This post is from KS contributing writer Becca Stallings of The Earthling’s Handbook.
Chinese restaurants have been popular for decades, and in this century Indian, Japanese, and Thai restaurants are found even in many small middle-American towns. We like Asian food, but how many of us cook it at home?
Maybe you’ve felt intimidated by recipes with exotic ingredients you’ve never used before. Maybe you’re afraid to toss food in a giant wok over leaping flames like you’ve seen in a Chinese restaurant kitchen. Maybe it’s just that your ethnic background isn’t Asian whatsoever, so you feel no instinct for that type of cooking.
But making your own Asian food really isn’t complicated, dangerous, or difficult! Katie has even made Asian cuisine frugal and fast by making it in her Instant Pot, Curried Lemon Coconut Chicken.
I’ve enjoyed home-cooked Asian-style food all my life–and I’m a white lady from Oklahoma! My mom taught me techniques she’d learned from her Chinese housemate in graduate school. But I think she was curious and confident about Asian cooking because her mother was interested in it, too–my first wok was inherited from Grandma.
Asian-style food was just normal in my English/German/Lithuanian-American family, even when we lived 50 miles from Tulsa in a town where the only “Chinese” restaurant had a bottle of ketchup on every table! Grandma sent us care packages of seaweed, rice vinegar, and other essentials from New York City.
As America has diversified and tastes have become more exotic, Asian ingredients have become widely available in supermarkets. If your local stores are really bland, you can order online; places like Thrive Market have great prices on many exotic ingredients.
I live in Pittsburgh now, on the same block with a Korean store that sells a wide array of Asian ingredients. In the neighborhood where I work are two Indian stores. I like to support these small, family-run businesses, but I appreciate that I can get most of my ingredients at Giant Eagle, the East End Food Co-op, or Trader Joe’s, as well.
Basic Asian cooking techniques actually are very versatile, allowing you to work with the ingredients you happen to have instead of following a specific recipe.
Do you have to buy a wok?
The wok (or kadhai) is the type of pan used for stir-frying in India as well as farther east. It’s useful–but you can make a great stir-fry in a large skillet.
The main difference is that a wok’s high, sloping sides make it easy to push cooked food up away from the heat so it doesn’t get too browned. That means you can toss in one ingredient after another without pausing to take anything out, and then mix it all together. Convenient!
But if you’re using a skillet, just place a bowl next to the stove, and scoop well-cooked ingredients into it to free up space in the pan.
(And if you’re making a small stir-fry, such that all your ingredients will fit in the pan together easily, don’t bother with the big wok. I often use my 8″ cast-iron skillet to stir-fry a small amount of vegetables to top a bowl of noodles for a quick lunch.)
Make stir-fry your stand-by
Stir-frying is a classic technique of Asian cooking. It turns raw ingredients into dinner very quickly–you’ll spend more time chopping than cooking! It’s easy, too. As my brother’s friend from Thailand put it, “You stir, you fry. Is not that hard.” Almost any array of vegetables and protein can be unified into a meal just by frying them together and adding a tasty sauce.
What about those leaping flames in restaurant kitchens? Relax! You don’t have to turn up the heat that high, and you can avoid splashing oil into the flame. You can get good results from stir-frying over a gas flame that just touches the bottom of the wok (or an electric burner). It just won’t be ready quite as quickly as those daredevil chefs’ creations.
Take the advice of my mom’s Chinese housemate: “Hot wok, cold oil.” Memorize those four words to remind you of the steps I’ll explain in more detail:
1. Cut up all your ingredients
Mix your sauce, and get out your long-handled spoon.
2. Put the empty wok (or skillet) on the burner and let it heat, empty.
After a little while (longer for an electric stove than gas), toss a drop of water into the wok: If it jumps, or if it immediately sizzles and evaporates, the wok is ready; if not, wait until the water evaporates.
3. Add the oil
It doesn’t have to be refrigerator-chilled, but it should be no warmer than room temperature.
4. Wait until the oil looks shimmery. Then add the food and step back–it will sizzle!
Use a spatter shield, if you have one, or hold up a pan lid between you and the wok to protect you from flying drops of hot oil.
5. Stir and flip the food frequently, if not constantly, until you are ready to add the sauce.
Then you can reduce the heat and let it simmer, stirring occasionally.
What to stir in first?
If your stir-fry includes onions, coarsely-chopped garlic, and/or ginger root, put them in first to flavor the oil for cooking the rest of the food.
However, powdered spices or crushed garlic just get scorched if cooked too long. Burned garlic has a particularly bad flavor. Put these more delicate seasonings into the sauce.
Any raw meat comes next.
Cook it in a relatively empty wok so you can see when it’s done, then remove it to a separate dish so the meat won’t get overdone and chewy while you cook the vegetables. Put meat back into the wok when you add the sauce.
Then, start your stir-fry with the items that take longest to cook.
