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Home > Food> Discover > How to perfect stir-frying to master Indo-Chinese dishes

How to perfect stir-frying to master Indo-Chinese dishes

Stir-frying is the foundation on which Indo-Chinese cuisine is built—almost every dish can be whipped up in a couple of minutes

Illustration by Krish Ashok
Illustration by Krish Ashok

A couple of years ago, my Beijing-based sibling sent me a photograph of a restaurant menu where “Hakka noodles” was listed under “Indian cuisine”. This should come as no surprise because Indo-Chinese food is its own thing. The uncharitable food purist will term it to be neither Indian nor Chinese but the reality is that it’s both. Food has always travelled with people, and almost every cuisine was, at some point, a hyphenated cuisine.

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Indo-Chinese cuisine has its roots in Kolkata, which had a sizeable Chinese population, largely of Hakka ancestry from southern China, by the 1800s. Many worked in the leather trade and several, unsurprisingly, ran restaurants. For reasons too complicated to get into in this column, India has historically not had much of an eating-out culture due to rigid caste-specific dining and taboos against commingling. China, on the other hand, has had restaurants for thousands of years. 

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When a cuisine is not just based on home cooking, it tends to make certain specific choices. Speed is one. Restaurants cannot serve dishes that need to be made fresh and take several hours to make. Ingredients, both fresh and partially cooked, have to be available throughout the year. The cost of operations, particularly in terms of cooking fuel, has to be manageable. Restaurant-style Chinese cooking, and, by extension, Indo-Chinese cooking ticks every one of these boxes. Almost every dish can be whipped up in a couple of minutes and at every price point, from a food truck to a fine-dining establishment. 

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Also read | An Indian scholar’s Chinese adventures

So let’s get to the science. Stir-frying is the foundation of this cuisine. As a cooking technique, it evolved almost 2,000 years ago, when cooking fuel was scarce in China. A hemispherical wok is heated to extremely high temperatures and ingredients chopped into very small pieces rapidly cooked in a tiny amount of oil while being tossed continuously to prevent them from sticking. Carbon-steel is the best material for woks and you should crank up the heat on your stove to maximum when you do this. Wok Hei, a Cantonese term literally meaning “The Breath of the Wok”, describes the unique crunchy yet cooked texture you get from stir-frying that you cannot get from regular sautéing. An important thing to remember when stir-frying is to always chop the ingredients really small. This ensures even cooking and also prevents ingredients from steaming, which will soften their textures to a mush, which we do not want. 

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The second critical element of Indo-Chinese cooking is the sauce. Given the short amount of cooking time, liquid sauces are preferred over dry, powdered ingredients. While there are many variations of sauces, the general idea is to use a sauce that is a source of salt, umami, sweetness and sourness. This is why soy sauce, which is salty and high on umami, is an integral component of any stir fry sauce. For sourness, you can add either tomato ketchup, if you prefer a milder flavour, or a chilli sauce, which adds heat and sourness (thanks to the vinegar). You can also use oyster sauce, which is a perfect balance of sweet, sour and umami. Now that you have the flavour elements in place, you need a thickener. This is typically corn-starch powder mixed with a small bit of water. Given the rapid nature of stir-frying, it’s best to prepare this sauce mix ahead of time. The starch solution will thicken upon heating and coat your ingredients.

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Also read | What makes 'thukpa' the warmest winter dish 

If you are making noodles, you need to par-cook them ahead of time. Drop the noodles in boiling water and let them cook till they are as firm (or soft) as you like and then wash them in cold water to stop the cooking process. Now, add some oil and mix it into the noodles to prevent sticking. Adding a drop of oil to the boiling water to prevent sticking does not do anything. It’s a myth, and a waste of oil. For rice dishes, it’s best to use fridge-cold, cooked rice. Freshly made rice is too sticky. A fridge dehumidifies rice and using that gets you the best-tasting fried rice. 

MORE FROM THIS SECTION

view all

advertisement

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One particularly unique feature of Indo-Chinese meat dishes is their silky-smooth texture and juicy mouthfeel. This is achieved by a technique called “velveting”. It involves first marinating the meat pieces in a combination of salt (or soy sauce), corn starch and egg whites. Egg whites are basic (not acidic) and thus tenderise meat. You can also use a small amount of baking soda instead of egg whites. The salt helps the meat retain moisture. Briefly either blanch (in hot water) or deep-fry the pieces and then use them in your dish at the appropriate point. 

Indo-Chinese cooking is everyone’s food. The ultra-high temperatures of the wok and the use of standard processed ingredients like noodles and sauces means that more often than not, the ramshackle truck near your house serves Hakka noodles that are as good (and as safe to eat) as those you pay through your nose for in a fine-dining establishment. 

