The invention of Chinese stir – fried dishes greatly influenced Chinese cooking. Stir – fried dishes use a wide range of ingredients and are cooked quickly so they retain the nutrients of the meats and vegetables. Stir – fried dishes can be meat dishes, vegetable dishes, or meat and vegetable mixtures. Popular dishes found in the north include fried bean curd with minced meats, fried pork with shredded ginger, and quick – fried mutton with onion. These popular dishes are known throughout China.
Those Chinese families who eat cereals as their staple food often serve stir – fried mixtures of meat and vegetables. Stir – fried dishes first appeared after the Han Dynasty and were common even in the palace and in officials’ residences. In the Han and pre-Han dynasties, most dishes were thick soups and uninspired boiled, deep – fried, or roasted dishes without seasonings.
The character “chao” for the word “stir - fry” does not appear in the book Explanatory Notes for the Ancient Classics, which was completed in the 12th year of Yongyuan’s reign in the Eastern Han Dynasty (100 A.D.). In a rhyming dictionary compiled in the 6th century, the ancient form of “chao” was first seen, but it meant to stir cereal in a pot without oil to dry it. In cooking dishes, “chao” means to stir – fry meat or vegetables with seasonings in a small amount of oil or fat at the proper temperature until they are done.
When stir – frying Chinese dishes, the Chinese wok must be used. If a flat – bottom pan was used, the taste would be different. The temperature of the oil in the pan is very important. For example, when stir – frying hot pepper powder, a skilled chef can make it as red as blood. In Sichuan, stir – fried bean curd with minced meat is a dish of white bean curd in red oil, which is very appealing to the eye. If the temperature of the oil is not well controlled, the fried hot pepper power turns burnt ochre and loses its appeal.
Ingredients for stir – fried dishes are mostly meats and vegetables cut into small sizes by mincing, dicing, slicing, shredding, slivering, and forming into balls. Even though the cooking time is short, the flavors of the seasonings permeate the dishes.
The term “stir - fry” includes stir – fry without soy sauce, stew – fry, half – fry, grab – fry, stir – fry for a shorter or longer time, stir – fry with raw meat, stir – fry with boiled meat, fry without water, soft fry, hard fry, and quick – fry. Broiling, stewing, braising, and boiling in a covered pot are all cooking methods developed based on stir - frying.
The stir – fried dish was invented at the latest during the Southern and Northern Dynasties (420 - 581). Jia Sixie, an outstanding agronomist in the late years of the Northern Wei Dynasty (386 - 534), wrote the Essential Points for the Common People in 544. It is the earliest and most complete agricultural encyclopedia still in existence in China. In it he described a “duck frying method” that was done this way: “Use a fatted duck, as big as a pheasant, with its head cut off and its internal organs and tail gland removed. Wash it clean and chop it up like minced meat. Cut green onion bulbs into thin shreds. Add salt, fermented soybean sauce, and stir – fry it until it is well done. Add minced ginger and Chinese prickly ash.”
The process exactly describes the stir – frying method used today. Jia Sixie does not say whether oil is used, but his smooth writing style and the words “duck frying” indicate that oil should be used, otherwise the chopped green onions would burn. It could not be called “frying” if no oil was used; therefore, the “duck frying method” he describes exactly duplicates the method now used to stir – fry minced meat.
Another cooking method, the “pickled Chinese cabbage cooking method,” is also similar to the stir – frying method used today. It is done this way: Choose fatty pork (or mutton and venison) and cut it into thin shreds. Put the meat in a wok together with fermented soybean juice and salt and stir them, then add pickled Chinese cabbage with its juice. This dish is similar to fried pickled Chinese cabbage with shredded pork.
The menus of the Tang and Song Dynasties included stir – frying, but they often called the method “stewing.” The “five animal dish” eaten in early spring during the Tang Dynasty was a dish in which slices of mutton beef, rabbit, bear’s meat, and venison were stir – fried without soy sauce until they were well done, then cut into thin slivers and mixed with dressings.
The Forest of Recorded Affairs from the Song Dynasty describes “Dongpo fish” like this: “Cut the fish meat into long slivers. Preserve them with salt and vinegar for a short while, then dry them with paper. Mix spices and starch. Coat the fish slivers with the mixture, spread the slivers and rub them with sesame seed oil, then stir them in the frying pot.” This is the same dish we eat today. Many stir – fried dishes were popular in the Northern Song Dynasty, but they became even more common in the Ming and Qing Dynasties.
Stir – frying can be used for all kings of ingredients, such as vegetables, including egg-plant, cucumber, cabbage, spinach, potato, taro, celery, and bamboo shoots; wild game; seafood; domestic animals; poultry; gluten; bean curd; cooked rice; and rice cakes.
