This article was written in collaboration with our own founder and head-chef, William Chow, for truly expert advice!
Ah, the stir fry. Over here in the West, we’ve taken to it like a Peking duck to water – quick, easy, tasty, healthy and packed with flavour, it’s the perfect way to eat out on a diet, or a great meal to whip up fuss-free in our own kitchens. But where does it come from, this dish we desire? Are our Western interpretations holding true to its Eastern traditions? How is it eaten, where does it come from, and when will we finally master twizzling it up with chopsticks? Read on to unlock the secrets of this exotic dish – and discover some great tips for mastering an Indochinese twist on this Asian staple.
The origins of the stir-fry are hotly debated – officially recognized as a Chinese technique, many claim that it actually originated in ancient Nepal and Tibet, then spread through India and China. Given that the stir-fry was made possible by the development of the wok, it could be that it actually arose in different regions almost simultaneously. However, the tradition of stir-frying was thriving long before it was given a name in Western society, Perhaps ironically (given its current availability) stir-frying was mainly limited to restaurants and the wealthy until recent years, due to the expense of oil and fuel for frying.
Since globalization has taken hold and oil and fuel have become more available, stir-frying has spread across Asia like wild fire throughout the last century. China, Thai, Laos, Vietnam – each boasts their own distinctive version of this popular cooking technique. The Chinese stirfry can sometimes be heavy going due to the excessive use of thickening agent such as potato or corn flour and often also the over liberal use of cooking oil, whereas in Southeast Asia, especially the Indochina region we stress more on fresh herbs and lighter sauce rather than making the sauce thick and gloopy. It’s the food from this Southeast Asian region that is referred to as Indochinese cuisine, and in our humble opinion, once you’ve tasted the stir fry offerings of Indochina, you’ll never crave its Chinese cousin again.
The term stir fry was first coined by Buwei Yang Chao in 1945, in her cookbook How to Cook and Eat in Chinese. Unlike a pie, lasagne or a duck a l’orange, ‘stir fry’ is just the name for the cooking technique. It’s a rough translation of the Chinese word chao, which lietrally means ‘stir cooking’in a wok.
Put simply, to stir fry a dish is to fry your ingredients quickly at a high heat. Of course, there’s a little more to creating a delicious dish than this. And there’s a lot more that you should keep in mind when you’re planning your meal.
We’ve spoken before about the importance of balance in Indochinese cooking – ensuring that you hit the right spot between sweet, sour, spicy, unami and salty – so the ingredients you choose should complement the sauce that you create. We make our Banana Tree stir fries with broccoli, baby corn, peppers, cloud ear mushrooms and bamboo shoots; not only packed with vitamins and antibodies, but fresh, delicious and light on the palate.
However, stir fry does not have to be an exact dish. If you’re cooking at home, play with the ingredients – just remember to keep it well balanced with good amout of vegetables and protein!
The art of stir frying is a little more sophisticated then you might have thought – a wok is designed to deliver extra smokiness and flavor, so pay attention to how you use it. Get your oil nice and hot in the bottom of the pan, then when it starts to shimmer, throw in your herbs, spices and aromatics. This will enable the raw ingredients to be seared at an extremely high temperature thus releasing a smokey aroma no other cooking method can produce, not even a BBQ stove. This cooking technique unlocks these high temperature flavours and smells but at the same time locking in all the natural goodness since stirfrying only last a few minutes of cooking time.
If you’re looking to give your stir fry an Indochinese twist, it’s the step of adding fresh herbs, spices and aromatics that is key. Stir-frying is a tried and tested method for sealing flavour into food, so don’t go overboard with your ingredients if you’re a beginner – think about what works well together, and taste your dish regularly as it’s cooking. Always adjust your seasoning.
At the core of Indochinese cuisine are our distinctive herbs and spices: aromatic lime leaves, firey ginger, fragrant lemongrass, cooling mint, citrusy coriander and tongue-tingling chili. Try chopping up a few of these – chuck them in the pan with some oil and wait for the aromas to hit your nose. Once you can smell them, it’s time to start adding the other ingredients.
If you’re cooking with meats, some of the most popular meats in Indochina include lean beef, succulent duck, juicy chicken and tender pork. Or, if you’re looking for a veggie way to up your protein intake, tofu (both deepfried or fresh) or Quorn works fantastically.
Add your protein to your sizzling herbs and spices, and remember: the key to a good stir fry is NOT to keep stirring too much or the ingredients will not have a chance to be seared – (although with our professional high heat wok range we do need to keep the food moving to stop the food from charring!)
Once the meat is cooked add your vegetables and once you can see that the dish is done, take your wok off the heat, throw in some extra aromatics (a handful of fresh coriander, perhaps?) and you’re done!
A few handy hints for staying authentically Indochinese:
1) Stay clear of frozen ingredients
2) Try to replace your dry herbs with fresh herbs as much as possible
Swap to peanut oil for a signature Indochinese flavour
And remember, balance is key. So keep tasting until you find a good balance between sweet, salty and sour, although you do not need use all three tastes everytime you stir fry
If you’re craving an expertly cooked, authentic Indochinese stir-fry without any of the mess or effort, Banana Tree is always on hand to help – our stir-fries are packed with fresh, nutritious ingredients and served hot from the wok. With sweet and spicy Lemongrass, Tumeric & Cashew Nuts or aromatic Chili, Ginger & Basil to choose from, you might just end up ordering both. Combo up for a true Indochinese feast: aromatic spiced rice, sweet corn cakes, a Viet cracker and our tasty Indo House Salad ensure you’ll head home stuffed with Indo goodness!