Creating Your Own Foolproof Chinese Stir-Fry–Step One: The Main Ingredients

I could subtitle this post:

What to Put in Your Wok.

But, I will refrain.

But, the first thing you need to think about when you set forth to use Barbara’s Rules of Three, is what it is you want for dinner.

Which, in many cases, is determined by what is in the pantry, fridge and freezer. But, some people actually do give forethought to the idea of dinner, where they plan carefully what they want and shop accordingly. I salute such folks, because I am rarely one of them. I let my shopping determine dinner, which is part of why I have such a well-stocked pantry all the time. That way, I can throw something together with whatever looked good at the farmer’s market that week, and it will all be good.

Basically, the first of Barbara’s Rules of Three is this: to construct a simple Chinese stir fry that will serve, along with steamed rice, as a one-dish meal, you need three main ingredients. One protein (vegetable or animal, it matters not to me), and two vegetables.

Why three main ingredients? Well, several reasons.

Protein is good for us and helps fill up the stomach, thus making us feel full.

Vegetables are good for us, and two different vegetables gives a delicious contrast in color, texture, flavor and packs more of a nutritional punch than a single vegetable.

If you think about your putative Chinese recipe as a movie, that makes you, the cook, the director. You have to build your cast, and while your movie will have a large, ensemble cast, it is going to have three main co-stars. Three foods in starring roles, in roles of equal importance, will provide enough variety to keep the diner interested in eating a meal that consists of two dishes: a stir fry and rice. (This makes for less work for the cook and the cleanup crew, which is perfect for weekday night dining.)

Notice I said three ingredients in roles of equal importance. That means that if you use meat in your stir-fry, I suggest that you use less of it than you are wont to do most of the time. This is generally the Chinese way. If you read my recipes, you will note that I often call for a single chicken breast, mixed with vegetables and or tofu, and this will make a one dish meal, with rice, for three to five people.

Now, you don’t have to cook that way. You can use more meat than I do, but I suggest that you use more vegetables than you usually would anyway. Not only are they good for you, but when they are cooked properly in stir fries, they are utterly delicious and they provide a beautiful balance to the dish which is nothing less than artistic. And, as you will learn if you read anything at all about Chinese cuisines, aesthetic considerations matter just as much as flavor and nutrition. (Again, another instance of the magic number three popping up in the philosophy of Chinese food.)

Protein ingredients include any meat , poultry or seafood, (including game, such as venison or rabbit–both are excellent stir-fried) as well as tofu, tempeh and wheat gluten. (If you are making an all vegetable stir fry to accompany a separate protein dish–you can make a three veggie medley. In cases like that, I use shiitake mushrooms, fresh or dried, as the “protein” in the stir fry, even though it isn’t isn’t strictly made of protein.)

Each protein ingredient has a different color, texture and flavor, and a “weight”in the sense of how full they make us feel.

For example, beef is “heavier” than pork to many people, including the Chinese. It is darker, stronger flavored and while it is not necessarily fattier, it does seem to have a different feel to it that just makes it seem richer in many dishes. This of course, depends upon the individual cuts of beef and pork, as well as the individual animals it came from. Some beef is leaner than some pork and vice versa. But, in most cases, the Chinese tend to believe that beef is stronger flavored than pork and heavier on the stomach.

Chicken is lighter in flavor, color and texture than duck. Some fish is considered lighter and less rich than shrimp. And tofu is generally thought to be lighter on the constitution than wheat gluten. Shiitake mushrooms, which while they have a meaty texture and flavor, have no protein at all in them, are the lightest on the stomach of all of these ingredients.

When you choose your protein component, all of these factors need to come into consideration, because they can affect your choice in vegetables. In general, if you choose a light protein, such as chicken or tofu, you can pair them with heavier vegetables without worrying that you are making a dish that will weigh your diners down with too much richness. Chicken and tofu, for example, are delicious when paired with eggplant or mushrooms, both deeply flavored, rich vegetables which tend to soak up the sauce in which they are cooked.

Texture is an important part of Chinese stir fries, and before I start talking about vegetables, I want to talk a little bit about stir frying meats that Americans may not often think of stir frying. Some of these are traditional, and others are not, but all of them are delicious.

