Chinese Stirfry

Stirfry is a melding of equipment, technique, and food cut relatively small. While the term is often applied in the west to sauteing, in China stirfry covers two terms:

Chow (chǎo) a quicker, higher heat and more vigorous technique with similarities to a western saute with the food stirred and turned with a special spatula sometimes called a shovel.

Bao a tossed technique in a superheated wok also sometimes seen as pow or even pao

As with all the great cuisines of the world, the technique of stirfrying and the food it produces are largely the result of peasant ingenuity and need. The stirfry technique developed out of the need to cook with minimal fuel, and often sparse ingredients. Similarly, the wok offers an economy of material, while maximizing cooking surface and contained volume producing a versatile and efficient cooking tool.


The origins of the wok and stirfrying are murky at best. Some have theorized warriors cooking out of their helmets. Others tie the mass cultivation of rice (and the cutting of forest for arable land) to a need for low fuel cooking.

I see a similarity between a wok and basic basketry and pottery. As the first metal woks would have been cast rather than forged, this shape is a likely candidate. The shape is also adaptable to cooking in the coals of a fire, on uneven surfaces and from stove to stove.

The common Chinese wok stove was a clay or brick affair with a round opening the wok rested in directly over the fire. A rear chimney was a later addition. With the round dish shaped wok, it was amenable to fitting in different sized openings that didn't have to be particularly flat or standardized to work well.

Food for stir frying is all cut beforehand in small bitesize pieces. While this may be related to cooking scraps and leftovers in ancient history, it also is a requisite for a culture that eats with chopsticks that the food is pre-cut in small  pieces.

  • The Frugal Gourmet Cooks Three Ancient Cuisines by Jeff Smith
  • Mastering the Modern Art of Chinese Cooking by Barbara Tropp

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The Stirfry

The general course of preparation for a stirfry would proceed as follows:
  1. Cut the meat/protien in chunks or cubes or matchsticks as called for in the recipe.
  2. Marinate the protien for a few minutes.
  3. While the protien marinates, cut the vegetables and aromatics as needed
  4. Blanch, pass or velvet as needed.
  5. Prepare and measure the seasonings and sauce ingredients.
  6. Place everything in conveneint location to your wok cooking area.
  7. Heat the wok over the highest heat.
  8. Drizzle a small amount of oil around the perimeter of the wok. It should be sufficiently hot by the time you finish pouring. If needed, tilt the wok to evenly coat the cooking surface.
  9. Add the aromatics if any then the protien. Stir fry until nearly done.
  10. Remove the protein from the wok. Clean if needed.
  11. Repeat steps 7 and 8 and add the vegetables and stirfry
  12. When the vegetables are almost done, return the protien to the wok, toss to mix and add the final sauce/seasonings.
  13. Serve immediately with the Wok Hei at it's peak.
Food Preparation

Because stirfrying is a quick hands on cooking technique, there is no time to continue preparation while the first part of the dish cooks. Everything must be pre-prepared, which in french technique is called mise en place.

The general knife skills for Chinese cooking are the same as for western cooking. You need to cut in cubes, matchsticks or sheds, or chunks.

A chinese chef's knife (not a cleaver though it looks like one) is not required as a standard Chef's knife is fully up to the task. There are a few areas for which I prefer the Chinese Chef's knife such as with preparing garlic and ginger or butterflying meat. That's just personal preference.

Protiens are generally marinated for a few minutes. Most commonly this is a combination of shao hsing wine, light soy sauce and perhaps corn starch. Specific recipes will offer other details and options.

Sometimes the protiens are given a few other special preparation steps. It is often useful to par cook the cut protein in generous amounts of hot oil  (about 275-300 degrees) to achieve the proper doneness, a technique called passing or going through oil. This technique is particularly useful when trying to cook beef a bit rare. Passing is a standby of the Chinese Restaurant trade. When done sloppily, the extra oil is carried into the rest of the stirfry leading to the cliche of greasy stir fried food.

A related technique is called velveting. In velveting, the protien is coated in corn starch or egg white and corn starch, then passed through hot oil The protien is protected from the hot oil and cooks gently with a tender texture. It is not a battered deep fry technique.

You need much less oil to pass in a round bottom wok and it is easier to scoop out the passed food with a spider compared to a flat bottom wok. The same holds true for velveting.

