In this Wednesday’s New York Times Food and Wine section Mark Bittman presented a stir-fry dish using fermented black beans (or douchi 豆豉). What a refreshing surprise it was to see such an esoteric ingredient presented in the mainstream media. I applaud Bittman for introducing this ingredient to his readers. It gives me an opportunity…
I was living in Boston in the 1970’s when there was a sudden craze for dry wok stir-fry. I didn’t quite understand how the Boston public became such sudden converts of dry wok stir-fry. Possibly it was the result of a very aggressive marketing campaign by a certain Chinese restaurant in Brookline Village then known as Hunan Wok. Dry wok stir-fry was touted as a “healthy choice” just when people were becoming aware of the importance of eating right. Personally I think it is not just the technique but also the selection of fresh ingredients, and vigilant use of healthful oil and sauces that make stir-fry a wholesome cooking choice. In this conclusion of the stir-fry series let me show you why dry wok stir-fry should be part of your regular cooking repertoire.
I have a wooden bowl I use to hold potatoes, onions and garlic. It sits at the end of my kitchen counter and normally does a very good job of keeping the root vegetables dry and firm. Perhaps because of the warm weather of late some of the garlic bulbs started sending out green shoots. I decided to put the bulbs in a small shallow bowl with water, and placed it in front of a very sunny window in the living room. I am in fact very proud of how the shoots are beginning to grow into beautiful greens.
If plain stir-fry is the least known stir-fry variation in America, then moist stir-fry is the best known. The gooey, tasteless sauces in “Chop Suey” and Moo Goo Gai Pan found in so many Chinese-American restaurants all rely on this technique. Whoever created these recipes obviously had a special affinity for this common technique and used it ad nauseum.
We take for granted that stir-frying is just combining a bunch of ingredients, frying them in a wok, and seasoning them appropriately; that is partially accurate. What is rarely understood is that there are variations in stir-frying technique. Broadly classified the variations are 1) plain stir-fry (清炒 or QingChao), 2) moist stir-fry (滑炒 or HuaChao) and 3) dry wok stir-fry (煸炒 or BianChao). In this third part of Stir-fry Fortnight series post let me show you how simple it is to make plain vegetable stir-fry.
Photography by Ron Boszko
My neighbor, Kim, has been stir-frying, ever since I convinced her to move her wok from cold storage to stovetop. (She inherited a great wok, completely seasoned and beautifully charred black, from a friend years ago and once used it as a planter!) Now she regularly stops on her way to the market to consult with me about what ingredients to buy for that night’s stir-fry. With so many ingredients to choose from, it can seem daunting. I used to have the same problem matching ingredients until I started writing down and analyzing classic combinations. There is a logical method to the madness of ingredients selection.
After ranting about the lack of accuracy and authenticity in Chinese cooking articles by Western food writers in my previous posts, I have to point out there are exceptions. Occasionally I come across some insightful articles and eagerly study them. One such example was “The Glory of Red Cooking” in the March 2007 issue of Saveur magazine by Grace Young. The article meticulously retells the tradition and background of red cooking, and includes some very practical recipes. This article inspired me to embark on recording many Chinese cooking techniques I researched and used in my kitchen. One of the results of this pursuit is what I will be offering you during the next two weeks: The meaning of stir-fry.