Bacon is used in stir fries in the cuisine of Hunan province. One such recipe I featured on this blog, and the technique that it used imparted a very special, chewy-crisp texture to the pork. The bacon was steamed first, and then stir fried in its own fat, then was paired with thinly sliced spiced dry tofu and scallion tops. The bacon was chewy, the tofu was crisped on the edges and the scallions were bathed in the salty-smoky flavor of the bacon, while lending its own delicate onion scent to the entire dish. It was heavenly. Chinese sweet dry sausages, lop cheong, and good ham also are wonderful additions to stir fries; when used in small amounts, these cured meats give an absolutely delectable flavor and interesting texture variations which many Americans may not think of as belonging in Chinese foods. But, of course, they very much do have a place in the varied cuisines of China, and I’d like to see them gain a place in your kitchens, too, because they really add a lot of flavor with the use of a tiny bit of meat.

When I choose vegetables for the stir fry, I like to contrast flavor, color, and texture. Usually, I pick a green vegetable of some sort, and add a yellow, red or white vegetable. Or, I will go with something rich and soft like mushrooms, eggplant or summer squash.

Greens go in most of my stir fries for many reasons, not the least of which is that stir-fried is the only way Zak will eat most greens. So, I choose from whatever is in season from a list that includes, but is by no means restricted to, chard, tatsoi, bok choi, choy sum, gai lan, kale, beet greens, turnip greens, collards, and broccoli rabe. All of these greens have several things in common: they cook up to be at least in part, velvety and tender, they are high in vitamins, they tend to be sweet in flavor, though some do have a bitter edge. Their colors range from pale celadon to jade to grass to forest, and they taste good with a wide variety of meats as well as both tofu and wheat gluten.

Other green vegetables which are not “greens” per se which I include in the category of green vegetables are broccoli, asparagus, celery, snow peas, green beans, Chinese long beans, bitter melon and garden peas. These green vegetables tend to cook up tender-crisp, but only if you go out of your way not to overcook them. There are two ways of doing this.

With broccoli and green beans, one can blanch them in boiling water briefly before stir frying them. This softens the outer parts of the vegetable and makes it more likely to take on the flavors of the ingredients and sauces it is cooked with, and it also shortens the cooking time necessary in the wok considerably. To blanch beans or broccoli florets, simply drop them in water that is at a full rolling boil, stir them, and give them a stir. Let them cook for about two to three minutes–just until the green color deepens and brightens, then drain them immediately, and rinse with cold water to stop the cooking process. Then, let them drain dry, and continue preparing your other ingredients. (Many Cantonese cooks blanch bitter melon briefly in order to remove some of the bitterness–I don’t do it, because I like the strong flavor, and I don’t like the softened texture of the blanched melon much. But, if you cook it, try blanching it sometime and see if you like it.)

The other green vegetables, I simply cook in the wok briefly, near the end of the cooking process. Once blanched, both broccoli and green beans can also be added near the end of cooking a stir fry, so that they retain their crunch, yet still pick up the flavors of the other ingredients.

For the contrasting, non-green vegetable, I choose from a variety of vegetable colors: red, yellow, orange and white, most notably, though purple and brown do show up now and again as well.

Red, yellow or orange bell peppers are an obvious choice that bring crisp sweetness to a stir fry. I add them very late in the cooking process so that they retain their crisp, watery texture, and to keep their sugars intact. If you cook them too long, they become limp, somewhat slimy and their sugars meld with the sauce, bringing more sweetness into the sauce than is necessary. (At least, to my taste.) Carrots are another orange-colored favorite; those faux baby carrots that are merely peeled and carved larger carrots are very convenient in that you needn’t peel them and they are easily sliced into diagonal oval planks, rounds or julienne quickly. Not only that, carrots taste really good stir fried and they can be cooked a bit longer than most other vegetables in a wok, without getting flubbery and sad. Both carrots and bell peppers are great contrasts to the velvety, sauce-hugging greens, as well as the more crisp asparagus and snow peas.

