Buwei Yang Chao (1889-1981) was an American Chinese physician who also had a passion for cooking. Her landmark book “How to Cook and Eat in Chinese,” first published in 1945, was one of the earliest Chinese cookbooks in America. The book also contained a new culinary term, for which Chao is credited for coining: Stir-frying.
Stir-frying is a technique whereby food is sautéed quickly in a very hot, concave (bowl-shaped) pan called a wok. The bottom center of the pan is where the heat is most concentrated. It then dissipates as the sides of the pan are ascended.
Foods to be stir-fried are cut into small, bite-size pieces be it diced, sliced, or julienned. Each individual item should be cut uniformly so as to assure even cooking. During stir-frying the food is kept in nearly constant motion, usually with the assistance of two utensils. First the pan is heated, the oil is added, and when the oil is hot the cooking begins. Ingredients that take the longest to cook are added first followed by the remainder in order of decreasing cooking time. A typical progression would be meat, harder vegetables, softer vegetables, aromatics, and sauce. (Many chefs add the aromatics, such as ginger or garlic first. These delicate items burn very easily and I prefer to add them toward the end). Often, when a stir-fry contains some kind of meat, the meat is seared and removed, the other ingredients are cooked, and then the meat is returned to the wok to heat through at the end. This is done to prevent overcooking the meat and also to not overload the wok. Just like sautéing, overcrowding a pan will reduce browning which compromises flavor. Sometimes if a particular ingredient requires extra cooking time, a little water can be added at the end and the wok covered to allow a few moments of steaming to fully complete the cooking. Woks are also used to deep fry and braise as well.
Woks are made from many different materials but cast iron and carbon steel are the most popular with professional cooks. Cast iron and carbon steel provide exquisite heat conduction which is what stir-frying is all about: very hot, quick cooking. They must be “seasoned” to prevent sticking. This basically means coating them with oil and cooking the oil into the surface for 15 minutes or so. Non-stick woks have their detractors because of suspicions that non-stick cookware can emit carcinogenic substances when heated to very high temperatures. Aluminum is reactive to acids unless it’s anodized. Stainless steel, while non-reactive, is not as efficient a heat conductor as cast iron or carbon steel.
For home use, woks come with a metal ring for the wok to be steadied in. The ring is paced on the gas burner and the wok on top of the ring. If you have an electric stove, you should forget about using a wok altogether. A flat electric burner will just simply not disperse heat around the wok like a gas flame can. Even home gas stoves can’t quite approximate the thermal outlay of restaurant stoves designed for use with woks. Now let’s do some stir-frying.
Mu shu pork, or moo shu pork, is a stir-fried dish of thinly sliced pork, eggs, lily buds, wood ear mushrooms, and depending on the cook, other ingredients such as garlic, ginger, bamboo shoots, scallions, etc. The exact provenance and ontogenesis of mu shu pork is a little fuzzy. It certainly appears that the earliest versions originated in China and were probably transmuted to some degree via American Chinese cookery. Mu shu pork started appearing on American Chinese menus in the 1960’s. In America it is often served with mu shu pancakes, a tortilla-like pancake made from flour. Below is my recipe for mu shu pork, sans pancakes. It’s actually an adaptation of my wife’s recipe, (I added the scallions). Given that she was born and raised in Beijing and made it countless times in China, I feel confident as to its authenticity. The lily buds and wood ear mushrooms in the recipe can be found in an Asian market.
• 2 tablespoons soy sauce, plus extra as needed
• 2 tablespoons cornstarch
• 1 lb. pork shoulder or loin, cut into thin strips
• Salt to taste
• 1 oz. tiger lily buds
• 1 oz. dried wood ear mushrooms
• Vegetable oil as needed
• 3 eggs, beaten
• 1 batch scallions, chopped
• Sesame or hot chile oil, as needed
• White rice, as needed for garnish
Make a slurry by whisking the 2 tablespoons soy sauce with the cornstarch in a bowl.
Add the pork and some salt, stir, and allow the pork to marinate for 45 minutes.
Cut off the knobby tips of the lily buds. They are tough and chewy. While the pork is marinating soak the lily buds in a bowl of water for 45 minutes and the wood ear mushrooms, in a separate bowl for 30 minutes.
In a large skillet or wok, stir-fry the pork in the vegetable oil, remove, and set aside. Then stir-fry the eggs, adding more oil if necessary until still soft and a little runny. Remove the eggs and set aside. Stir-fry the lily buds, mushrooms, and scallions, adding more oil if necessary, until the scallions soften. Return the pork and eggs to the skillet. Add additional soy sauce as needed. Stir-fry everything briefly and finish with a drizzle of sesame or hot chile oil.
Serve with white rice.
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