit opinionated about wok choice, and somewhat rambly. I was going to talk about chinese cooking generally, but I think that this is just going to have to be a series.
Firstly, lets start with the most important thing... cooking equipment. You must have an iron wok, the thicker the better. You can get a cheap one in Chinatown for about ten dollars, and although it won't be the thickest or heaviest wok, who's going to argue for ten bucks? The important thing is that it's not one of those cheesy non-stick things. This is important, because to do stir-fries properly, you're going to need to be violent with the wok. Violence and non-stick just don't go. Along with this, you need a device which is best described as a "wok-stirrer-flippy thing". It looks a bit like an egg flip, but it has a solid trapezoidal-ish bit, instead of the flip bit. It's got to be sturdy, for the same reason as the wok. Buy it at the same place as you bought the cheap wok. Err, you probably want a wok lid, too. I don't have one, but that's because I'm lazy, plus I've gotten really good at judging ingredient timing... more on that later.
Back to the wok... When you get it initially, it will be shiny steel coloured. This is not the way it's supposed to be. Take it out of the packaging and wash it with soap to clean off any packaging and manufacturing residues. This is the first, only and last time you'll ever wash the wok with soap, okay? Trust me on that. Err, now, put it on your gas stove. Don't have a gas stove? Err, better buy yourself a gas barbie with a wok burner. You can't stir-fry without gas. Well, alright, you can do it on wood fires, but nobody's done that since gas became readily available. Right. Back to the topic. Light the gas, put the wok on. Pour a bit of oil in. Wait for it to get hot, and start smoking. Pick the wok up, and pour it around the wok, until it covers the entire wok. Plonk the wok back on the stove. Wait for the oil to smoke again. Repeat until you're bored, for as long as you can stand it, adding oil as necessary. When you're bored, take the wok off, carry it over to the sink. Wash it with clean slightly warm water and a gentle plastic scrubber. Do not use a steel scrubber, do not use soap. Your wok should now be somewhat black. It won't be fully black yet, but that comes after about six months of regular use. Now, having washed it, put it back on the gas, and wait for it dry. When it's dry, pour a bit of oil in, and spread it around the wok. This cleaning and re-oiling process is something you must do religiously after every time you cook in the wok. The only exception is if you've cooked something that's basically oily and not high in water content (eg, asian style omelette, or a purely meat stir-fry), then you can just leave it on the stove until you're ready to rinse it off, gas-dry it, and re-oil. Repeat, never wash the wok with soap. You're trying to get the oil to settle into the wok, seasoning the metal, and eventually producing a protective black layer. With a really good thick wok that's been used for years, the entire metal gets infused with oil and turns black. This is essential for imparting a "this is wok cooked" flavour to stuff you cook in the wok. Yes, the difference is noticeable.
Okay. With the wok out of the way, lets switch briefly to the other end of the process... the eating. Asian meals are pretty much always "buffet style", in western terms. The dishes go in the middle of the table (and if you're fancy, they have individual serving implements, otherwise only the dishes with gravy have a spoon), and people serve themselves. Cultural note - knives at the table are considered as poor etiquette (knives are for chopping people up with too, y'know... so having a knife at the table is like having a gun on the table), hence everything is served in pre-cut bite (-ish) sized chunks. Rice is usually present (and I highly recommend basmati rice, not the ubiquitous jasmine rice. Basmati has a higher glycaemic index, i.e., it's slower to be digested and absorbed into the bloodstream, hence better for you.
So... rice. Electric rice cookers are good. So are microwave rice cookers. It's possible to cook rice on a stove, but it's trickier, since you have to pay attention or it'll burn. Personally, I always use a microwave rice cooker. Pour in however much rice you want. Take the rice cooker pot to the sink. Fill with cold water, stick your hand into the pot and stir it around as it fills. Tip the water (which should now be a murky white) out. Repeat the fill, stir, and empty process until the water is reasonably clear. I usually find that 3-4 times is okay, 6 is good if you want it especially non-gluggy. If you don't do this, you will get gluggy rice. Now, put cold water in, and fill it to a level which is about one finger joint above the rice in the pot (ie, if you dip your finger in the water, the tip hits the rice as the first joint starts to hit the water). Stick the lid on, put it in the microwave, set the microwave for ten minutes on high, followed by 5-10 minutes on medium. 5 for about 2 cups of rice, 10 for anything up to 5 cups of rice. Tell the microwave to go, and away it goes, fire and forget. Electric rice cooker is the same deal, except you don't even have to worry about the time.
So far, this stuff should be familiar to some of you. So lets switch to something a bit more esoteric, which probably only those of you with asian cultural backgrounds will know about... Ingredient choice. First, I'll go through the factors that you need to know about your ingredients, then I'll put it together and describe how you choose ingredients for a stir fry. Bear with me, this will all make sense at the end...
