Tuesday, 2 August 2011

The Secrets to a Chinese Stir-fry

Following my mum's top tip, here's more top tips for good asian food. This is a repost, an updated one with bits that I've learnt after my experiments!

Whenever people think of Chinese food, they naturally think of stir-fries. It's like the equivalent of Chinese cooking, but I think there's so much more to Chinese food. A lot of effort goes into the food, all the careful steaming to get everything done to perfection, the braising, the slow-cooking for tender and flavoursome food. It's not all quick, easy stir-fries. Chinese restaurants (or even hawkers) in Singapore are so so different from many of the Chinese restaurants in London which serve up MSG-laden sticky and oily deep-fried food.

That said, a good Chinese stir-fry is not that easy. Even with the exact same ingredients and recipe my stir-fry can never match up to that of my favourite tze-char stalls in Singapore. But no harm trying and everyone loves a hardworking student (I know, this is not exactly my schoolwork here but still), so here's the research compiled from surfing a lot of forums, watching a lot of Youtube videos, googling a lot of master chefs, and quizzing my mum.

Having fun properly stir-frying in a real wok with an open flame in an outdoor kitchen.

1. A wok
The heat distribution of a wok is quite different form that of a frying pan. If done right, that's how you get ever-elusive x factor called wok hei ("breath of a wok"). Also, because it curves in at the base, you can "deep-fry" garlic, shallots and ginger without having to use much oil.

I don't have this in London so I am forever inadequate but maybe not for long. I am seriously considering getting one when I get back in fall. It doesn't cost much, just a cheap one from Chinatown would make so much difference. My mum uses a cast iron one (see first photo; thin cast iron, not the thick cast iron Western-style casserole pots which are slow to lose heat but also slow to heat up) but a lot of people say a much lighter, cheap carbon steel one does a fantastic job for tossing your food, especially if it comes with a stick handle. You don't need a fancy non-stick one, and in fact you do NOT want a fancy non-stick one. That Teflon coating will burn at high temperatures and produce very harmful chemical compounds.

When you get a wok, you should always season it, and it'll last you forever. My mum has been using the same wok for..well, ever since she first moved into where we live now, which is almost since the day I was born, which is I guess about 20 years?

2. High heat
That intense heat is what brings about wok hei. The Malliard reaction when you caramelise meat and vegetables and noodles over a hot flame gives you that smoky depth to chinese food at tze char stalls or restaurants.

My flat comes with an electric stove, which definitely gives less than ideal results compared to an open flame. I guess I will forever be inadequate after all, at least while I'm still staying in that place. There is however a way to mimic the high heat you get from a fire, by heating the wok at the highest stove setting for 10 min before cooking (of course, you can't control the temperature as easily with an electric stove, so have another hob ready for transferring to when you need to lower the temperature).

Sautee-ing slowly over low-heat doesn't sear the meat and vegetables the same way, everything needs to be done fast, which brings me to the next point. 

3. Fast
It's not always the more the better, in this case, more time is not better. It always amazes me how much time goes into the prepping of the ingredients but the actual stirfry is over in a matter of minutes. The best pad thai (I know it's not chinese, but it's an example of a stir-fried noodle dish) I had was done in less than 30 seconds.

4. The Marinade
With meat, I've always wondered how Chinese chefs get the meat so tender and smooth. So anyway, Ken Hom revealed the secret to this on an episode of Saturday Kitchen:
You coat the chicken or whatever meat pieces in egg white, cornflour and some rice wine, before cooking in warm (forums say hot. but the Ken Hom says warm..) water or oil, take it out before it's cooked, because it'll continue cooking on slowly, and then add it back to the dish at the end for a final heatshock. I was so fascinated I trawled the forums and found out some people use baking soda instead too.

6 months later, after experiments with all the techniques (baking soda/eggwhite, water/oil, warm/hot, velvet/not):

First of all, I think baking soda does work as a tenderiser, but I don't really like the effect of it.. The meat can feel mushy, and really, there's no need for disguising if you start with good, well-sourced, quality ingredients. 

So, the basic marinade goes like this:
Seasoning, usually soy sauce, pepper, sometimes oyster sauce or fish sauce
Chinese shaoxing rice wine (something mildly acidic which tenderises the meat)
Tapioca/ Cornstarch. I prefer tapioca.
Sesame Oil.
And if you're doing beef, a pinch of sugar and a little stock helps it stay juicy as it reabsorbs the liquid.
And to finish, swirl in a slurry made from a combination of the above minus sesame oil to get a sauce.