One thing you will learn as you cook more stir fried dishes is that there are different degrees and types of crispness when it comes to vegetables. There is almost an infinite array of textures that in English, we would call “crisp” or “crunchy.” Green beans are chewy-crisp, while bitter melon has a watery, juicy crunch. Bell peppers have a similar texture to the bitter melon which comes from the amount of water they contain, but bell peppers, because of how they are structured, cannot hold their crispness under heat as well as bitter melon. Snow peas are both tender and crisp, and water chestnuts have a nutty crunch to them with a juicy finish similar to a raw apple. Broccoli stalks are tender-crunchy, but the florets are chewier.

White vegetables include the aformentioned fresh water chestnuts (once you try them fresh, you will hate them canned), bean sprouts, jicama (a very good substitute for water chestnuts–juicy with the same texture and a similar, though not as sweet, flavor) daikon and French or English radishes, bamboo shoots, and cucumbers. Bean sprouts are best barely cooked, in my opinion; I tend to put them into the stir fry near the very end and cook them for no more than a minute. Water chestnuts and jicama, (a tuber of Latin American origin) while I cook them slightly longer than bean sprouts, at about two minutes, are still best barely cooked. Both bean sprouts and water chestnuts or jicama are crisp, but, again, in very different ways. The former is very juicy and tender, while still having a distinct crunch, while the latter two are also juicy, but with more of an apple-like bite.

The radishes and bamboo shoots can both be cooked slightly longer, especially if they are cut a bit thicker. Radishes and daikon (also a type of radish, just a really big one), can be cooked tender, and it doesn’t take very long, especially if they are cut thinly. They soak up the sauce they are cooked in, which enhances both the sweet and biting-hot characteristics of these roots. Bamboo shoots have a buttery crunch, if that makes any sense. They are rich in texture, with both a crispness and a bit of a soft chew that is delightful, and goes very well with their sweet, earthy flavor.

Cucumbers can be crisp, if they are cooked only for a few seconds, or they can be cooked longer to give them a soft with a slippery texture that the Chinese find appealing. Americans don’t often think of cooking cucumbers, but we should. They add a subtle astringency to dishes that is refreshing, especially when used in combination with chicken or rich seafood like scallops.

Finally, there are the dark colored vegetables like eggplant, shiitake mushrooms and tree ear fungus. Eggplant and shiitake mushrooms (when they are dried, they are often called Chinese black mushrooms), are both rich, with soft, velvety textures that soak up the flavor of everything they are cooked with. Asian eggplants–the long skinny dark purple, violet or green variety, are so tender and sweet you neither need to peel or salt them to remove bitterness like you must with larger European style eggplants. They soak up everything they are cooked with, including oil, so be aware of this as you cook them. It is part of what makes them so rich in texture and flavor when you eat them. Shiitake are also very soft and spongy, as are other forms of mushrooms, though tree ear fungus–which is sold dry, has no flavor of its own, nor does it soak up flavor–it is merely a texture food. It is squeaky-crunchy mouthfeel that I really like, but I don’t tend to use it as much as I use other vegetables when I am making a simple weeknight dinner.

I’d rather have the flavor and nutritive value instead, so I save the wood ear for more special meals that feature several dishes.

The final thing to discuss when it comes to the main ingredients of your simple Chinese stir fry is the art of cutting them. In the future, I will be writing a series of posts, all heavily illustrated with photographs, and possibly video, on knife skills for the Chinese kitchen.

But for now, suffice to say, that you should attempt to cut your ingredients in analogous shapes and sizes. In other words, if you cut thin, rectangular slices of tofu, you should cut thin ovoid or rectangular slices of cabbage and carrot, if those are your two vegetables. If you cut your chicken into squares, you should endeavor to cut your bell peppers and cabbage into squares as well.

Conversely, if your vegetables are asparagus and bean sprouts, you should cut your protein item into narrow, thin strips to match the shape and size of your vegetables.

This practice is primarily aesthetic; in addition to serving the food in bite sized pieces so that knives, which are akin to weapons, are not necessary at the table, smaller, uniformly shaped pieces of food are considered to be beautiful. It is said that Confucius himself, who set down in his writings the proper ways in which to cook, serve and eat foods, would not sit down to a meal of improperly cut food. If it was not delicious to the eye, it would not be delicious to the tongue, either.