In both cases, let the food drain well before other cooking to let the excess oil drain away.

Some vegetables will not cook to completion in a stir fry and are best blanched before stir frying. Brocolli, cauliflower, carrots (depending how they're cut) should be blanched. Let the blanched food drain well to not add excess water to the stirfry. This is particularly true for brocolli and cauliflower.


The chinese use many condiments and seasonings. However, the most common ones are not hard to locate or substitute for.

Salt, pepper, and sugar are fairly common and universally available.

Soy sauce comes in two varieties, light and dark. Light refers to color, not calories or sodium. Dark soy has extra caramel color and sugar. Both are useful, but light soy sauce is required. Pearl River Bridge is a good brand of both dark and light soy sauces.

Shao Hsing wine is an amber colored rice wine. Dry sherry is a ready substitute.

Rice vinegar is a low acid vinegar. There are many varieties beyond the common clear or slightly yellow ones but they are harder to find and used less often. Of the less common varieties, Black or Chinkiang vinegar is probably second after the common rice vinegar in usefulness.

Hoisin sauce is a sweet and earthy sauce based in soy beans and other flavorings. Often used as a dip or glaze.

Oyster sauce is based in fermented oysters. The quality of the sauce is directly related to how early in the ingredient list oysters are listed. They should be first or second. VEgetarian versions are available as well some of which are pretty good though some slip in oyster extractives and still have vegatarian on the label. Lee Kum Kee makes a range of oyster sauces the best being the label with the woman and boy in a boat. The Panda label is also pretty good from Lee Kum Kee.

Sesame oil is the oil pressed from toasted sesame seeds. Buy a pure sesame oil, not a blend. Don't bother cooking with it, it loses it's flavor quickly to high heat.

Chicken stock is a frequent ingredient in chinese sauces

Corn starch, for thickening, and gloss.

While there are many more seasonings and condiments available, the above list forms the core used most often and permits a wide range of dishes. You need to have these measured out and often premixed with other seasonings before you start cooking.

Don't over sauce. While the Chinese restaurants serve heavily sauced food, it's not how the food is cooked in the native cuisine. The sauce should just coat the food to flavor it and give sheen.

At the Wok

In general, the wok needs to be hot and kept hot. On western stoves, this means that you need to keep the wok fairly empty and cook in small batches or the wok temperature will drop too much.

If you are cooking on an induction hob with a flat bottom wok, you'll have to work much faster than the instructions below indicate as that combination has high heat throughput unlike most wok and stove combinations in the western kitchen.

Oil Use a nuetral oil without flavor that can take high heat. Peanut oil is a good choice as are corn, safflower or grapeseed. Less expensive oils but still good are canola and plain vegetable (soy bean) oil. Do not use olive oil.

Most recipes call for adding the aromatics at the start, just after the oil. Ginger and garlic are easily burned particularly if added to a hot wok so watch it carefully and be ready to add the protien quickly. Some cooks add teh aromatics only briefly then scoop them oil leaving only flavored oil behind. This does prevent them from burning but is tricky to do completely.

Because of the limitations in western stoves, I find it better to add the proteins first and scatter them into a single layer and let them pick up some sear for a minute or two. Then add the aromatics and stir fry until almost done. Remove the protiens to a plate to wait.

Depending on the marinade, you may need to clean out the wok before cooking the vegetables. A sugary marinade usually means you  need to clean out the wok. Certainly there's nothing wrong with cleaning it out and it is a commone instruction for many stirfries. But it's not always necessary. Often, you can add a little more oil and cook the vegies.

Vegetables are often cooked in the order of how fast they cook with longer cooking vegetables being added first and shorter cooking vegetables later.

Many vegetables release water as they cook. It is important to keep the quantity of vegetables in the wok low enough that the water evaporates quickly rather than pooling in the bottom of the wok. Pooled liquid drops the temperatures down to braising and steaming, not frying. Should this happen, push the food up the side of the wok to stop or slow the cooking while the liquid pools at the bottom of the wok and boils.

You'll also often see dishes where some ingredients are cooked with one set of seasonings and another batch with still different seasonings. The Chinese want the ingredients to taste different from each other and contrast rather than blending as dishes do in the west.