I usually eyeball the amounts (like most Asian cooks do) so I can't say for sure, but look at Peppers and Cashew Chicken for a rough idea. You only need to marinade it for 10 min, usually while you prep your other ingredients. That's usually good enough, as long as you use the right cut of meat and follow the above other principles i.e. not overcooking it. Sear on high heat before tossing with the other ingredients.

Velveting is another technique to get a really smooth, glossy texture, which I reserve for more delicate combinations. Instead of marinating in dark sauces, I stick to salt (and the rice wine and tapioca starch still), so the chicken remains pristinely white. Then I toss to coat with lightly beaten egg white and oil (you only need a bit, 2 tbsp, 1 tbsp, for 500g), for about 10 more min. Instead of searing, poach it in barely simmering water with a tiny glug of oil added, till cooked on the outside. Drain, set aside, finish stir-frying your vegetables and making the sauce etc, before adding the meat back. Look at Velvet Chicken and Sugar Snap Peas

Also, you can velvet prawns. This is not just for stir-fries. Ever wondered how Chinese dimsum restaurants get super bouncy 'crystal' prawns in your chee cheong fun? Credits to rasamalaysia for her extensive research into this. Prepare the prawns by slitting the back and de-veining, then submerge in ice water with 1 heaped tbsp of baking soda, for about 30 min. Rinse off thoroughly in cold water, then pat dry. Marinate 1h or overnight in a mixture of 1 small egg white and 1 1/2 tsp tapioca starch for 500g prawn.  But again, I'm iffy about baking soda and am usually more than happy with the results from using fresh or freshly frozen prawns. 

5. The Cut
For meats like beef, a good sirloin or a much cheaper flank steak will do.  Slice against the grain, and slice thinly. A tip is to freeze partially so you can slice really really thinly but I don't recommend that because you're more likely to end up overcooking it. Another tip is to slice at an angle so you get what looks like a larger surface area, which also absorbs more of the marinade.
For pork, use shoulder or butt, ditto.
For chicken, slice across the fibres of the meat instead of along, so you get short fibres, making the meat nice and tender. I like the dark meat because it's much more tender, and of course, cheaper!

5. Not forgetting the vegetables
Stir-frying intensifies the natural flavours, textures and colours of vegetables, so cook with vegetables that are in their prime. Seasonal, local from the farmer's market means quality plus cheaper value. Some tips: Dry your veggies well after rinsing, or the moisture will turn your stir-fry into a soggy braise, plus spatter all over and scare you. Cut into as equal-sized pieces as possible so they cook evenly. Fry vegetables in order of their texture e.g. hard broccoli stems/cauliflower/carrots , before peppers/asparagus/mushrooms, before spinach/tomatoes/broccoli florets. If necessary, blanch in boiling water for a min and then drain and refresh in cold water. 

Lastly, Stir-frying to the Sky's Edge by Grace Young is a brilliant book. Everyone should go check it out. I really enjoy doing research like this.


  1. Thank you so much! I can't wait to try all of your great ideas. You're the best!

  2. Your tips will help me so much. Thanks for visiting me at A Season for All Things. I'm your newest follower and look forward to your childhood recipes. ~ Ellen

  3. I'm still learning too! It'd be great to hear how these tips worked out for you, that'd save me some research haha! (:

  4. Great information! I am loving your blog so far!

  5. Nice tips!! I found you after you commented on my stir fry post...I can't wait to explore your blog some more and get some delicious meal ideas!

    I'm a new follower!

    Turning a House into a Home

  6. wow this stove is every home cook's dream.

    Thanks for dropping by.

  7. wow thanks for the great tips! i will start using potato starch flour instead of cornflour! so many tricks to get a good stir-fry i never knew!
    a wok should be on the top of my kitchen to-buys too!

  8. I love a good stir fry, and I feel much more confident about making it after reading your tips. Thank you for sharing with me. I'm about ready to curl up in bed, and now I'll have yummy dreams. I hope you have a great end to your week. I'm glad I stumbled upon your blog tonight!

  9. These are great tips. I can hardly wait to try them. Thanks!

  10. Wow, thanks for these awesome tips!

  11. My husband got really into chinese cooking for awhile, bought a wok and bamboo steamer, etc. and made some really delicious stuff, so much better than chinese takeout quality!

  12. Amazing photos and tips. I need to get myself a better wok. Mine is difficult to clean and just doesn't seem to do a great job.

  13. Thanks!

    Viv: it's sweet potato starch! yup my mum much prefers it to cornflour and I always blindly follow her advice hehe.

    edith: Unfortunately, it's not my stove..

