Stir fries are one of my favourite “go to” meals. Frying vegetables, protein and aromatics together creates a fast and flavoursome meal with infinite variations.
To make a great stir fry all you need is:
- to finely chop the ingredients before you start cooking
- a hot wok
- a strong arm for stirring
- remember to never overcrowd the wok
Four essential ingredients
Meat, chicken, seafood, tofu, tempeh, eggs and nuts are popular protein options. Cut meat into bite-sized pieces and fry first in a clean, hot, oiled wok until sealed before adding vegetables. If using seafood, nuts, tofu or tempeh, toss until golden and put aside on draining paper. Add back to the wok after the vegetables are cooked. You can crack eggs into the wok in the final minute of cooking, scrambled in with the other ingredients. Or beat an egg or two with a dash of soy sauce, and cook like a thin pancake in a clean wok. Remove after a minute, slice into strips and add back into the finished dish just before serving.
A single vegetable, such as Chinese broccoli, can make a stunning side dish. For an all-in-one meal choose a variety of vegetables with different colours and textures. For example try red/orange vegetables (such as carrots or capsicum), green snow peas and Asian greens, and black seaweed (pre soaked and water squeezed out) or crunchy wood ear mushrooms. Start by cooking your densest vegetables first, adding more delicate, leafy greens or mushrooms last.
You need about two tablespoons of an oil with a high smoke point. Traditional choices are peanut, soybean or coconut oil. I like raw sesame oil (not to be confused with the more intensely flavoured roasted sesame, which can be used as flavouring at the end of cooking).
The root or fruit of aromatic herbs such as ginger, garlic and/or chilli are usually added at the start to flavour the protein and vegetables during cooking. Liquid, salty and/or sweet flavourings are added at the end. Commonly used salty condiments include tamari, soy, fish, oyster and black bean sauces. For sweet ones try mirin, kecap manis or sweet chilli. Always go easy with salty flavours; you can always add more at the table. If you want to use fresh leafy aromatics for a bit of zing, such as Thai basil and Vietnamese mint, toss them through after turning off the heat.
Try creating your own flavour combinations rather than using premade seasoning (though a dash of sriracha sauce is handy for a tasty kick) Always check for MSG in any bought seasoning. If you want a thicker sauce, mix 1-2 teaspoons of cornflour in a quarter of a cup of cold water and add with your liquid flavourings.
Heat: is the non-negotiable. A gas stovetop with a wok burner is ideal. Make sure first that your wok or pan is as hot as possible before adding any ingredients.
A wok: is almost essential but I’ve managed to make great stir fries in an electric fry pan. It’s all about the ingredients having as much contact as possible with a hot surface.
Three’s a crowd: because trying to feed too many people out of one wok is a rookie mistake. It’s a stir fry, not steam. Unless you have a commercial kitchen, no matter how large your wok it’s unlikely to get hot enough to perfectly fry food for more than two people without becoming soggy. If you’re catering for more than two adults, consider cooking each component in batches or make a simple stir fry of one or two different vegetables as a side dish rather than a main.
Enough oil: is key as food needs to cook and caramelise without burning or getting too greasy. Sometimes you’ll need to add a teaspoon or two more while cooking. Technically you can stir ‘fry’ in water with high heat and fast movement, but the flavour won’t be the same as when using oil.
Choose dense vegetables with less water: There’s a reason why carrots mushrooms and cabbage are popular choices, these vegetables tend to cook well without releasing too my water into the wok.
Practice your chopping skills: Julienne, shred, slice and dice so the vegetables can cook fast and are easily eaten with chopsticks. Avoid large chunks that will take long to cook.
Work fast: It’s essential to prepare your ingredients before you start cooking. A wok shovel is a handy tool to toss and stir at high speed. Never start cooking and walk away from the wok; everything needs to be at hand.
Carbs are optional: Most stir fries go well with a small serve of rice or noodles but a well- balanced combination of protein and vegetables can still be satisfying without them.
Great stir fry combinations
Once you master the basic stir fry techniques, the combinations are only limited by your imagination. Here are two of my favourites, what are yours?
Fish with Japanese flavours
Quickly toss chunks of a mild white fish, such as snapper, in a little cornflour before frying. Toss in a hot raw sesame oil until lightly coloured (but not fully cooked through). Set aside on a paper towel. I like a combination of carrot, cabbage and spring onions with a generous amount of finely chopped root ginger. Soaked and drained hijiki or arame (seaweed) or a selection of oriental mushrooms also works well. Once the vegetables are al dente, add the fish back in and toss with 1-2 tablespoons each of mirin and tamari.
Smoked tofu, cashews or prawns with a kick
Fry off your protein and set aside. Cook 3-5 cloves of garlic and chilli to taste with a selection of vegetables including broccoli stems or your favourite Asian greens. When the vegetables are just cooked, add back your protein and toss with a big splash of fish or black bean sauce. Turn off the heat and stir through a big handful of aromatic herbs such as coriander leaf, mint, Thai basil or Vietnamese mint.