NO OTHER cuisine demands such precise lightning-quick technique over a roaring fire and exacting regard for food texture, flavor and preparation as Chinese stir frying -- not even those European cooking techniques it may resemble, such as saute'ing.
To watch a stir-fry chef, his chest glistening with perspiration, standing in front of a burner as searing as an oxyacetylene torch, effortlessly flip a wok containing meat and vegetables with one hand and dip an enormous black ladle into jars of condiments with the other is fascinating.
As the food tumbles up and down, the flames shooting up over the sides of the wok and momentarily engulfing its contents, the chef continues his preparations without interruption -- apparently unfazed. In a matter of seconds, and several more tosses, the food is seared and seasoned to the proper degree, then transferred immediately to a platter and dispatched, fragrant and steaming, to the waiting customers.
It is a cooking technique that is at its best in a Chinese restaurant, where the optimum facilities are available, resulting in that lightly scorched, "fire-in-the-food" flavor. But it is also a cooking method that lends itself most readily to the limitations of a home kitchen -- or even a campfire.
The necessary equipment includes merely top-quality ingredients, a broad pan that conducts heat efficiently, and a source of heat. The rest is just icing on the cake. And stir-frying is uniquely suited to the present moment: When the daily concerns of home cooks include convenience, cost, health and weight.
Stir-frying was first developed more than a thousand years ago by the ancient Chinese when fuel was scarce. It was devised to use heat as efficiently as possible and all aspects of the stir-frying technique reflected this regard: The ingredients were cut into small pieces (slices, shreds or dice) to expedite cooking time, the pan used (christened a "wok" by the Cantonese) was designed to fit down into the round opening in a Chinese stove so that the fire enveloped the bottom of the pan and created an enlarged cooking surface; and all the initial preparation for the dish was done in advance so that the flow of quick-cooking could proceed without interruption.
These same steps are used today by both restaurant chefs and home cooks alike. Some of the most important tips to keep in mind before embarking on a stir-fry are:
*Almost any food is excellent for stir-frying -- provided it is of a good quality. When selecting meat for stir-frying, it should be the leanest and most tender cuts. While the slicing, marinating and quick-cooking will further tenderize the food, tough cuts will remain tough. Furthermore, stir-frying accentuates the taste of food, so the flavor of poor quality products cannot be masked as with other methods.
*All food for a stir-fried dish should be cut into uniform-size pieces. Different-size pieces will not look pretty and will cook unevenly. The food -- whether it is sliced, shredded or diced -- should be cut very finely for stir-frying. Food that is to be pan-fried can be cut into bigger pieces.
*All preparation for stir-frying should be done completely in advance, before the cooking begins. Meats, chicken and seafood should all be sliced and marinated beforehand. They can be done hours ahead and stored in the refrigerator. Stir-frying is a very quick process, and everything must be ready to add instantly.
*The sauces and seasonings should also be prepared in advance and then placed near the stove before any cooking begins.
The sauce of a stir-fried dish is an important part of the final product. As in French cooking, the ancient Chinese chefs, region-by-region, developed a system of basic sauces that are used repeatedly in stir-fried dishes. There are the fiery sauces of Sichuan-Hunan and western China; and the delicate and refined sauces of Canton and eastern China; and the robust and mild sauces of northern China. Formerly, these sauces may have been particular to a given area, but today, they are prepared and relished universally.
The most common base used in almost all Chinese sauces -- whatever the origin -- is generally made of a stock prepared from boiling pork, chicken, or a combination of the two. In some cases, plain water is substituted. Other common seasonings which make up the sauce include basic Chinese condiments like soy sauce, Chinese rice wine, Chinese clear or rice vinegar and sesame oil. All of these ingredients are available in Chinese grocery stores and in some well stocked supermarkets.
Flavorings (which are generally minced, sliced or shredded) also contribute to the overall flavor of Chinese stir-fried sauces. The most familiar include: ginger root, scallions, garlic, chili pepper, Chinese black mushrooms, Sichuan peppercorns and fermented black beans. Pastes and sauces -- like chili paste, sweet bean sauce, and oyster sauce -- also lend quite a bit of distinction to Chinese stir-fried sauces. They too, may be purchased at any Oriental market.
These combined ingredients all come together in the pan to create pungent Chinese master sauces with familiar names like sweet and sour sauce, black bean sauce (otherwise known as lobster sauce), fish-flavored ("you hsiang") sauce, and "kung pao" sauce. Many of these sauces are available bottled (Joyce Chen, Maggie Gin and Karen Lee are some of the notables bottling their own sauces) and are sold in gourmet food shops.
Once the initial preparation has been completed, the rest of the action takes place at the stove. Any cook can become a veteran stir-fryer, but this seemingly simple process does require some practice and planning for optimum results.
Florence Lin, author of "Florence Lin's Chinese Regional Cookbook" (1975, Hawthorn) and "Florence Lin's Chinese Vegetarian Cookbook" (recently reissued by Shanbalah), who is also a highly respected authority on Chinese cooking, is not only a seasoned Chinese cook, but she has patiently cajoled and advised hundreds of students toward perfecting stir-frying in her Chinese cooking classes at the China Institute in New York City.
