The origins of stir-frying, or chao, may date back as far as the Han dynasty (206 B.C. — A.D. 220). Chronic fuel shortages meant that people needed to find a way to cook food without using too much oil. Stir-frying — quickly stirring food in a pan that has been heated with just 1 or 2 tablespoons of oil — fit the bill perfectly. Today, stir-frying has become China's most well-known cooking technique.
Over time, stir-frying caught on in other parts of Asia. Thailand's signature dish, pad Thai, is a flavorful combination of stir-fried seafood, vegetables, scrambled egg, and noodles, finished with a tangy sauce. Stir-frying is also a popular cooking technique in Korea, which shares a northern border with China.
History credits Cantonese immigrants who worked on the American railroads in the mid-1800s with introducing North Americans to Chinese cuisine. Despite this early influence, stir-frying didn't take hold in North America until the health-conscious 1970s. Suddenly, it seemed that everyone was buying a wok and tuning in to watch TV-celebrity chefs like Stephen Yan prepare mouthwatering stir-fries in mere minutes. In California, skilled chef Madame S. T. Ting Wong and restaurateur Madame Sylvia Wu attained minor celebrity status.
Unlike wheat germ, cod liver oil, and other health-food fads that came and went, stir-frying has proven it has staying power. One reason why stir-frying has remained so popular over the years is that it is quick. In today's fast-paced society, many families find it difficult to fit family dinnertime into their hectic schedule, let alone spend hours preparing a meal. A stir-fry can make its way from stovetop to dinner table in as little as fifteen minutes.
Once you've tried a few dishes, you'll quickly find yourself falling into a rhythm — marinating the meat, then cutting and preparing the vegetables, then combining ingredients for a sauce while the meat continues to marinate. The total time for preparing dinner — from cutting and chopping to serving the final product — will nearly always be under thirty minutes.
Stir-frying is also healthy. The short cooking time means that vegetables retain more of their nutrients than they do when prepared using longer cooking methods. Furthermore, the amount of oil listed in the recipes is a general guideline only — the amount of oil you will actually need for stir-frying depends partially on the type of wok or skillet you are using and how well seasoned it is. Experienced Chinese cooks know that a properly seasoned carbon-steel wok develops its own nonstick coating after just a few uses. If you do decide to purchase a carbon steel wok, be sure to follow the instructions on how to season a wok (page 6).
Stir-frying is a great choice for vegetarians and anyone wanting to prepare a vegetarian meal. Studies show that the boundary between strict vegetarians and non-vegetarians is dissolving — even people who wouldn't classify themselves as vegetarians are choosing to incorporate one or two vegetarian dishes into their diet each week. Stir-frying makes this easy. Often it's just a matter of replacing the meat with tofu (skipping the marinating stage) and adding the tofu to the pan near the final stages of cooking.
Finally, stir-frying is easy. For anyone new to cooking, stir-frying is one of the simplest cooking techniques to learn.