Tender meat should be grab – fried (coat the shredded or sliced meat with a thin paste of flour, fry it in oil slightly, then remove it. Heat the oil in the wok, add cornstarch mixed with water and flavorings, and boil the mixture. Then return the fried meat and stir it quickly). Tender meat can also be quick – fried (fried quickly over a hot fire) or stir – fried (sauté with thickened, starchy gravy slightly burned in deep oil, and stir – fry with thin starchy gravy boiled instantly in water).
Tough meat or large pieces of meat can be stewed or braised until they are well done after they have been stir-fried with flavorings. Some materials can be dry-fried before stewing, such as pea sprouts and beef, some are fried after they are cooked, such as twice – cooked pork with chili sauce, or fried together with a fixed amount of juices. Some dishes are fried with mixtures of raw and cooked materials (the peanuts used in the diced chicken with peanuts and chili sauce are fried in advance). Mixtures of meats and vegetables fried together are common.
In most cases flavorings are added in the course of stir-frying, but in some cases, the major ingredients are preserved and their flavors fixed before they are stir – fried. Many flavorings are mixtures, such as sweet and sour sauce, sweet and chili sauce, spicy and chili sauce, five-flavored sauce, and fish and chili sauce.
In stir – fried dishes, ingredients of different flavors are blended so that the flavors mix together in the course of heating to produce a new, delicious taste. This is true for stir – fried pork shreds with ginger, fried garlic shoots with pork, shredded pork stir – fried in soy sauce of Beijing flavor, and shredded pork stir – fried with fish and chili sauce. Cooks add garlic, ginger, and onion in the course of heating the ingredients so that they permeate each other to produce a new taste that stimulates the diner’s appetite.
More attention was paid to naming dishes, blending colors, and cutting skills after literati became involved in Chinese cooking. Su Shi, a famous man of letters in the Song Dynasty, Ni Zan (1301 - 1374), a famous painter in the Yuan Dynasty, Xu Wei (1521 - 1593), a famous painter and literati in the Ming Dynasty, and Yuan Mei (1716 - 1798), a famous man of letters, were all gourmets and good cooks. Through their influence, Chinese stir – fried dishes were made more artistic and colorful. For example, “five – willow twig fish” is a dish of fish stir – fried with shredded onion, ginger, winter bamboo shoots, red pepper, and winter mushrooms. Stir – fried chicken with chestnuts and shredded chicken stir –fried with winter bamboo shoots are also delicious.
There are many ways of cutting the ingredients, such as shredding, dicing, lumping, and slicing. The knife should follow the grain of the meat while cutting. Pattern cutting is a very artistic cutting method. For example, stir – fried kidney is a common dish, but the meat can be cut into many different shapes such as wheat ears, litchi shapes, or the Chinese character for longevity. The differing shapes not only give the dish a pleasing appearance, they also help the dish coo evenly, remove bad odors, and absorb flavors.
Temperature should be strictly controlled when stir – frying, because the taste of a dish will differ ass a result of the duration and degree of heating. Temperature is more easily adjusted with deep – fried foods because there is more oil in the pot. Stir – fried dishes depend entirely on the heat of the oil and the wok surface because the ingredients are cut in small pieces, little oil is used, and the cooking time is short. This is a crucial test of the chef’s cooking ability.
In his book The Story of Chef Wang Xiaoyu, Yuan Mei of the Qing Dynasty described a scene of Wang’s cooking like this:
He stood by the cooking range on one leg, the other leg raised. He kept his eyes on the cooking range to observe the temperature. He heard nothing when others called him. He shouted “Big fire!” one moment, and the stoker instantly made the fire blaze like the red sun. The next moment, he shouted: “Small fire!” and the stoker immediately took away some of the burning firewood to reduce the heat. Another moment, he shouted: “Stop for the moment!” and the stoker instantly took away all firewood to stop the burning. He commanded with perfect ease like a general commanding his army.
In Sui Garden Menu, under the title “Instructions on Temperature,” Yuan Mei wrote: “The most important point in cooking food is temperature. A hot fire is preferred when stir – fried a dish. If the fire is too low the dish will become tasteless. A low fire is used when stewing or simmering foods. If the fire is too hot, the food burns. When a hot fire is used before a low fire, it reduces the juice of the food.” Controlling the temperature accurately requires much cooking experience in using different temperatures for different dishes. One can only gain this knowledge by sense; it is very difficult to explain in words.
This book includes an appendix with instructions on how to prepare and cook imperial dishes. However, when you cook the dishes using the recipes in this book, you will find the dishes differ from the orthodox dishes served in the Fangshan Restaurant in terms of color, flavor, and taste because of the temperatures you use and other factors.