Interviewed by telephone in her New York home, Lin, who is at work on yet another Chinese cookbook to be published next year by William Morrow, offered some helpful information on this venerable technique.
"Stir-frying means the quick-cooking of small pieces of food in a little oil over high heat, but the most important part is the amount of food. It must be kept at a minimum, particularly on a home range. Actually, I don't recommend cooking more than one pound of meat, chicken, seafood or fish in the pan. Normally, the high heat seals in the juices of the food, but if there is too much meat, it will just stew. It's basically the same technique whether you're cooking meat, seafood, chicken or even vegetables.
"The first step in stir-frying is to cut the food and 'coat' the meat as specified in the recipe. I used to call this step marinating, but then I changed it to 'coating.' In this step, called velveting, various condiments plus egg white and cornstarch are used to tenderize and flavor the food and seal in the juices. Once the food has been coated, and the other necessary seasonings and sauce have been prepared, then the meat -- or whatever -- must be pre-cooked. It is usually immersed in hot oil, but occasionally, water is used. In restaurants, they use a lot of oil, but in family-style cooking, the amount is greatly reduced. Still, there is enough to cover the food." (Lin recommends about 1 cup oil for cooking 1/2 pound of meat.)
Lin stresses that the heat should be as powerful as possible. (For those with an electric stove, she suggests keeping one burner on high and another on medium, so that if the cook feels that the process is moving too quickly on the high heat, the pan may be moved for a short time to the lower burner.) Another point she stresses is that the pan -- whether it is a wok or a skillet -- should be well seasoned. Lin explained why:
"Well seasoned means that when you put the food in the pan, it will not stick. If the pan is properly seasoned, even with the heat being very high and just a little bit of oil for stir-frying, the food shouldn't stick. When people complain that the food is sticking, it is mostly likely because they aren't really treating their pan properly. First of all, the pan must be heated, before anything is put in it. If you are using a steel pan, and most of the woks made in this country are made of spun-steel, the heating opens up the pores. Then you add some oil, heat it, and remove the oil from the pan, letting it cool. This allows the oil to soak into the pores. Cooling the pan closes the pores so that when the oil is heated again, it is ready for stir-frying." (Lin adapted this method from a traditional technique used by most Chinese chefs before stir-frying.)
The final step in the stir-frying process where the precooked food is actually "stir-fried" is almost anti-climactic due to its brevity. At this point, the pan is reheated with a little oil, the seasonings are added and stir-fried briefly until fragrant; the sauce is added and cooked until slightly thickened; and the precooked food is returned to the pan and tossed in the sauce. This last step is always performed over high heat and literally takes less than a minute.
Once the process is completed, the mixture is quickly transferred to a plate and served forth. The Chinese believe: Stir-fried dishes are best eaten immediately out of the pan. The guests may wait for the food, but the food must never wait for the guests. SPICY SICHUAN STIR-FRIED EGGPLANT (6 servings as side dish) 2 pounds Japanese eggplant (available in any Chinese grocery store), or tender, baby eggplant (you may also substitute larger, American eggplant.) 1/2 pound ground pork or beef 1 1/2 teaspoons chili paste (available in any Chinese grocery store) Meat seasoning: 1 tablespoon soy sauce 1/2 tablespoon rice wine 1/2 teaspoon sesame oil 2 cups safflower or corn oil Minced seasonings: 2 tablespoons minced scallions 2 teaspoons minced ginger root 1 1/2 tablespoons minced garlic Spicy Sichuan sauce: 3 tablespoons soy sauce 2 tablespoons rice wine 1 1/2 tablespoons sugar 2 tablespoons Chinese black vinegar (available at any Chinese grocery store) 1 1/2 teaspoons sesame oil
Rinse the eggplant lightly and drain thoroughly. Trim the ends, removing the stems, and if using the larger eggplants, peel away the skin. Cut the eggplants lengthwise in half and cut each half into slices that are 1/2-inch thick, 3-inches long, and 1-inch wide. Lightly chop the meat until fluffy and place it in a bowl. Add the soy sauce, rice wine, and sesame oil from the meat seasonings and toss lightly.
Heat a wok or a deep skillet, add the oil, and heat to 375 degrees. Add a portion of the eggplant slices and fry, over high heat, covering the pan briefly to prevent the oil from splashing. Fry the slices for about 3 minutes, or until tender. Remove with a slotted spoon, and drain. Reheat the oil, and deep-fry the remaining eggplant in the same manner, reheating the oil between batches. Drain the fried eggplant and remove all but 2 tablespoons oil from the pan and reheat. Prepare the minced seasonings by chopping the scallions, gingerroot and garlic, and mix the spicy Sichuan sauce by combining the soy sauce, rice wine, sugar, black vinegar and sesame oil.