There is a purely practical aspect to cutting your main ingredients carefully as well. When all of your pieces of chicken are the same basic size and shape, they cook more evenly. You won’t end up with tiny pieces of chicken that are overdone, with too large pieces underdone. Learning to cut uniformly is one of the basic techniques that will improve your ability at stir frying immeasurably–before you even touch the wok.

Finally, learn in what order to cook the main ingredients. The protein item always takes longest to cook, so it goes in before the vegetables. Then, ascertain which vegetable will take longer to cook, and put it into the stir fry accordingly. Generally speaking, the harder the vegetable, the longer it takes to cook, though mushrooms, which are not hard at all, can go into the stir fry early, because they do not overcook. Carrots, broccoli, mushrooms, and bamboo shoots take the longest to cook, with green beans coming up in second. Tough greens like collards and kale, and then thicker asparagus come up next.

Vegetables that are very tender need a very short cooking time. Snow peas, sugar snap peas, young greens like baby bok choy, mizuna, radishes, sweet peppers and bean sprouts need very little cooking time. All of these overcook easily and become too soft in no time. I tend to throw them in at the very end of the cooking, so that they just brighten in color, soften slightly and get coated with the sauce, before scraping the entire dish out of the wok and serving it steaming hot.

Next time, we’ll talk about the aromatics–whom I see as being the character actors of your stir fry dish. They are so good at what they do, which is flavoring an entire dish, that they sometimes can overpower the main stars of the show. But, the cook, or director, can deftly manage these strong flavors, and help them give a truly shining performance that supports and improves the aroma and flavor of the main ingredients.

Until then, happy cooking!


RSS feed for comments on this post.

  1. Hi Barbara, I have a question for you -have you seen Gai Lan with yellow flowers? It looked/tasted like Gai Lan, but the flowers looked more like Choy Sum. Pic here:
    Your opinion would be appreciated!

    Comment by Steamy Kitchen — April 28, 2007 #

  2. In my own experience some varieties of gai lan have yellow flowers and some have white. Optimally, they vegetable will be young enough that the buds haven’t opened at all and you won’t be able to tell either way.

    Comment by persimmon — April 29, 2007 #

  3. Steamy–I concur with Persimmon. It is a different variety of gai lan. Cabbage and others of the brassica family of vegetables, of which gai lan is a member, sometimes have white flowers and sometimes yellow. It doesn’t seem to affect the flavor of the vegetables, it is just a genetic variance in flower color.

    I also agree with Persimmon’s point that one of the ways to tell if your gai lan is young and tender is to note whether or not the flowers have opened. If they have opened, the stalks and leaves are liable to be tough, and stronger tasting, too.

    But, I will admit to having eaten some pretty tough and rough-tasting gai lan in my time, because I still like the flavor…just not as much as I like the younger gai lan.

    Comment by Barbara — April 29, 2007 #

  4. Hey Barbara,

    Thanks very much for such great information. I continue to learn so much from your blog.

    Totally unrelated but my wife and I went to a very cheap vegan asian resturant in Brisbane’s (Australia) China Town precinct in Fortitude Valley. We stumbled upon it by accident and decided to venture in given that there were plenty of customers in there and many of them were asians. Well I have never in my life tasted such amazing asian food and it was vegan!!! Even absolute meat lovers would have enjoyed it thoroughly. The flavour punch was incredible and the menu very different to the same boring things you usually see in chinese resturants. I must try to get a copy of the take away menu to bring home.

    The trouble is I’m not really sure exactly what I was eating was called in some instances but it was fantastic. And my wife being predominatly vegetarian took forever to decide what to eat because she had an entire generous menu selection to chose from.

    I thought my chinese cooking was improving quite a lot but after visiting that resturant I realize I have a not even scratched the surface.

    Cheers – Gordon

    Comment by Gordon A — April 30, 2007 #

  5. barbara, your posts are always such an education. i love your blog.