    Monet: Aw,do let me know if they turn out well (:

    Michelle: Wow, I don't even have a wok or a bamboo steamer. Lucky you!

    Rivki: Maybe you just need to season your wok? Do check out the link up there, cos woks needn't be expensive and everything!

  14. U've really got the wok on fire!
    The best stir-fry... :-)

  15. thanks rita! yup, that was a terrifying but awesome experience! HEY NOTE: i've changed the sweet potato starch to potato starch. I have bad translations skills. I thought 太白粉 was sweet potato starch.. and my mum likes to empty the flour into a separate container and throw the packaging away..

  16. Great tips! My parents have gas but we have electric, so despite cooking a lot of "stir fries" at home it's not nearly as good :(

  17. Very informative and relevant post! Love how real the photos are too! So great to have found you! Thank you for finding us! We are HUGE fans of Asian food (all southeast asia and look forward to this budding culinary friendship between our blogs :)

  18. Thanks for the tips! How do you think it would work using arrowroot powder instead of potatoe or corn starch? I don't have either of those. I am going to have to find a cast iorn wok!

  19. zo: I know ): I have the same problem in london.

    chefandsteward: thanks, glad you found this helpful!

    katie: you don't need a cast iron wok that's what I was saying, you can get a cheap carbon steel one, but season it properly and it's more non-stick than any non-stick wok and will last you forever! the cheap ones are also lighter, and easier to toss. not sure about arrowroot starch, i know tapioca starch works too, if you have that...

  20. is carbon steel safe to use? I haven't read anything about it. All I ever use is cast iorn. Any way around it, I'm going to have to wait awhile because I'm in Mexico and won't be headed to the states for a month or two....

  21. yes it is! it looks silver at first, but it'll get blacker as you season it, and then after 2 years of usage or so it'll get fully black, weird huh, it's some form of chemical reaction. the most fascinating thing is that it's as non-stick as a non-stick wok, but much safer, because non-stick coating gets damaged at high temperatures and you end up eating I-don't-know-what.

  22. great article! stir-frying is the most well-known Chinese cooking technique that almost everyone can do but so difficult to do it right. Being in a Western country doesn't help. I have a gas range cooker with a wok burner but still no way as powerful enough. Whoever designed the cooker is definitely not Chinese :P I find the average two-ring gas cooker in China is way more powerful than my fancy 7 burner range :(

    However, it's only a problem when I want to do some high-temperature stir-frying, like the dishes you mentioned that needs "wok hei", such as Beef chow fun, or fire-exploding kidney. There are many types of stir-frying techniques, and I guess the marinade and temperature required depend on the dish itself. Maillard reaction is cool but not necessary on everything. I find white meat/fish/prawns are better cooked by velveting and then poached in medium-hot oil until half done (takes seconds). Obviously it's also a personal preference. I've read somebody who marinades beef strips in pear juice for 3 hours! Definitely not for me :)

    As for sodium bi-carb, I totally agree. Marinading and velveting is good when done right. Unfortunately many restaurants do so to disguise bad cuts of meat or not so fresh prawns, hence the bad reputation of slimy greasy stir-fry. I came from Suzhou where freshly hand-peeled river shrimp in simple "crystal" form is still commonly seen in restaurants (not too expensive either). Bi-carb would ruin the flavour and texture of them (and indeed any quality meat/fish). BTW I saw Ken Hom's latest TV series and his recipe of Long Jing Tea Prawns. It's sooooo wrong......

    1. Tell me about it, I have an electric stove top here. I can never mimic that high heat burner, but can get pretty close with it turned to the max (and left there), though it's hard to adjust the heat quick enough so I have to get 2 hobs ready.

      I do agree with you, not everythign needs wok hei! I like seafood cooked very delicately especially, velveting is a great great technique!

      Re: ken hom. I don't think he's actually that good a chinese chef, come one, the man hasn't been to china in 20 years and he grew up overseas, but well, I guess he;s one of the few authorities people turn to for chinese cooking tips as there aren't many in the western cooking world. That said, he's sometimes not that bad. Do wish all the really good chinese chefs out there learn english and start appearing on telly more though!

  23. I am going to try making my own marinade when I make my food next time. I think my Chinese food turns out pretty good, but I could probably improve. What would you suggest for the meat?
    Jayden Eden | http://www.houseofchinaajax.ca/en/

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  26. Wow! I have learned some of the coolest cooking techniques from this blog. So, it’s time to start by making a batch of basic, all-purpose Chinese stir fry sauce and transform Chinese night in our home!

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