Add the ground meat to the pan and stir-fry, over high heat, mashing it until it separates. Once the meat changes color, push it to the side of the pan and add the minced seasonings. Stir-fry about 10 seconds, until fragrant. Add the chili paste and stir-fry another 5 seconds. Add the spicy sauce, return the meat to the center of the pan, and toss over high heat, until the sauce thickens. Add the fried eggplant, toss lightly to coat with the sauce, and remove to a platter. Serve immediately with steamed rice. STIR-FRIED SPINACH (6 servings) 1/2 tablespoon safflower or corn oil 1/2 tablespoon sesame oil 1 teaspoon garlic, minced 2 pounds fresh spinach, or 2 10-ounce packages of spinach, cleaned, trimmed, rinsed lightly and drained 2 tablespoons rice wine 1/2 teaspoon salt
Heat a wok or a deep skillet, until very hot. Add the oils, and heat until smoking. Place all of the ingredients near the pan and add the garlic and spinach. Immediately toss lightly over high heat and add the rice wine and salt. Toss continuously with a spatula, for about 1 1/2 minutes, or until the spinach is just-wilted. Remove and transfer to a serving dish. Serve immediately, or serve at room temperature as an edible garnish arranged around the outside of a meat or seafood stir-fried platter. CLAMS IN BLACK BEAN SAUCE (6 servings) 24 small littleneck or hard shell clams 3 tablespoons safflower or corn oil Minced seasonings: 1 1/2 tablespoons garlic, minced 2 tablespoons scallions, minced 1 tablespoon ginger root, minced 2 tablespoons fermented or salted black beans, rinsed, drained and chopped coarsely Black bean sauce: 1/4 cup chicken broth or water 1 tablespoon soy sauce 1 1/2 tablespoons rice wine 1 teaspoon sugar 1/4 teaspoon freshly ground black pepper Thickener: 1 teaspoon cornstarch 1 tablespoon water
Rinse the clams thoroughly and if necessary, scrub them lightly with a brush, to remove sand. Place them in a bowl with water to cover for 1 hour. Remove and drain. Prepare the minced seasonings by chopping the garlic, scallions and ginger root. Add the black beans. Prepare the black bean sauce by combining the chicken broth, soy sauce, rice wine, sugar and black pepper. Mix the thickener by combining the cornstarch and water.
Heat a wok or skillet and add the oil. Heat until very hot and add the minced seasonings. Stir-fry until fragrant, about 15 seconds, and add the black bean sauce. Heat until boiling, add the clams, and cover. Cook the clams over medium heat, shaking ocassionally, until they just begin to open, about 5-7 minutes. Uncover and stir clams in the sauce. When they have opened a bit further, add the thickener, and stir until the mixture has just thickened. Toss the clams lightly in the sauce and transfer to a serving platter. Serve immediately with steamed rice and vegetable side dish. SPICY TANGERINE PEEL CHICKEN (6 servings) 2 pounds boneless chicken breast meat Chicken marinade: 2 tablespoons soy sauce 2 tablespoons rice wine 1 1/2 teaspoons sesame oil 1 teaspoon ginger root, minced 1 tablespoon water 1 1/2 tablespoons cornstarch 1 cup safflower or corn oil 2 tablespoons dried red chili peppers, cut into 1/4-inch sections, seeds removed 8 strips dried tangerine or orange peel, about 2 inches long, blanched briefly and softened in hot water for 20 minutes and shredded 12 to 14 fresh water chestnuts, peeled, boiled for 5 minutes, and refreshed in cold water, and sliced thinly Spicy sauce: 3 tablespoons soy sauce 2 tablespoons rice wine 1 1/2 teaspoons sesame oil 1 tablespoon clear rice vinegar 2 teaspoons sugar 1/4 teaspoon freshly ground black pepper 1/4 cup chicken broth or water 1 1/2 teaspoons cornstarch
Remove the skin and trim away any fat from the chicken. Cut the meat into 1-inch cubes. Place the cubes in a bowl, add the soy sauce, rice wine, sesame oil, ginger root, water and cornstarch. Toss lightly to coat and let marinate 20 minutes. Prepare the sauce by combining the soy sauce, rice wine, sesame oil, rice vinegar, sugar, black pepper, chicken broth or water, and cornstarch.
Drain the chicken and discard the marinade. Heat a wok or deep skillet, add the oil, and heat until very hot. Add half the chicken meat and cook, stirring constantly over high heat, until the meat changes color. Remove with a handled strainer, and drain. Reheat the oil and deep fry the remaining chicken meat. Remove and drain. Remove the oil from the wok, reserving 2 tablespoons.
Reheat the wok, add the reserved oil, and heat until very hot. Add the dried pepper sections, and the tangerine peel shreds, and stir-fry for about 15 seconds over high heat, stirring constantly, until the peppers, turn black. Add the sliced water chestnuts and toss lightly to heat through. Add the sauce mixture and cook, stirring constantly, until thickened. Add the chicken meat, toss lightly to coat the pieces, and transfer to a serving platter. Serve immediately with steamed rice and a side vegetable.