Sunday, October 30, 2011

Half-Fast Cooking: Wok-Free Chinese

It's not fast food. It's not slow food. It's...half-fast food! Part of an occasional, sloth-driven series.

I admit it. I'm a total snob when it comes to Chinese food.

Growing up in proud Chinese-American family, I used to be both puzzled and annoyed by the weird ideas non-Chinese had about Chinese food. Some of these strange ideas continue to baffle and annoy me to this day: Why do non-Chinese eat Chinese take-out directly out of the box, instead of transferring it to a plate first, like we did? Why do they think it’s appropriate to pour soy sauce over everything on their plates? Why do they obsess about MSG in Chinese food but not worry a jot about the copious amounts of the stuff in Big Macs and Doritos? And what’s the deal with those crunchy noodles that come in a can? What, exactly, are they for?

More recently, I’ve noticed a more insidious and potentially harmful misconception that could wrongly turn good people away from Chinese food: the myth of the quick ‘n’ easy stir-fry. Every serious home cook has probably heard this: Stir-fries are great everyday dishes because they’re so easy! They have tons of nutritious veggies! And they cook in only seconds!

I’ve learned the hard way, however, that making a stir-fry when you’re tired and busy is almost always a bad idea, unless you REALLY know what you’re doing. (Which I don’t.)

Yes, stir-fries cook up quickly. But there’s a huge difference between “quick” and “easy.” Cooking a proper stir-fry is a lot like pulling off a successful assassination: the act itself may require only seconds, but you need serious planning, preparation, and skills to make it work.

In a proper stir–fry, everything must be cut perfectly: the shape of a cut must not only be compatible with the ingredient you’re cutting, but the other stuff in the dish as well. Every piece of a given ingredient must be exactly the same size, otherwise it won’t all cook through evenly. (Fuschia Dunlop's  Shark's Fin and Sichuan Pepper: A Sweet-Sour Memoir of Eating in China has a terrific description of the theory and practice of of classic Chinese knife techniques.)Then, everything must be cooked in the proper order: things that require more cooking go in first, those that require the least go in last. Get the timing wrong and you’ll end up with a noxious mélange of overcooked and half-raw ingredients. And because stir-fries cook so quickly, there is very little room for fudging in this area.

Also, the wok used for frying must be the right temperature: hot. As in REALLY hot, for most preparations. If the oil in the wok doesn’t sputter violently, spewing incendiary droplets onto your face and arms as you throw in your ingredients, it’s not hot enough. If it doesn’t send up a noisy, fragrant cloud of smoke that makes you think “great, now I’m going to have to shampoo every carpet in the house tomorrow,” then it’s not hot enough. In Cantonese, there is a special term for the distinct aroma of a properly executed stir-fry: wok hei, sometimes translated as “breathe of the wok.” It’s the elusive smell of sear just before it becomes char – hot and smoky and flame-kissed, like the edges of a good grilled steak. It’s special and short lived; it dissipates almost as soon as a platter of hot stir-fry hits the table.

I love setting stuff on fire as much as the next person, but I can’t even try to make a proper stir-fry at my place: my downstairs smoke alarm is – wait for it – directly above the stove. Call it the curse of college-town housing: the unspoken assumption around here is that anyone who cooks anything more ambitious than Top Ramen will probably burn the place down.

Thankfully, there are other options when I get a jones for real Chinese home cooking but don’t want to invoke the wrath of the local fire department. Thinking of real Chinese food always makes me think of home and family, and a homey, dead-simple dish Mom makes frequently – particularly for quick weekend lunches – is a tasty and quick preparation of noodles tossed with oyster sauce and hot oil flavored with garlic and ginger. Growing up, I’d never seen it served anywhere except chez Mom and Dad – if it did show up on restaurant menus, we never bothered ordering it. It was one of those low-key staples I always took for granted, But now, living far from my family in a place where people think brown-rice sushi is an obligatory item on “Chinese” menus, I find it irresistible. Best of all, it takes all of 15 almost completely brainless minutes to make – tops.


Chinese oyster sauce doesn’t look or smell anything like you’d expect from something made from oysters—it’s a dark, salty condiment, about the consistency and color of bottled steak sauce, that can be found easily in glass bottles in Asian markets. (It’s the dominant seasoning in that Chinese-American favorite, beef with broccoli.) Oyster sauce is not especially fishy, but since it’s intensely salty, a little goes a long way. it keeps for several months in the refrigerator.

7 ounces dried wheat noodles (in a pinch, I’ve used spaghetti)
4 tablespoons peanut or canola oil
1 tablespoon sesame oil
1 medium clove of garlic, peeled
a 1-inch square piece of peeled fresh ginger
4 tablespoons oyster sauce
Optional add-ins: thinly sliced scallions, bite-size pieces of cooked meat and/or vegetables, Chinese chile oil

1. Put a large pot of water to boil for the noodles.

2. While the water is heating, heat the peanut or canola oil in a pot large enough to hold the noodles, and finely chop the garlic and ginger.

3. Add the garlic and ginger to the heated oil and cook, stirring for about 2 minutes or until they wilt and start to release their aromas. Stir in the sesame oil and remove from heat.

4. Add the noodles to the boiling water and cook until tender, about 10 minutes.

5. Using tongs, transfer the noodles to the pot with the seasoned oil and toss thoroughly. Add oyster sauce and toss again until all is well combined.

5. Mix in any add-ins you wish and serve immediately.


  1. Hi Felicia! I love the concept and name of this series. Do you know, I make this exact dish-- my kids love it and call it "noodle bar." I love the simplicity of the flavors and the sweet bite of fresh ginger.

  2. Hi Linda! I knew this couldn't just be my family's invention--it is, indeed a great kid dish!

  3. This post made me laugh outloud three time! You're since of humor shines through in your writing, and that is so difficult to catch on paper. (Or the computer now days.)
    I really enjoyed this article and would like to try the half-assed noodles. And I had no idea it was so hard to make stir fry. I also have no idea why we don't take the Chinese take-out, out of the box! I've never even thought about it!
    Thanks for enlightening me!
    I'm tweeting this out!

  4. And I need to proofread before I hit send. Your "sense" of humor. And "out loud." And who knows if I spelled enlightening right. It's late. But I loved the article! :)

  5. Hi Jennifer! Thanks so much. You'll see--these noodles really are easy and very comforting, too.