How I learned to stop worrying and love stir-fry

24 Feb

I’ve never been a huge fan of stir-fry. Or rather, I wasn’t before I came to China. It’s a whole new world of single-container cooking here. Last night my view of cooking stir-fry changed, mostly because I finally made a good one. But, I had proper motivation.

John Legend made a speech at a commencement ceremony in which he said “Soul is about authenticity…the moments when sound and silence come together.” Well, I’m now convinced that truly inspired cooking happens when extreme hunger and creative inspiration have a love child. The former pushes the latter to be perfect because it so intensely salivates over the prospective result. So, ravenous with hunger but determined to make use of the fresh veggies in my fridge, I took some time to attempt a stir-fry relying only on wit and my knowledge of the Chinese dishes I so frequently eat in restaurants here.

Before I talk about the what I did, let me explain what I learned. I used to cringe from the idea of cooking stir-fries because they always came out too salty or too oily or too saucy or you-name-it-it-happened. But last night I had an epiphany; all the elements of what I know or have experienced from eating or making stir-fry came together in one of those moments where sound meets silence, and it finally all made sense. Cooking stir-fry isn’t about how much spice or seasoning or liquid you add. It’s not about the ingredients themselves or choosing perfectly matched components and flavor combinations. It’s about heat and the surface you cook on, the way you move the food, and not over-cooking anything. It’s about corruption, the altering of basic components just enough to make them taste like something completely different. Carmelize an onion, brown a potato, saturate an eggplant or wilt a green…do what you like with what you’ve got, as long as you keep a little of the original consistency and taste inside while dressing up the outer surface. One of life’s little pleasures is the occasional (or frequent) corrupting of the status quo. Take some meat or produce and give it a new way of co-mingling with your taste-buds.

Having a wok helps. Ladies and gents, I hate to brag, but mine’s got a 36-centimeter diameter, and it’s well seasoned. You can guide a metal spatula over it’s wide, deep bowl (no flat-bottoms allowed in my kitchen) with slow but consistent strokes in a way that allows you to toss, stir or fold your concoctions with the finesse necessary for any dish. And, it’s such a versatile surface. Never before had I truly known the world of vegetable tempura (try making a batter with soda water, flour and salt some time), and many of my old favorite recipes made in a wok taste much better. It’s the even distribution of heat, the ability to cook with high heat and a large surface area, to brown but not char, to give many ingredients a chance to taste the heat instead of working with a dissatisfying pile of ingredients all competing for a chance to touch the tin. Of course, it’s not necessary to have a wok to make stir-fry, but being well equipped never hurts.

So, here’s what happened. Red onion and white potatoes went into some corn oil for just a bit before salt started working its magic. When the potatoes were almost tender and the onion had just begun to break down, I added red and yellow bell peppers and went spice-crazy. After I was finished adding Spanish paprika, ground 5-spice blend, dried oregano, dried basil, freshly-ground black pepper and dried red pepper flakes, my veggies looked like they were covered in the snowy ash and dust of a post-apocalyptic landscape. I stirred again, beginning to fold instead of toss the ingredients, and then I added sliced mushrooms (with 2-3 inch diameter caps). A minute or two later, tomatoes and the surprise ninja of the night, large-dice pineapple joined the fun. To whet the wheel, I threw in about a tablespoon of hoisin sauce and a healthy splash of vinegar (the kind you dump those delicious Chinese dumplings into). After folding the ingredients again, I was finished. Of course, I gobbled up a bowl-full right away, but I recommend eating the result on rice or fresh salad greens. I ate the leftovers with some tofu cooked in soy sauce, which improved upon the flavors that had congealed overnight.

Next time I try a stir-fry, I’m making a curry. Coconut milk is readily-available here, and it’s DE-LI-CIOUS. Limes and lime leaves, however, take a little more digging!

2 medium white potatoes, quartered and sliced (1/4 inch)
1 medium red onion, sliced (1/2 inch)
1 red bell pepper, sliced (1/2 inch)
1 yellow bell pepper, sliced (1/2 inch)
5-6 medium/large mushrooms, sliced (1/4 inch)
3 small tomatoes, quartered
1 cup fresh pineapple, chopped
1-2 T. each: hoisin sauce and vinegar (see above for description)
1-2 t. each: salt, freshly ground pepper, dried basil, dried oregano, dried red pepper flakes, Spanish paprika, ground 5-spice blend
high-heat oil


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