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8 tips about Asian cooking from Martin Yan, Grace Young and other experts

(Laura Chase de Formigny for The Washington Post/food styling by Lisa Cherkasky for The Washington Post)
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The Post Food staff goes live every Wednesday at noon to answer your questions about food and cooking, but some of our favorite chats feature guests we’ve recruited to give readers direct access to experts.

In our May 12 chat, we hosted a few of the personalities featured in Marian Liu’s phenomenal package in honor of Asian American and Pacific Islander Heritage Month. She talked with a variety of chefs and celebrities about what food means to them.

To celebrate Asian American and Pacific Islander Heritage Month, we asked Asian chefs and celebrities what role food plays in their lives

Our guests this week were Grace Young, food writer and cookbook author; Martin Yan, TV cooking show host and cookbook author; Nong Poonsukwattana, chef, restaurateur and podcast host; and Hamza Khan, aspiring pastry chef. Of course, you don’t assemble a panel like that and not come away with a ton of great advice.

Here are some of the most useful tips we got about Asian cooking from this esteemed group. These excerpts have been edited for length and clarity. Find a full transcript of the chat, here.

In making pot stickers, is it better to steam or fry first? Most sites say fry first, but I think the texture is better steaming first.

Grace Young: I always pan-fry the pot stickers first. I preheat my wok, add about 1 to 2 tablespoons of oil, add the dumplings (they can be touching each other) and fry them over medium-high heat for 1 to 2 minutes. Be careful when you add about 1/3 cup of water, because you’re going to get sputtering and spattering. Cover with a lid and lower the heat to medium, and let it go for about 5 to 8 minutes, until most of the water is gone. When you hear sizzling, remove the lid and let the dumplings pan-fry for another 1 to 2 minutes to crisp up the bottoms again.

Pork and Chive Dumplings

Are there some basic formulas we can use as a rough guide for making different types of stir-fry sauces, such as 1 part spicy, 1 part sweet, 2 parts savory?

Martin Yan: There is no basic formula for stir-fry sauce. Every cook and restaurant has their own formula, depending on what type of dish — whether protein and vegetable combination, just vegetable — and what type of protein (chicken, pork, beef, lamb or seafood). A typical stir-fry sauce does not have to be spicy or sweet. The focus is on being savory. Here is a simple formula: 1 cup chicken stock, 3 tablespoons oyster-flavored sauce, 3 tablespoons soy sauce, 3 tablespoons rice wine, 2 teaspoons sesame seed oil, 2 tablespoons sugar, 1/2 teaspoon ground white pepper and thickened with 3 tablespoons cornstarch. Heat up until slightly thickened. Let cool, and store in the refrigerator to use for the next few days.

Grace Young: I’ve seen cookbooks that have “basic stir-fry sauces,” but I generally don’t recommend it. The overall flavor of your stir-fry is going to be dependent on how you marinated your meat and the other seasonings you are using. Are you adding ginger, garlic, scallions, chiles, Sichuan peppercorns? If you look at my stir-fry recipes, I never use the same sauce combinations. Each recipe is unique. I also like to do everything fresh, so I don’t see the need to pre-make anything. Most sauces are quite simple and only take a minute or two to measure out.

5 chicken stir-fry recipes for a quick and easy weeknight dinner (find the one pictured at top here)

Any advice on achieving wok hei, or something close, at home?

Martin Yan: Wok hei is the “breath of the wok” that can only be achieved when the wok is hot enough, then the aroma and flavor can be released. The way to achieve this is to heat up your wok over high heat. Once it is hot enough, add the oil. This is referred to as “hot wok, cool oil.” Add your marinated protein, let it sear for about 30 seconds before stir-frying. Try not to stir right away — let it sear until lightly golden brown, turn to the other side and sear. The higher the temperature, the more the “wok hei” is released.

I seem incapable of creating the same zingy ginger and garlic flavors in my homemade food that I get in Asian restaurants. Might you share any secrets?

Martin Yan: Ginger and garlic are some of the most widely used flavorings in Chinese and Asian cuisine. The key is to use freshly chopped or crushed ginger and garlic. Use a good amount for more intense flavors. Heat up your frying pan, add oil and stir-fry the garlic and ginger to infuse the flavor in the oil before adding your meat and vegetables.

