Essential Ingredients for Stir-Frying

There are a few basic ingredients that you'll want to keep on hand so that you can whip up a stir-fry on short notice. While some of these, such as rice vinegar or hoisin sauce, may be new to you, most are readily available in the ethnic or international section of local supermarkets.

Sauces and Seasonings

There are a number of sauces and seasonings that lend flavor to stir-fry dishes. Soy sauce is an indispensable ingredient in Asian cuisine, from Japanese shoyu to Indonesian kecap manis, which is a thick version of soy sauce sweetened with palm sugar. Since stir-frying is most closely associated with Chinese cuisine (and to a lesser extent, Thai cuisine), most of the recipes in this book are made with Chinese soy sauce.

The two main types of soy sauce used in Chinese cooking are light and dark soy sauce. Both are made from fermented soy beans. However, while light soy sauce (usually referred to in recipes simply as “soy sauce”) is quite salty, the addition of molasses gives dark soy sauce a darker color and a richer texture and flavor.

If you can't find Chinese light soy sauce in the supermarket, Kikkoman soy sauce can be used as a substitute. Persons on a low-sodium diet may prefer to use Kikkoman, because Chinese light soy sauce brands are typically quite high in sodium. If you're not watching your sodium intake, be prepared to add a bit of salt (or a seasoning substitute) when using Kikkoman instead of Chinese light soy sauce in recipes.

Every meat marinade needs an acidic liquid to help tenderize the meat, and rice wine plays that role in Chinese stir-fry cooking. It is also splashed on meat during stir-frying, and it is sometimes added to sauces. Rice wine can be difficult to find without making a trip to an Asian grocery store. Fortunately, dry sherry makes an acceptable substitute.

Like rice wine, rice vinegar is made with fermented glutinous rice, but it goes through a more extensive fermentation process. Rice vinegar is frequently used in sauces, particularly in sweet-and-sour dishes.

Rice vinegar can often be found in the international or ethnic section of local supermarkets. If it is unavailable, try substituting a mellow flavored vinegar such as cider vinegar instead of regular white vinegar. With the exception of sweet-and-sour sauce, the sharply acidic taste of regular white vinegar is too harsh for most stir-fry recipes.

Chile paste is a spicy condiment made with chilies, vinegar, and other seasonings. If you're not a fan of handling hot chili peppers, chile paste makes a convenient substitute.

Made from toasted sesame seeds, Asian sesame oil has a wonderful nutty flavor. You'll recognize Asian sesame oil by its rich dark color — Kadoya sesame oil from Japan is a good brand. Sesame oil is used in marinades and added to stir-fries at the end of cooking for extra flavor. A little goes a long way though, so be sure to use it sparingly.

While not a stir-fry staple, another ingredient made from white sesame seeds is sesame paste. Used in Chinese cooking for more than 2,000 years, sesame paste lends a thick texture and nutty flavor to Strange Flavor Chicken Salad (page 42), a popular restaurant dish. Many supermarkets do not carry sesame paste. Smooth peanut butter makes a convenient substitute.

Made by combining soybean paste with chilies, garlic, and other seasonings, hoisin sauce has a sweet and spicy flavor. In stir-frying, the thick brown paste is frequently added to sauces and sometimes to marinades as well. Hoisin sauce is sometimes called duck sauce because it is spread on the pancakes that are traditionally served with Peking duck.

While it is the most well known, hoisin sauce is not the only soybean-based sauce used in stir-fries (and Chinese cooking). Black bean sauce is made with soybeans that are fermented with garlic and other seasonings. Several popular stir-fries use black bean sauce or the fermented black beans themselves. Depending on where you live, finding black bean sauce may require a trip to the Asian grocery store or shopping online.

Essential Fresh Ingredients

Sometimes called the “holy trinity” of Chinese cuisine, garlic, ginger, and green onion have a particularly important role to play in stir-frying. Both garlic and ginger are added to the heating oil to help prevent an oily flavor from being imparted to the other ingredients.

Green onion (also called spring onion) lends a mild onion flavor to stir-fries. It may be added to the oil with the garlic and ginger, stirred in with the other ingredients during stir-frying, or sprinkled on the dish at the end as a garnish. All three are sometimes added to marinades to give meat or seafood extra flavor.

Unless a recipe specifically calls for powdered ginger, always use fresh ginger in stir-fry dishes. You can peel the ginger or leave the peel on as desired. When using green onion in stir-fries, cut off the ends and cut the green onion on the diagonal into the size called for in the recipe. Normally, all of the green onion is used. However, you can also use only the green or white parts to enhance the appearance of the dish.

Canned Asian Vegetables

For many people, their first introduction to Asian vegetables came when they ordered a stir-fry dish made with bamboo shoots and water chestnuts. The popularity of these two vegetables stems partly from their easy availability — bamboo shoots and water chestnuts (along with baby corn and straw mushrooms) are readily available on local supermarket shelves.

Always rinse canned Chinese vegetables after opening or blanch briefly in boiling water to remove any taste from the can. Like all canned vegetables, Chinese vegetables are heated to kill any bacteria before canning, so they need to be stir-fried only long enough to heat them through.

While canned vegetables are convenient, nothing beats fresh Chinese vegetables for flavor. Fresh water chestnuts have a sweet flavor that canned water chestnuts lack. Both water chestnuts and bamboo shoots are available year-round in the produce section of Asian markets. Feel free to use them in place of canned vegetables in any of the recipes.

Rice, Noodles, and Cornstarch

Stir-fries are frequently meant to be accompanied by rice. Rice is a staple grain in southern China, where it is frequently consumed at every meal. While long-grain white rice is the rice of choice throughout much of China, the type of rice you use is really a matter of personal preference. Feel free to use other types of rice, such as medium grain or healthy brown rice.

The main difference between white and brown rice is the level of processing that takes place. All rice is hulled, but in white rice the brown or reddish layers of bran underneath the hull are removed as well. Besides giving brown rice its darker color, these layers of bran are a rich source of B vitamins, making brown rice more nutritious than white varieties.

A number of popular stir-fries, including pad Thai, are made with noodles. While Asian noodles may not come in the variety of shapes that characterize Italian pasta, there is more variety in the basic ingredients used to make the noodles. In addition to standard wheat-based flour, Asian noodles are made from rice flour and mung bean starch. The unusual ingredients give these noodles specific properties: both are superabsorbent, soaking up the seasonings and sauce they are cooked with. They also puff up nicely when deep-fried.

Cornstarch, made from the starchy substance contained inside corn kernels, plays a major role in stir-fry cooking. It is used in marinades to seal in the other ingredients and protect foods from the hot oil, and added to sauces as a thickener.

While cornstarch is a popular thickener in North America, starches made from tapioca, arrowroot, and even water chestnut are used throughout Asia. When a recipe calls for a cornstarch and water mixture to thicken the sauce, feel free to experiment with replacing the cornstarch with one of these other starches. Just remember that each has slightly different properties: for example, tapioca starch thickens more quickly than cornstarch, and arrowroot starch will actually thin out again if overcooked.

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