For example, chunks of potato and carrot should go into the wok before zucchini and snow peas.
Flavor profiles are the key
Each Asian cuisine has a few basic ingredients that are necessary to make it “taste right.” Here are my quick tips for basic seasoning:
- Chinese: Soy sauce (or Tamari), garlic, ginger. Stir-fry in peanut oil (if you’re not allergic) or a neutral-tasting oil, not olive oil.
- Try my easy Teriyaki Sauce!
- Sushi flavor: Cook rice with rice wine vinegar and a little sugar. Use nori seaweed sheets or sprinkles (norigoma furikake).
- Dress salad with toasted sesame oil whisked with either rice wine vinegar or orange juice.
- Hondashi, also called bonito broth mix, is instant broth made from dried fish–essentially, fish bouillon. It adds fishy flavor to soup, rice, or sauce.
- Thai: Depending on the specific recipe, you’re likely to need at least one of these. I used all of them when my son asked for Coconut Lemongrass Soup!
- Indian: Onions, garlic, ginger, turmeric, coriander. Stir-fry in butter or coconut oil. Cilantro is good here, too.
- Curry: You can make Thai curry, Indian curry, and Chinese curry all with the same basic yellow curry powder. The difference is in the other ingredients.
- Coconut milk and lime juice make it taste Thai.
- Dairy milk, yogurt, and/or butter give an Indian flavor, and I love to throw in some raisins.
- Chinese curry is dry (no milk) with lots of onions.
I often use a little bit of bottled sauce in my stir-fries. Oyster sauce, plum sauce, and hoisin sauce are in many stores now. Each of them adds a special flavor that easily makes food “more Chinese.” Don’t just use a bottled sauce at full strength. Dilute with plain soy sauce, orange juice, or broth. Add garlic, ginger, or pepper. Make it your own!
Beyond Stir-fry: Basic Asian Flavors to Try
Use Asian sauce on your fish or meat
Serve with rice/noodles and steamed vegetables.
I grew up loving my mom’s teriyaki chicken, made by browning the chicken and then simmering it in Teriyaki Sauce. Now that we don’t eat meat at home, I’ve learned to put fish in the oven to bake for 10 minutes, flip it over, cover it in Teriyaki Sauce, and bake until done–easy and delicious!
Use Asian seasoning when roasting vegetables
We love crispy curried okra! Just thaw and drain frozen cut okra, toss with oil and curry powder, spread on a cookie sheet, and bake at 400F.
Stir every 10 minutes until crisp–it takes about 40 minutes because okra is so moist.
Pile tasty foods together in a bowl
This is a great meal for picky eaters because each person can decide what goes in her bowl and what will be touching. My bowl shown above has Masoor Dal lentils, crispy curried okra, red peppers, and yogurt.
Try these basics with the ingredients you happen to have
Fried Rice is a classic Chinese way to use up leftovers! With plenty of egg, it’s hearty enough for a main dish.
Brown some onions. Add red lentils, water, curry powder, garlic, and ginger. Bring to a boil while you cut up vegetables and/or get frozen veggies ready to toss in. The lentils will take 20-30 minutes to cook; add thicker or frozen veggies right away, thinner veggies later. Mix in optional yogurt or coconut milk at the last minute, just to warm it up. Serve your curried lentils on a bed of spinach for a vitamin-packed, fiber-rich, filling, one-pot meal!
Japanese Udon Noodle Soup is a basic recipe you can adjust to your taste and the vegetables you have.
For a low-fat alternative to stir-fry, cook in a small amount of broth over high heat. Basically, you’re stir-frying using broth instead of oil, creating steamed food saturated with flavor!
Omusubi are Japanese sandwiches
Sort-of-Asian meals my family loves
Over the years, I’ve developed some recipes of my own that are similar to Asian foods but not quite traditional. These are some of our favorites:
We almost always make these two recipes together. The string beans are my imitation of a Chinese-restaurant dish I love, but the tofu recipe is original. I wanted to make something sweet and tangy as a contrast to the salty beans…and it was an instant hit!
Started as a vaguely Indian-flavored recipe in a white American’s vegetarian cookbook. I wanted to make something kind of like it, faster, using canned vegetables and peanut butter. Another instant hit! (We usually use frozen, thawed vegetables now.)
Pita bread is Middle Eastern, but it’s similar to Indian naan bread. If you’re gluten-free or don’t mind eating with a fork, serve Red & Green over rice or without any grain at all.
Our version of an Indian lentil dish. Traditionally, it doesn’t have carrots. They add vitamins and fiber, and we love the flavor!
A stir-fry with approximately Chinese seasoning, but it’s cooked more lingeringly than a typical stir-fry, partially caramelizing the onions and creating a rich flavor. If you usually find stir-fried veggies too crunchy, try this! (Again, you could substitute cooked chicken for tofu.)