Grace Young: Maybe it’s the quality of the ginger and garlic you have. Are you choosing ginger that is heavy and firm to the touch with smooth skin? I like to buy organic ginger. And nowadays I see garlic sold in Asian markets that are in netting bags and they are all bizarrely identical. I like to buy my garlic from a farmers market. If you start with quality ginger and garlic, the flavor will be more intense.

Ginger adds its zippy punch and aroma to these 6 sweet and savory recipes

Are there differences between regular soy sauce, light soy sauce and dark soy sauce? Also, tamari and Bragg liquid aminos. I have regular, tamari and Bragg, and something called “gold” soy sauce, and was just wondering if I should pick up the dark and light for me next time. Can I adapt with the ones I have or substitute them outright?

Martin Yan: There are significant differences between light soy sauce and dark soy sauce. Light soy sauce is lighter in color, saltier and more savory. Dark soy, with molasses added, is darker and sweeter. Dark soy sauce is used to marinate dark meats (e.g. beef and lamb) and used typically for red-cooked and braised dishes to give the bolder color. Light soy sauce is generally referred to as regular soy sauce and more widely used than dark. Tamari is a Japanese soy sauce without gluten. “Gold” soy sauce generally refers to a premium quality soy sauce with better umami. For better quality or “double-fermented” soy sauces, try checking out the Lee Kum Kee or Kikkoman brands.

What are fermented black beans and where can you buy them?

Grace Young: Fermented black beans are small black soy beans which have been fermented with salt and spices. It’s the essential ingredient for making beef and broccoli, beef chow fun or shrimp with lobster sauce. You don’t need very much, but it gives great depth of flavor to stir-fries. My favorite brand is Yang Jiang Preserved Black Beans, which comes in a cardboard box. You’ll find it in most Asian supermarkets on the shelf. The beans keep indefinitely in an airtight jar in a cool, dark, dry cupboard or in the fridge.

Seeking an alternative to soy sauce? Healthier condiments and how to use them.

When cooking foods with ingredients that are not readily available, which way do you lean: Substitute with readily available so you can have an approximation more often, or spend more time and money to get “the right thing?” And is your answer different if you’re writing recipes for people from outside your culture, to introduce them to your foods?

Hamza Khan: So, when it comes to our traditional South Asian desserts or cuisine, my mom is the real chef. There are several ingredients that are almost impossible to find here, so most of the time she substitutes them for something that is readily available. There are some dairy products that are impossible to find here, so she’ll substitute them with condensed milk and evaporated milk, but the result will almost be identical, or even better, and it’s amazing.

In my opinion, these adaptations are part of culture evolving. It’s important to know tradition, but I don’t think these adaptations or substitutions are any less of “the right thing” if they give a result as good or even better. And I think the answer differs less about the type of people I’m sharing the recipe with, but more about their location and what they have access to.

Tomato and Egg Scramble

My chickens give me tons of eggs and my garden, tomatoes. How can I put these together in a dish?

Grace Young: There’s a classic stir-fry of eggs with tomatoes. In a bowl, beat together 2 eggs, 1 to 2 tablespoons of cilantro, 1 teaspoon sesame oil, 1/4 teaspoon salt and some fresh pepper. Preheat your wok, add about 1 tablespoon of peanut or vegetable oil and swirl it around the pan. Add some minced garlic and shallots and stir-fry about 30 seconds until fragrant. Add a ripe tomato that’s been diced, 1 teaspoon of rice wine or dry sherry and sprinkle on a pinch of sugar and stir-fry 1 minute. Add the 2 beaten eggs and stir-fry 1 minute until the eggs are just set but still a little runny. It’s so good.

Martin Yan: Tomatoes and eggs are very popular ingredients in Chinese cooking. It’s one of my favorite home-cooked dishes. Peel the tomato, squeeze out the seeds, cut into bite-size chunks; set aside. Use one tomato to 2 beaten eggs. Heat up a wok or stir-fry pan (a nonstick frying pan works well, too); add cooking oil. Add beaten eggs, and stir to scramble. Add tomato chunks. Season with 1 tablespoon ketchup, 1/2 teaspoon sesame seed oil, salt and pepper to taste.

Join us next Wednesday, May 19, at noon (E.T.) when we will dig into some of the breads we frequently make, such as challah, pandesal or white sliced; and answer any other general cooking questions you might have. Find the chat at You must register, but you do not have to be a subscriber to submit a question.