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Asian stir-fry cuisine

Chef Lance Seeto
Sunday, January 28, 2018

THERE is a saying that the Chinese will eat just about anything with a heartbeat. It also goes without saying that Asian kitchens probably have a recipe for nearly every living species on the planet, including the very exotic insects and animals that would turn most people off eating. From frogs and lizards, to spiders, scorpions and snakes, to the internal organs.

Going back thousands of years to the ancient kingdoms of emperors and their palace kitchens, Chinese chefs were forcefully encouraged to create new recipes for their leaders, every day, for fear of being beheaded if the emperor's appetite wasn't satisfied with something new.

It is little wonder why Asian cuisine is so diversified today with its combination of meats, seafood, vegetables and exotic sauces, but the biggest legacy from those ancient times is the creation of the steel curved pan used to cook most dishes — the wok. Let's face it, who doesn't love a good stir-fry, or as we call it in Fiji, chop suey.

It is generally the top choice for most families dining out but with more Chinese shops and supermarkets stocking Asian utensils and ingredients, cooking restaurant quality stir-fry at home has become easier.

In tomorrow night's episode of Exotic Delights, we learn there's no better time to learn the ancient art of Asian stir-fry and the first piece of equipment you need to buy is a wok.

Buying your first wok

Unlike the cast iron curved pan used in Indian cooking, an authentic Chinese wok is made of very thin mild steel, which if not looked after properly, will easily rust.

The thin metal is designed to heat up very quickly, even if you don't have a gas stove and can only use wood fires.

Long before gas bottles were invented, the Chinese would place these metal pans over an enclosed fire, which would heat the entire surface in a matter of minutes. The curved edges serve two purposes. They help to radiate the heat from bottom to top fast along the curves, as well as helping to toss the food inside the wok without a utensil but with a little hand and wrist action.

Seasoning a new steel wok

The secret to stopping an authentic steel wok, not the stainless or Teflon type, from rusting is to "season" or seal the wok properly first, and make sure it always has a thin coat of cooking oil on the inside when not used.

New woks come coated with an industrial oil that prevents them rusting during shipping from China or Hong Kong.

This must be first washed off with hot soapy water. Once you've removed this inedible oil, you must then heat the wok until it changes colour (normally blue under intense heat) allowing the pores of the steel to open.

Then with a thick cloth dipped in a little vegetable oil, carefully rub this on the inside of the wok, taking care not to burn yourself! Let it cool down and then carefully wash the wok again — but don't use steel wool or you'll remove the coating.

Now that your wok is seasoned, you are ready to turn your home kitchen into a Chinese restaurant.

Breath of the wok

To get that same restaurant-quality taste in your food you need very strong heat — smoking hot — called the breath of the wok.

This is where the wok starts smoking when you add your oil and ingredients, infusing the ingredients with that familiar smokey taste that is near impossible to replicate unless you have high heat.

A wood fire is OK but the best results come from a high pressure burner.

Most Chinese shops and Fiji Gas showrooms now stock these special burners and when combined with a red, high-pressure gas regulator (standard regulators are blue in colour), you have a very powerful flame that guarantees your stir-fry will only take a few minutes.

Without this high heat, you might as well be cooking in a frypan, and you'll never be able to replicate that special flavour that stir-fries are renowned for.

Fast and furious

It is this fast-cooking technique that makes stir-fry recipes more healthy as they retain the freshness and nutrition of your ingredients without stewing or boiling the food in the wok.

Chinese stir-fries only take a fraction of the time to cook, but the secret is also in the preparation.

Meats must be sliced and marinated well in advance, as does the chopping of all the aromatics like onion, ginger and garlic.

Stir-fry sauces are also best prepared earlier so when it comes time to do the actual cooking there's no need to measure the many different sauce ingredients.

When you're ready it's just heat the wok, fry the aromatics and meats, add the sauce and then the raw vegetables.

Stir-fry cooking is all about being well-prepared before you even heat your wok because the cooking is so fast.

Water velveting

In ancient times, the poorer rural Chinese rarely had access to expensive, more tender cuts of meat as these would usually be sent to the royal palace kitchens for the emperor and the rich, so many had to make do with the barely chewable cheaper cuts.

But rather than put up with jaw pains from trying to chew tough meat, they worked out a technique for turning the inedible into something remarkably tender.

This marinating method is called water-velveting. It involves marinating meat for a few hours in a mixture of egg white, rice wine, corn starch, and seasonings, then blanching it in boiling water with a little oil added.

The result is a silky, tender meat that's perfect for stir-fries and would defy most people to know the difference with expensive eye fillet steak.

Flank steak is a common choice for stir-fries, but I prefer skirt steak — it's thinner than flank, making it better for high-heat cooking in a wok, and has a looser texture that is better at absorbing marinades.

I add corn starch, rice wine, coconut oil, light soy and baking soda to my meat marinades, as the soda helps to relax the fibres which then absorb the liquid.

Secret is in the sauce

Visit a Chinese shop like Yon Tong in Marks St, Suva or H&F Supermarket on Queens Rd in Nadi and you'll be mesmerised by the number of sauces on the shelves.

Most local cooks know oyster sauce, light soy sauce and Kikkoman, but there are so many different sauces and pastes to create new Asian dishes with our local ingredients.

My favourites are hoisin, black bean and garlic, brown bean, satay, chilli garlic, and the very pungent shrimp paste.

Along with these sauces, you also need to stock your cupboard with other basic stir-fry ingredients including Shao Tsing Rice Wine, Knorrs chicken powder, white pepper, corn flour and sesame oil.

Once you have your meats, seafood and vegetables prepared, you just throw them in a hot wok with your favourite combination of sauces and ingredients and you're ready to open your own Chinese restaurant at home.

* Lance Seeto is the host of FBC TV's Exotic Delights which airs every Monday at 7.45pm.

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