The Lost Art of Stir-Fry
My father was a man obsessed with stir-fries. He loved their rich, concentrated flavors and aromas. He savored the taste of the fresh seasonal ingredients expertly and quickly cooked in a hot wok. My childhood summers in San Francisco were filled with lunchtime excursions to Chinatown with Baba. He was a liquor salesman, and he timed his route so that lunch hours corresponded with stops at his favorite restaurants. These meals tutored me in the fine points of Chinese — and, especially, stir-fry — cooking.
Invariably, Baba would stroll into the restaurant kitchen where he would discuss with the chef/owner the liquor order for the bar, and then that day’s recommended dishes, learning which ingredients were freshest. We always sat at the table closest to the kitchen door so that the stir-fried dish would reach us with the least amount of time elapsing between its emerging from the wok and its arrival onto the platter and into our mouths. Baba explained to me that a fiery breath of life essence was transported from the flame to the wok and into the food in those magical minutes of stir-frying. That prized but elusive taste was known in Cantonese as wok hay, or what I call “the breath of a wok.”
In this country, stir-frying is a dying art form. Most Chinese restaurants today serve mediocre stir-fries that arrive swimming in a pool of oil. The ingredients are first blanched in oil, a technique called jau yau in Cantonese or “passing through oil” to give meat, poultry, shellfish and sometimes vegetables more flavor and tenderness. But too often a sloppy chef fails to properly drain the oil off ingredients before they are stir-fried. Or, the oil is of inferior quality, like soybean oil. Even worse, an old fat previously used for deep-frying will impart its off taste to the food.
The advantage of stir-frying at home
As the author of several books on Chinese cooking, I am frequently asked to name my favorite Chinese restaurants, and I must confess that, while I occasionally enjoy a restaurant meal, I much prefer Chinese home cooking, especially when it comes to stir-fries. Nothing compares. The heat of a Chinese restaurant stove is extraordinary and can produce remarkable dishes, but I’ve also been in enough restaurant kitchens to witness firsthand MSG or chicken essence powder used as a standard seasoning to artificially boost flavor. The technique of jau yau, the blanching ingredients in oil, is rarely practiced by the home cook. Dishes are lighter because only a tablespoon or two of oil is used to stir-fry most dishes. The ingredients are usually better at home too. In my father’s day, farming was not yet industrialized, so all produce was essentially organic. Today, a Chinese restaurant has little hope of making a profit if it buys naturally raised meat and organic vegetables from a farmers market.
It’s ironic: Even as the term stir-fry has become part of the American culinary vocabulary, few people have ever tasted a properly made stir-fry. The majority of stir-fry recipes I see on the web, in cookbooks, magazines and newspapers offer poorly written instruction; little wonder that the dishes turn out to be watery and lackluster. This lack of proper instruction is one of the reasons I wrote “Stir-Frying to the Sky’s Edge.” Nowhere could I find good advice on how to adjust for a typical Western residential stove’s lack of high heat. I was also annoyed to see recipes regularly calling for nonstick skillet/woks — ingredients simply don’t properly sear or caramelize in them. Few recipes specify the importance of using a cooking oil with a high smoking point, either. But a low-smoking point oil, such as extra virgin olive oil, burns on high heat and leaves stir-fries tasting off.
‘Hot wok, cold oil’ a must
An essential technique for making superior stir-fries is to first heat the wok before adding the oil. This “hot wok, cold oil” technique, is also typically overlooked in most recipes, even though it ensures that meats won’t stick to the pan and that it helps food to remain tender. Heating oil until it is smoking is a sure way to break down its fatty acids and destroy the taste of a stir-fry. And I am equally distressed at recipes that call for stir-frying on medium-high heat — especially on a residential range with average power — when high heat is critical.
In America and in China, the passing of culinary knowledge between parents and children is no longer an assumed inheritance. Because of a lack of interest, time and the wide availability of affordable restaurant food, home cooking is quickly becoming a lost art. As a Chinese American, I am particularly saddened that young Chinese are not learning such basic cooking techniques as stir-frying. I consider that knowledge one of the greatest things I inherited from my father.
Baba passed away last year, before the publication of “Stir-Frying to the Sky’s Edge,” the book he inspired. To honor him, I would love nothing more than to empower cooks everywhere to experience the “fiery breath of life essence” of a true stir-fry.
Grace Young is the author of “Stir-Frying to the Sky’s Edge,” as well as “The Breath of a Wok” and “The Wisdom of the Chinese Kitchen,” which won the IACP Le Cordon Bleu Best International Cookbook Award.
Photo: Grace Young. Credit: Steven Mark Needham