    Comment by bee — April 30, 2007 #

  6. Thanks for such an amazing post. I have never been brave enough to cook Chinese food with greens before, but now I am determined too. I’ll be waiting for the aromatic post before I decide on what to make exactly. Thank you for always broadening your readers horizons.

    – K

    Comment by KCatGU — May 1, 2007 #

  7. Gordon–I love wheat gluten in vegan Chinese restaurants. It is the best stuff. I will be posting about it sometime–I have a few great recipes using it, but haven’t gotten around to covering them yet.

    Chinese food, like Indian food, is one of the most diverse culinary realms to study. There is no way to learn all there is to know. I will never know everything, but it makes me just want to study all the more!

    Bee–I am glad you are enjoying my blog. I love passing on what I have learned, and I am glad it has helped you.

    K–Greens are ever so wonderful in Chinese stir fries.Just don’t overcook them!

    Comment by Barbara — May 4, 2007 #

  8. Hi Barbara,
    This is sort of off-topic, but I have been having the worst trouble with my wok lately.

    It is not perfectly seasoned, but I’ve never had much trouble with things sticking (except oyster mushrooms, for some reason). Since the beginning, I’ve been using the Hollywood brand of peanut oil (, inc. for the initial seasoning.

    When I ran out, we were at the Asian grocery store and my partner found a huge can of another kind of peanut oil–Knife Brand, if that means anything to you. The first time I stir-fried with it, the tofu stuck to the bottom of my wok in the worst way imagineable. We’re talking a layer of burnt-on tofu gunk coating the bottom. After I was done stir-frying, I had to scrape this off the bottom of the wok with my metal wok shovel, which definitely made some scratches down to bare metal. So, I did a bit of stove-top seasoning afterward with the same oil (which may’ve been a mistake). I only stir-fried a couple more times more with that oil, with the same results, before giving up on it and going back to the Hollywood brand that served me so well before…but that didn’t stop the problem. So now I’ve stopped frying tofu (veggies don’t seem to stick, and though my sauce stuck a bit last time, it scrubbed right out easily).

    I haven’t a clue what was up with that oil. Why was it so awful for my wok? I noticed it smelled more peanut-y than the Hollywood brand–less refined? I imagine it’ll be great for cooking other stuff, just not stir-fry. But at this point I’m horrified. I don’t want to have to scrub out my wok and re-season it with the Hollywood oil, but I can’t think what else would fix this problem as just switching back to the other oil hasn’t seemed to help (maybe the bad stuff just got too cooked into the metal?). My last-ditch effort is to do some stir-frying with my new supply of the “good” oil and some quick stove-top seasoning with same as well.

    Any ideas? I never expected something like this to happen just from switching oils (nothing else about my stir-frying has changed)!

    Comment by Kat — February 1, 2009 #

  9. Kat,

    Wok problems are never off topic on my blog!

    I really hate to say this, but you may have to scrub the seasoning off and start over with the original brand of peanut oil.

    But, before you do that, give your wok a moderate little scrub with a bamboo scrubber and really hot water and a tiny, I mean tiny bit of dish soap, and then heat it up on the stove to dry it.

    Then, I want you to pour a couple of cups of your good peanut oil in it, bring it to temperature and deep fry something in it. I don’t care what, though you probably don’t want to do fish, but you could do spring rolls, egg rolls or wontons or wonton noodles–anything really.

    What I am hoping will happen is that a good session of deep frying will just sort of erase the little bit of seasoning that happened with the Knife Brand oil.

    If that doesn’t work, scrub off and start over–that is the only other way you are going to bring your wok back from the realm of sticky annoyance.

    As for the Knife Brand Oil–I have used it in the past with no trouble. It is not as highly refined as other peanut oils and it makes for great flavor, but I must say that after all of the recent cases of foods being tainted by non-food substances in China, I would probably not use any oil that acted like this. It is possible that it is being cut with a less expensive oil that may or may not be good for human consumption.

    I wouldn’t use it after it acted like that, because in the past, I have never had that brand act that way. In fact, I used it for years of great stir frying.

    Comment by Barbara — February 1, 2009 #

  10. […] Main Ingredients […]

    Pingback by Stir Fry-day | the gf-gf — October 8, 2011 #

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