Confession: I crave Chinese food constantly. That’s probably because there is nowhere to get it near me. Back in the city, Chinese food was everywhere and it was what I ate when I didn’t know what else to eat. It was my faithful stand-by, always open, always there for me. Now, it pains me to watch TV and see characters getting big bags of Chinese delivery at the door or sitting around a feast of cartons with chopsticks sticking out of them. Ok, now I’m hungry for Chinese again.
Not having access to Chinese restaurants and take-out forced me to learn how to make my own Chinese dishes. I have to admit, I have gotten pretty good at it. It takes some practice to get the flavors and textures right. There are so many sauces and different flavor profiles but the hardest part of making your own Chinese food is getting it crispy like they do in the restaurants. The vegetables always have that fresh snap and crunch to them. Well, over the years I have learned a few tricks for making crispy Chinese sautés and stir-fries at home, and I’m here to share them with you.
1. The Equipment
Though it’s cool to have one, you do not need a wok to make your own Chinese food. A large skillet or deep saucepan will do. If you do want a wok, don’t get a small one. It may be easier to store in your cabinets but you need surface area to cook the food and keep it crispy. If the pan is too small, the food will be crowded together and steam rather than saute or fry. This is especially true for veggies, which release a lot of water when they cook. Get a big wok or use the largest deep skillet you have. The only other thing you need is a spatula or long tongs for tossing food around with.
2. Tofu, Tempeh and Seitan
If you are planning to add tofu, tempeh or seitan to your dish, there is some work to do even before prepping the sauce and veggies. The best way to use these proteins is to cook them first, but we want to be sure they will be crispy and delicious.
People often ask me how to get the tofu crispy in Chinese dishes. It’s easy. Be sure to buy extra-firm tofu, drain it well and press it to get the extra moisture out. You can even freeze the tofu in advance and then thaw it out and press it. Cut the tofu into cubes and pat them dry. Tempeh and seitan can be cut into cubes or slices and they should also be dry.
Put the tofu, tempeh or seitan pieces into a large bowl or a plastic storage bag. Sprinkle a few spoons of arrowroot powder or cornstarch over the proteins. This is also your chance to season the tofu, tempeh or seitan. I like to add kosher salt, black pepper, garlic powder, onion powder and sometimes, Chinese 5-Spice Powder. Mix it up so the starch and the seasonings coat the proteins. Set aside until ready to cook.
Heat vegetable oil in the pan over high heat. Place the tofu, tempeh or seitan into the pan and don’t move it. Let it cook and sear over the high heat for a few minutes until it gets browned and crispy. Flip the pieces and do the same until browned and crisp on all sides. I make sure it’s extra-crispy (but not burnt) because I know hot sauce is going to go over it which will immediately soften it a bit. Transfer the crispy proteins to a plate lined with a paper towel and set it aside. Try not to eat a piece; I dare you. Ok, eat one piece for quality assurance. Then step away from the crispy seitan.
3. Mise en Place
Cooking Chinese food goes against the way I usually cook, which is probably good because I tend to not follow rules. When you cook, it is best to get all your ingredients ready before you actually start cooking. In Chinese cooking, this is especially necessary because stir-frying goes fast. If you start cooking one vegetable and then start to chop another, the food will end up soft and soggy.
First, prepare the aromatics such as ginger, garlic, scallions and chile peppers. Set them aside in little bowls. Second, prep the vegetables by cutting them into sticks, rounds or whatever shapes you like. Keep each vegetable in its own separate spot or bowl since different veggies have different cooking times. Use veggies with different textures such as water chestnuts, sprouts and spinach.
Third, mix up your sauce in a bowl or liquid measuring cup or at least, have all the bottles of tamari, rice vinegar, Hoisin sauce or whatever you need open and ready to use. The simplest stir-fry sauce I use is a mix of tamari, brown rice vinegar, garlic and Sriracha hot sauce. Finally, prepare the thickener. Many stir-fries and Chinese dishes use a slurry of cornstarch and water. I prefer to use arrowroot powder. In a small bowl or a mug, mix a couple of teaspoons of cornstarch or arrowroot with a few tablespoons of water and let it sit and thicken until you are ready to use it.
4. Time to Wok and Roll
If you cooked tofu, tempeh or seitan, just wipe out the wok or pan to use it for the rest of the dish. Heat the pan over high heat. No medium-high heat here; it’s the high heat that gives you quickly cooked veggies that are crisp, tender and bright. Heat the pan for a few minutes before adding the oil. When the pan is hot, add some oil and get ready to add your first vegetable.
Usually in cooking, we add the aromatics first, but since the pan and oil are screaming hot, they would burn. Instead, they will be added after a few vegetables. In stir-fries, you don’t throw all the veggies in at once but cook a couple at a time. Depending on the size of your pan and how many ingredients you are using, you can choose one of two methods. You can cook a couple of veggies, remove them to a plate, reheat the pan with more oil, cook more veggies and combine everything at the end. Alternatively, you can add ingredients one at a time but keep them all in the pan for the whole cooking process.
When the pan is smoking hot, add the broccoli florets, carrots or other hard veggies that can stand up to the heat. Cook, tossing often, until the veggie is tender but still crisp and has some browned areas. When the first veggie is just about done, add the aromatics and stir them around. Constant stirring will also keep them from burning. Continue in this manner until you have cooked all the veggies.
5. Savory Sauces
When all the veggies are cooked, add the prepared sauce to the pan. Use just enough to coat the veggies and have a bit pooled at the bottom of the pan. Don’t drown the veggies in sauce; you can always heat up the sauce separately and serve it on the side. As soon as the sauce starts simmering, it’s time to add the slurry. Stir it again before adding it to the pan and pour it all around the pan into the sauce. Stir everything together and let the sauce thicken over the heat. You want it rich but not so thick it gets gummy.
6. Finishing Touches
After the sauce has thickened, this is when I return the tofu, tempeh or seitan to the pan. I like to add it back at the last minute so it stays crispy. Add it back to the pan and toss to coat it in the sauce and mix with the vegetables. When the proteins have warmed back up, remove the food from the heat and add a light drizzle of toasted sesame oil over the food.
For added texture, try adding toasted nuts or sesame seeds to the dish. Transfer the food to a serving bowl or platter. Garnish with scallion greens or more nuts and seeds. Polish off your chopsticks and dig in.
7. Recipe Ideas
Here are some recipes to inspire you and make your stomach growl: Indian- Chinese Broccoli Manchurian Stir-Fry, Stir-Fried Brussels Sprouts with Ginger and Curry Leaves, Stir-Fried Crunchy Bengali Bok Choy, Carrot and Courgette Noodle Stir-Fry, Asian Chili Tofu, General Tso’s Tofu, Sesame Tofu, Pomegranate Sweet and Sour Tempeh, and Stir-Fried Tofu with Veggies and Shitake with Arrowroot Sauce.
Once you get the hang of how to saute and stir-fry, you can change up the ingredients and sauces you use to make lots of delicious Chinese dishes. You may find that the best take-out is the one that comes from your own kitchen.
Lead Image Source: Indian-Chinese Broccoli Manchurian Stir-Fry