Chinese divide foods into a, err, "temperature" scale, and also into a wide variety of medicinal type effects. For the purposes of basic stir-fries, we won't worry about the medicinal-fu, that's more for soups and more esoteric dishes. The temperature scale is basically "cold" food to "hot" food, and we're not talking about the actual temperature. We're talking about its effect on the body's energy after you eat it. Basically, if it speeds up your metabolism for a while, it's a "hot" food, whilst if it slows it down, it's a "cold" food. Cucumbers are cold, chillies are hot. Carrots are warm. Potatoes are warm. Lettuce is cool to cold. Zucchini is cool. Meat is warm. Jasmine rice is... neutral. Basmati rice is warm. Beans are warm. Bean shoots are slightly cool, as are buk choy and choy sum. Prawns are hot. Lobster is cool. Crab is warm. Fish... depends on the fish, but mostly neutral. Hrm. Anyway... that's probably enough examples - the "temperature" effect is something you should be able to work out if you think about it. Your brain knows.
Another ingredient thing you have to know is the water production of the substance in question under cooking. You need to know this for all the ingredients you're putting into the stir fry. Sliced meat, for example, is not water producing for a while, but starts to produce water after a few minutes of cooking. Fresh beans are only lightly water producing. Frozen beans are reasonably water producing. Choy sum, buk choy, and other soft green vegetables are mostly highly water producing, as are bean shoots.
The last scale that you need to consider things on is their colour. Really, the colour. As in, green, white, brown, orange, red...
Okay. Let's start with how to choose ingredients and prepare them for your stir fry. Firstly, if you're not vegetarian, then a good stir fry has to contain meat. Really. If you are vegetarian, then that's okay, what you need is meat substitute. And no, I'm not talking about TVP or tofu. Both are viable, but there are much better options. What you want is beans, or zucchini, or any other vegetable that's very high in protein content. This is crucial to a good mixed stir fry. The only exception to this rule is a "pure soft vegetable" stir-fry, but I'll get to that later. So, the first thing you need to do, is choose your meat (or meat substitute). If you're vegetarian, skip this next bit, it's relevant only to actual meat. I'll get back to the high protein veges after this.
What you want, for a stir-fry, is a meat that can be sliced either into thin pieces, or small bite sized cubish bits. Chop it up, dump the chopped bits into a mixing bowl. Toss in some cornflour (about a heaped teaspoon for every few hundred grams of meat - enough to make only a very thin coating), some pepper, and some light soya sauce (enough to dampen the cornflour a bit, but not to make it really wet, just a little bit sticky). Err, on soya sauce... a good soya sauce is absolutely crucial, and the difference between good soy and bad soy is extremely noticeable. Good soy sauce is actually a very complicated flavour, and poor soy sauce is not much more flavoursome than black ink with some salt in. I highly recommend Pearl River Bridge brand. And there is light soy and dark soy... Dark soy is slightly thicker, and has a sweeter flavour. Light soy is what I recommend for stir-fries, but it's a personal preference. Anyway, having dumped the soy, cornflour and pepper on the meat, reach in and mix it around. Relax, I know it's squooshy feeling, but it's okay. It's just like playdough, only meatier. ;-) Anyway, once the coating is on the meat, set it aside on the bench. If you have a cat, or flies, then cover the dish.
Now. If you're vegetarian, you want a lot of high-protein veges (beans, etc). For non-vegetarians, choose some of these, but not a high quantity, since you're covered for the protein content by the meat. High protein veges are generally not high in water production when cooked... that can probably be used as an identifying factor, if you're not sure. Take the veges, and chop them up. Now, for something like beans, you actually want to chop them up diagonally - this increases the surface area of the vegetable that's exposed, which improves their cooking time. Zucchini, I recommend cutting into tea-light sized round flat cylinders, then halving or quartering them in order to get an approximately even size. Plonk all these vegetables either into individual bowls, or else into different spots on a plate, and set them aside.
So, you now have the "base" of your stir fry ingredients... most of these are "warm". That's good. You now want to pick a mix of other vegetables that will round out your stir fry. Firstly, by colour. Red capsicum, nice yellow corn kernels, orange carrots, these are entirely viable colour choices, and you can add them all if you want. I think about two or three different colours is nice, and more overloads it. Carrots, chop into very thin slices, again diagonally, or else they will take forever to stir-fry. Capsicum - cut in half in the long direction, tear out the seeds. Cut into quarters, then slice the quarters in the long direction, leaving you strips of capsicum. Depending on personal taste, then chop the strips into half, or even proceed to dice if you want. Note, the smaller you cut any vegetable, the more water-producing it becomes, and the quicker it cooks.
Next in your ingredient choice is temperature... You don't actually want more than one cool or cold ingredient in a mixed stir fry. Stir fry should be an overall warming food. Most of the ingredients should be warm or neutral, with maybe one cooling item (eg, bean shoots).
