Universal Chinese Greens
Part 1 – Stir-Frying
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Early on when I started writing two features on Chinese vegetables it occurred to me that I’d put myself in a strange spot. I realized that, even though I loved all of these vegetables, I tended to use a few universal default preparation methods for all of them. So I decided to challenge myself and to come up with some recipes that were a little less generic; after all, I wanted to feature these amazing ingredients, not just slot them in wherever they’d fit. But as the first month neared its end, I realized that as happy as I was with these new recipes, I actually wanted to write about my ‘default’ methods for Chinese greens. After all, I come back to them over and over again because they stand the test of time. They’re so good, and so easy – and what more could you ask for?
If you’re ever at a loss for a what to do with a green vegetable, or you need a quick side to go along with a main dish, these simple, flavourful methods let you get something delicious and healthy on the table in no time at all. The thing that I initially avoided, the universality of the recipes, is precisely what makes them wonderful to learn. They’re versatile, and can be applied to any number of vegetables that you might happen to have on hand.
And so with that I present Stir-Frying – the first of three “Universal” methods for cooking Chinese greens. This is possibly the most familiar of all Chinese cooking methods, though it is often done poorly. There are three basic principles to good stir-frying:
1. Be prepared
2. Get the wok as hot as you possibly can
3. Cook a small amount of food very quickly
Forgetting any of the three principles can lead to either a watery mess or a total disaster, depending on how poorly things go.
The first point is easy enough to understand – you’re going to need to cook very quickly in a very hot wok, so you need to make sure that everything is ready to go. If you’ve just cooked your garlic and ginger only to realize that you forgot to wash or trim your green vegetable, you’re basically done. I’ve also found that being under-prepared leads to more improvising with sauces and ingredients, which usually leads to overdoing it on the sauce (and therefore the sodium).
The second point is, in essence, what makes stir-frying unique. It’s also the most challenging aspect of stir-frying in the home kitchen. I won’t go into huge detail here, but cooking your food very quickly over very high heat helps to maintain texture and contributes a flavour commonly called ‘wok hei.’ This Cantonese term basically describes the combination of flavours imparted by Maillard reactions (non-enzymatic browning between amino acids and sugars occurring in the 140-165°C range) happening in the wok. Without enough heat, the Maillard reactions don’t occur, and wok hei is lost. The dish still cooks, but the end result tastes more like it was steamed or sautéed.
The third principle has a lot to do with the second – if you put too much food into the wok, you can’t get enough through the wok to cook it quickly or evenly. Moreover, the water the the ingredients release as they cook starts to pool in the wok, causing your ingredients to simmer or braise instead of stir-frying. With a smaller amount of food, that moisture has a chance to evaporate, meaning that the ingredients remain in contact with the very hot wok.
Honestly, this is only a very simple overview of stir-frying, but it’s enough to point anyone in the right direction. A more complete guide to stir frying is in the works for a future educational installment on Diversivore, but for now I’m happy to point anyone looking for more information to Stir Frying to the Sky’s Edge by the incomparable Grace Young. This book is, in my mind, the greatest book ever written on the subject of stir-frying and its place in Chinese cuisine.
If you’re already a stir-frying pro, I hope you’ll enjoy this basic recipe, and I hope you’ll play around with it a little bit. If you’re new to stir-frying, or you’re looking to elevate your Chinese cooking, simple greens like these are an excellent place to start. The ingredients are easy to find and work with, the whole thing comes together quickly, and you’ll know right away whether or not it’s worked. Hopefully you’ll end up with a vibrant, crunchy, intensely flavoured side dish. If you do end up with soft veggies in a watery sauce, you’ll know that you need to try again and fortunately, the end product will still taste good. In fact, if your stir-fry does turn into a stir-stream, you’ll actually be half way to learning the next Universal Chinese Green cooking method. You can read all about it here.
Now, on to the tricks and tips specific to this particular recipe. Truth be told, I vary my stir fry ingredients a little depending on my mood, but this is a good fundamental base upon which to build or modify flavours. The garlic and ginger are classic ingredients, and they both take on fantastic flavours when properly browned in oil. The soy sauce and sesame oil are not meant to drown the dish, but to accent the existing flavours. Too much soy sauce is probably one of the most common stir-frying mistakes (remember, you’re not trying to braise the dish, so you don’t want it swimming in liquid). If you’re in the mood to experiment a little bit, there are some options that you can play with:
Alcohol – I left it out of this particular recipe because I wanted to pare things down to the very basics, but a little bit of Chinese wine (Shaoxing or a simple rice wine) can add punch and mellow out the soy sauce a little. Try a teaspoon added to the soy and sugar.
Spice – white pepper and Sichuan pepper are classic additions to any number of Chinese dishes. I particularly like the numbing, lemony-pine taste that Sichuan peppercorns contribute to a dish. Five-spice powder is another excellent ingredient, but use it judiciously, as a little goes a very long way.
Soy alternatives – there are several soy-based sauces that pack a lot of flavour, including oyster sauce and hoisin sauce. Both are excellent, but be especially careful with hoisin sauce as too much of it can make a dish overly sweet. Consider replacing a portion of the soy sauce, rather than all of it.
Other vegetables – there’s no reason to limit yourself to green veggies here. Carrots, bean sprouts, lotus root, peppers, and more can all make excellent additions to a vegetable stir fry. Make sure you cut any added veggies into thin slices, as large pieces won’t cook evenly.
As for the green vegetable itself, I used choy sum (yu choy) for this particular version, as I love its simplicity and mildness. It’s mild but still distinctive, with a relatively soft stalk. But you could easily use any number of Chinese greens including bok choy, gai lan, snow peas or pea tips, and more. Make sure you’re comfortable with what makes the various vegetables different, as it may affect your cooking times or ingredients a little bit. If you’re unsure, check out the Diversivore Ingredient Pages.
If you don’t have a wok, you can still stir fry using a large pan that holds heat well. Cast iron is probably your best bet, but you want to make sure that you thoroughly pre-heat it before you start cooking. If you have a non-stick wok… don’t use it. Non stick woks are incredibly poorly suited to stir frying, as they can’t be used over high heat.
Recent Chinese Recipes
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All the basics about Chinese stir-frying, plus a basic and versatile recipe to practice with.
- 300 g choy sum or other Chinese leafy green
- 3 cloves garlic minced
- 2 tsp light soy sauce
- 10 g ginger finely chopped or cut into slivers
- 1 tsp sugar
- 1 tsp sesame oil (optional)
- 2 tsp peanut oil or other neutral, high smoke-point oil
Wash and thoroughly dry the greens. If you're using choy sum, you can leave the stems whole or cut them into more manageable bites. If you're using a larger/tougher green like gai lan, slice the stems into relatively thin pieces to ensure that they cook evenly.
Combine the soy sauce, sugar and sesame oil and set aside.
Heat a wok over very high heat (as hot as you can manage) for about 30 seconds. Add the peanut oil and swirl to cover the bottom of the pan. Heat until the wisps of smoke begin to appear at the edges of the oil.
Add the ginger and garlic to the wok and stir-fry for about 30 seconds, or until the garlic is golden but not brown. Add the choy sum and stir-fry until the leaves are wilted and the stems softened; about 2 minutes. Try to make sure that the vegetables don't mound in the center of the wok, as this will prevent them from cooking evenly. Instead, you want to keep them as spread out as possible.
Add the soy sauce/sugar/sesame oil and stir/toss to ensure that the ingredients are thoroughly covered. Stir-fry for an additional 30-45 seconds or so to reduce the sauce and caramelize the sugars a little bit. Remove from heat and serve immediately.