Celebrate with stir-fry

  • Article by: LEE SVITAK DEAN , Star Tribune
  • Updated: January 26, 2011 - 1:21 PM

Time to dust off the wok and make use of this ancient culinary technique.

Welcome the rabbit! The two-week celebration of the Chinese New Year begins Feb. 2.

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The pan was piping hot, close to smoking. Hot enough to evaporate a drop of water instantly.

I swirled the oil around the pan, then sprinkled in the fresh ginger and green onions, which filled the kitchen with instant fragrance, a welcome -- and unexpected -- aromatherapy. (Can anyone be stressed when a room smells this good?)

The shrimp went in next and the sizzle alone had me caught in the magic of stir-fry. In moments, dinner was ready.

I was a convert.

No surprise to Grace Young, who has been a one-woman evangelist for the ancient culinary technique. She is a cook with a mission: to take stir-frying to the masses. Her new book, "Stir-Frying to the Sky's Edge" (Simon & Schuster, 313 pages, $35), which popped up on "best books of the year" lists across the nation, breaks the technique into easy lessons that make dinner seem fast.

Well, almost fast. You do need to chop. But that's the relaxing part of the cooking equation: chop + cook = dinner.

Though the cooking method has been used in China for more than 2,000 years, the term "stir-fry" didn't appear in print in the United States until 1945, in "How to Cook and Eat in Chinese" by Buwei Yang Chao.

Not until the late '70s, however, did the phrase seep into the American cooking vocabulary. Even Craig Claiborne, who with Virginia Lee, wrote "The Chinese Cookbook" in 1972, only referenced stir-frying in the text and not in their recipes.

A method with motion

So what is stir-frying? Contrary to its name, the technique is less "stirring" than it is more of a "tumbling, tossing, or quick-scooping action," according to Young. It's a way to keep all parts of the food in contact with the hottest part of the pan so as to cook it quickly and evenly.

There are, in fact, many variations, from the velvet stir-fry (that offers a satiny texture from a marinade of egg white and cornstarch) to raw stir-fries (all the ingredients are raw when added to the wok) and cooked stir-fries (where one or more ingredients are cooked prior to the wok) or dry stir-fries (without liquid added).

All of them begin with a wok (or a substitute of a heavy skillet) that can hold a lot of food. The keys to success are the pan, high heat and evenly chopped ingredients.

Young has her work set out for her. "It's fascinating to me because Chinese Americans no longer know how to use a wok," she said in an interview. While doing a demo in Seattle, Young was showing how to season a new wok. "Chinese people in their 60s were asking how to do this. Young people don't know how to use a traditional wok anymore, but older people don't either," she said.

Her mission to spread the stir-fry religion has worldwide wings. The wok-toting cook has traveled internationally -- from China and Bali to the Philippines, Jamaica and all over the U.S. -- to gather stories of the Chinese diaspora and to compare notes and techniques on stir-frying from the far-flung emigrants and their families. She travels with her well-used wok in a carry-on, to the consternation of TSA agents in airports.

Chinese immigrants ended up all over the world, from the early 1800s on as they left their homeland to escape famine, economic turmoil, civil war and floods in China. "I met a gentleman whose grandfather stepped on a boat leaving China and he didn't know where it was going. He ended up in South Africa. His grandfather just had to leave China," Young said.

What she has found -- not surprisingly -- is the universal longing for home among Chinese immigrants who adapted their cooking methods and ingredients to what was practical and available in their new land.

"Stir-fry is a chameleon cooking technique for Chinese who ended up in countries with limited Chinese vegetables," said Young.

That meant Chinese in the Mississippi Delta were cooking in skillets and pots. Jamaican Chinese used rum rather than Chinese wine in their stir-fry. In Libya, Chinese cooks had to adapt to olive oil instead of peanut oil.

Young's own parents immigrated to America in the late 1940s and landed in San Francisco, where produce -- though not of the Chinese variety -- was more available than elsewhere in the country. Like the Scandinavians who immigrated to Minnesota in the mid-1800s and brought with them lutefisk and other 19th-century fare, Young's parents's food preferences are frozen in time. "I was told that my mother's cooking was pre-revolutionary," said Young of the meals she grew up with.

Yet the backbone of Chinese cooking -- cooking out of scarcity -- has not changed. Indeed, that concept may be as useful as ever as cooks today struggle with tight budgets.

"The stir-fry technique is so respectful of all of this: the preciousness of food, fuel and resources," said Young.

Lee Svitak Dean • 612-673-1749

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