Semi-finally, you need to make sure that you don't have a list of stuff that's filled with a lot of heavily water producing stuff. If you do, it's going to be a problem, your stir fry will turn into a stir-soup. Not what you want, really. We're aiming to have some water by the end of the cooking, but not tons of it.
The last thing is, you really need garlic here. If you're not lazy, use fresh garlic, and chop it up relatively finely. And have lots. If you're lazy, like me, then buy dried garlic... you can get kilo bags of the stuff from a chinese grocery shop for a few dollars. You need to use more of it than the fresh stuff, but it's a helluva lot more convenient. EDIT: If using the dried garlic, dampen it a bit before putting it into really hot oil.
Okay, so now you have all these chopped up ingredients... we get to the exciting bit. Cooking it. This is the trickiest part. The first trick is - grab yourself a mug of freshly boiled and thus hot water. Set it on the bench, near the wok. We'll want that later. The key to good stir frying is to keep the wok relatively dry throughout most of the cooking process. This is absolutely crucial. Once the wok starts to have water in it, the cooking temperature drops massively, from the 150-250 centigrade point of oil with stuff in to the 100 centigrade boiling point of water. At that point, you're stewing, not stir frying. But, you do need that glass of water, because if you're keeping the wok dry, you don't want it to get so dry that stuff burns... more on that as we go.
The next big trick is for the non-vegetarians. Cook the meat first, then take it out, just at the point when it starts to produce water (which is just at the point when it's almost fully cooked). Dump oil (I use olive oil, because I'm generally not worried about adding a reasonable amount of that, it's a fairly healthy oil, but peanut is a more traditional choice) into the wok, turn the gas on. I sometimes add sesame oil for flavour (oh, and if you want, you can pick some sesame seeds up). Wait until the oil is smoking in the wok, and if you want, put some salt in the oil. Salt is not necessary at this stage. Throw in the garlic. Wait for it to start to brown (this is instantly if you're using dried garlic, and in a very short time for fresh garlic). As soon as it starts to brown (don't wait for it to all go brown, if you do that, it'll go black and burn), grab your mixing bowl of meat, and throw it in. Now, quick, stir it and mix it around. If you have a lot of meat, and a thinnish wok, I recommend doing this in batches of 300 grams or so, because if you do a large amount at the same time, it will start to ooze lots of juice before it's fully cooked. If this happens, don't worry too much, just take out the meat (just put it back into the bowl you got it out of), reduce the remaining juices to almost gravy, then pour the juices back on the meat. Now, set the mostly-cooked meat aside.
Okay, the vegetarians start here... Start with some oil, just as before, and garlic, also as before. Onions if you like them. Toss in a pile of sesame seeds if you like them. What you need to do next, is add the other veges in order of time they take to cook, basically aiming to "time on target" them all, so that they all come out perfectly cooked but not overdone at the end of the cooking process. I recommend that beginners start with stir fries of only one or two vege components, so you get used to cooking times, then add more as you get experienced. If you have any high-water producing vegetables, you'll find you don't need to add them until the very end. So, add the vege ingredients, one at a time, in order depending on the cooking time required. At any point where it seems that the wok is too dry, add a splash of light soy, and once you've added enough soy, pour some water from that glass earlier. Now, here's the trick - add the soy or water by drizzling it around the edge of the wok, not into the middle. That way, it pours down the sides of the wok and collects heat from all over, thus wetting things down without turning the stir fry into stir-stew.
For the meat eaters, at the point where you're switching from the mostly water-non-producing vegetables to the high-water producing vegetables (they are always very low cooking time, usually measured in a minute or less), you pour the meat back in. At this point, you are switching from stir-fry to stir-stew, and this is intentional. Leave the meat to cook for a minute or two before you put the watery veges in, particularly if the meat is chicken or pork, which you do not want to be at all raw. Beef or lamb is fine to be a bit raw, so feel free to throw the veges in immediately.
At this point, if you're not actually adding much in the way of watery veges, I recommend putting the cover on, thus keeping in the steam. If you don't have a lid, then you might have to keep drizzling water in... That's fine too, and in one way better, because you're paying close attention. Once it's all cooked, pour the whole thing into a serving bowl (a large deep bowl, not a shallow one, or it will get cold on the table). Now, quick, the moment you've poured the stuff out of the wok, turn the gas flame to minimum, drag the wok over to the sink, and wash it out with cold or warm water and either a cloth or plastic scrubber, pour the water out, and stick it back on the stove, turn the gas up. Wait for it to dry off, put oil back in it and pour it around the entire surface. Now you're done. At least, I hope you are, because you started the rice cooking in the microwave about ten minutes before you started the stir fry...
Take the serving bowl of stir fry to the table, put it in the middle. Take the pot of rice, put it off to one side. Give everyone bowls and implements of choice. I also highly recommend sliced hot chillies in a small bowl with light soy poured over the top, and a teaspoon, as a condiment. Voila, you now know how to construct a perfect stir fry from scratch, using whatever ingredients you want.