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Illustration by Krish Ashok
Illustration by Krish Ashok
Illustration by Krish Ashok
Illustration by Krish Ashok
Illustration by Krish Ashok
Illustration by Krish Ashok
Illustration by Krish Ashok
Illustration by Krish Ashok
Illustration by Krish Ashok
Illustration by Krish Ashok
Illustration by Krish Ashok
Illustration by Krish Ashok

A couple of years ago, my Beijing-based sibling sent me a photograph of a restaurant menu where “Hakka noodles” was listed under “Indian cuisine”. This should come as no surprise because Indo-Chinese food is its own thing. The uncharitable food purist will term it to be neither Indian nor Chinese but the reality is that it’s both. Food has always travelled with people, and almost every cuisine was, at some point, a hyphenated cuisine.

Indo-Chinese cuisine has its roots in Kolkata, which had a sizeable Chinese population, largely of Hakka ancestry from southern China, by the 1800s. Many worked in the leather trade and several, unsurprisingly, ran restaurants. For reasons too complicated to get into in this column, India has historically not had much of an eating-out culture due to rigid caste-specific dining and taboos against commingling. China, on the other hand, has had restaurants for thousands of years. 

advertisement

advertisement

When a cuisine is not just based on home cooking, it tends to make certain specific choices. Speed is one. Restaurants cannot serve dishes that need to be made fresh and take several hours to make. Ingredients, both fresh and partially cooked, have to be available throughout the year. The cost of operations, particularly in terms of cooking fuel, has to be manageable. Restaurant-style Chinese cooking, and, by extension, Indo-Chinese cooking ticks every one of these boxes. Almost every dish can be whipped up in a couple of minutes and at every price point, from a food truck to a fine-dining establishment. 

Also read | An Indian scholar’s Chinese adventures

advertisement

advertisement

So let’s get to the science. Stir-frying is the foundation of this cuisine. As a cooking technique, it evolved almost 2,000 years ago, when cooking fuel was scarce in China. A hemispherical wok is heated to extremely high temperatures and ingredients chopped into very small pieces rapidly cooked in a tiny amount of oil while being tossed continuously to prevent them from sticking. Carbon-steel is the best material for woks and you should crank up the heat on your stove to maximum when you do this. Wok Hei, a Cantonese term literally meaning “The Breath of the Wok”, describes the unique crunchy yet cooked texture you get from stir-frying that you cannot get from regular sautéing. An important thing to remember when stir-frying is to always chop the ingredients really small. This ensures even cooking and also prevents ingredients from steaming, which will soften their textures to a mush, which we do not want. 

The second critical element of Indo-Chinese cooking is the sauce. Given the short amount of cooking time, liquid sauces are preferred over dry, powdered ingredients. While there are many variations of sauces, the general idea is to use a sauce that is a source of salt, umami, sweetness and sourness. This is why soy sauce, which is salty and high on umami, is an integral component of any stir fry sauce. For sourness, you can add either tomato ketchup, if you prefer a milder flavour, or a chilli sauce, which adds heat and sourness (thanks to the vinegar). You can also use oyster sauce, which is a perfect balance of sweet, sour and umami. Now that you have the flavour elements in place, you need a thickener. This is typically corn-starch powder mixed with a small bit of water. Given the rapid nature of stir-frying, it’s best to prepare this sauce mix ahead of time. The starch solution will thicken upon heating and coat your ingredients.

Also read | What makes 'thukpa' the warmest winter dish 

If you are making noodles, you need to par-cook them ahead of time. Drop the noodles in boiling water and let them cook till they are as firm (or soft) as you like and then wash them in cold water to stop the cooking process. Now, add some oil and mix it into the noodles to prevent sticking. Adding a drop of oil to the boiling water to prevent sticking does not do anything. It’s a myth, and a waste of oil. For rice dishes, it’s best to use fridge-cold, cooked rice. Freshly made rice is too sticky. A fridge dehumidifies rice and using that gets you the best-tasting fried rice. 

One particularly unique feature of Indo-Chinese meat dishes is their silky-smooth texture and juicy mouthfeel. This is achieved by a technique called “velveting”. It involves first marinating the meat pieces in a combination of salt (or soy sauce), corn starch and egg whites. Egg whites are basic (not acidic) and thus tenderise meat. You can also use a small amount of baking soda instead of egg whites. The salt helps the meat retain moisture. Briefly either blanch (in hot water) or deep-fry the pieces and then use them in your dish at the appropriate point. 

Indo-Chinese cooking is everyone’s food. The ultra-high temperatures of the wok and the use of standard processed ingredients like noodles and sauces means that more often than not, the ramshackle truck near your house serves Hakka noodles that are as good (and as safe to eat) as those you pay through your nose for in a fine-dining establishment. 

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Also read | Why pani-puri is a marvel of deep-frying

Krish Ashok is the author of Masala Lab: The Science Of Indian Cooking.

  • FIRST PUBLISHED
    09.10.2021 | 08:30 AM IST
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