Most recipes call for a tablespoon or two of oil in the wok. For a flat bottom wok, or skillet, that's probably true. In a round bottomed well seasoned wok, you won't need that much oil and can make a less greasy healthier dish.

Finishing the dish

At this point, return any protiens and other batches of vegies to the wok to reheat and be finished. Toss or stir to combine. Add the required seasoning, taking a moment to restir whatever has corn starch in it so the starch is in suspension. Pour the sauce around the edge of the wok rather than dumping it in the middle. Cook with light stirring until the sauce comes together. Often some sesame oil is drizzled over the dish before serving, but just a little.

A note about brocolli. Brocolli florets hold lots of liquid in their florets which will be released as the brocolli cools. Brocolli may come out of the wok looking undersauced but don't be fooled.

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  • Breath of a Wok by Grace Young
  • Wisdom of the Chinese Kitchen by Grace Young
  • My Grandmother's Chinese Kitchen by Eileen Yin Fei Lo
  • Mastering the Art of Chinese Cooking by Eileen Yin Fei Lo
  • New Chinese Cooking School by Kenneth Lo

Have a platter ready, pre-warmed is a nice touch. The dish will be at its peak when served and eaten at its hottest. There is still some cooking going on when you bring this piping hot dish to the table. This allows the guests to enjoy the wok hei of the dish.

In the case of tender vegetables such as various greens, the diners must be at the table ready to eat as the continued cooking reduces their texture and flavor. Only cook enough of such foods to be eaten in one sitting as they make poor leftovers.

Frying Noodles

Noodles are either fried crisp in a sort of nest and then topped with saucy stir fry or fried soft with other ingredients in a lo mein style.

Cellophane or glass noodles are fried crisp from the dry stage and puff up in to a tender crunchy mass in just seconds.

Egg noodles are also pan fried in generous amounts of oil until crisped on the outside but not throughout the whole noodle. When done in a wok, this forms a sort of nest. When done in a skillet, you get a crispy pancake of noodles. Cooking in a skillet allows you to crisp both sides of the noodles where the nest shape from a wok doesn't allow cooking of both sides.

Stirfrying egg or rice noodles is a bit trickier.

Stirfrying noodles uses more oil than other stirfries to prevent sticking to the wok and to other noodles. However, good control of the amount of oil is necessary to achieve the right texture and flavor in the final dish. Noodles tend to be added to the cooked vegetables in the wok rather than cooking the noodles first.

As a general guidline, it's better to cut the other ingredients long and thin so they mix well with the noodles during the stir frying. Chunks tend to drop out of the noodles where the matchstick shape clings better.

Rice noodles are very fragile if you cook them yourself from dried noodles. Excellent technique is required to not break up the noodle too much. A bao or tossing technique is better for rice noodles than chowing with the spatula.

If you have access to fresh rice noodles that haven't been refrigerated yet, these are more resilient and sturdy. But this isn't likely outside of a Chinatown or Asian city.

Being able to cook beef chow fun well is often seen as a test of one's wok skills as it uses a long wide rice noodle that should arrive at the table intact and with intense wok hei.

Egg noodles are easier to stir fry as they are sturdier and more forgiving.

Dried Chinese egg noodles generally cook faster at the boil than their Italian counterparts so watch them closely. The Chinese prefer their noodles softer than the al-dente stage so cook them a bit longer than you might normally. Certainly the commonly available dried Italian fettuncine, spaghetti and angel hair pasta will do if you don't have access to fresh or dried Asian noodles.

Recommended Reading:

Some of these are out of print and will have to be found used or at a library.

Big Bowl by Bruce Cost
Breath of a Wok by Grace Young
Chinese Kitchen by Eileen Yin Fei Lo
Chinese Regional Cooking by Kenneth Lo
The Frugal Gourmet Cooks Three Ancient Cuisines by Jeff Smith
New Chinese Cooking School by Kenneth Lo
Mastering the Art of Chinese Cooking by Eileen Yin Fei Lo
The Modern Art of Chinese Cooking by Barbara Tropp
My Grandmother's Chinese Kitchen by Eileen Yin Fei Lo
Stirfrying to the Sky's Edge by Grace Young
The Wisdom of the Chinese Kitchen by Grace Young