Friday, February 5, 2010

The Bastardisation of Stir Fries

I have a bone to pick….it’s on peoples conception of a stir fry.

I often get people telling me that they are cooking a stir fry and asking if I have any tips for them. I would ask what they are having in their stir fry and then I get a whole list of every vegetable they have in their fridge and some meat.

I think that stir fries suffer from the idea that it’s the kind of dish where you can chuck anything into a wok, give it a fry, season with some oyster sauce/soy sauce or chilli sauce and whola…

So I try to explain my view of how a good stir fry should be and I begin talking about pasta sauces and pizza.

A simple and basic pasta sauce made with only a few ingredients is very satisfying. One of the pasta sauces I love cooking from Marcella Hazan’s
Essentials of Classic Italian Cooking contains just tomatoes, onion, carrot, celery, some extra virgin olive oil and a little salt, sautéed and simmered on a low heat until it thickens.

The key to a good pizza is one that is not overloaded with too many toppings, 2-3 different toppings, some cheese and sauce is a good guide.

I think that cooking a stir fry should be approached in the same manner as cooking pasta sauces and making pizza. Think about what ingredients you are including and less can be much more satisfying.

Using too many ingredients can complicate and overcrowd a dish. Each vegetable has its own distinctive flavours and the type of meat used changes the taste of the dish.

Just because you can put anything that you want into a stir fry doesn’t mean that you should!

This is a simple stir fry that I cook regularly containing only a few ingredients - snowpeas (or sugar snap peas), prawns and shiitake mushrooms, with some crushed garlic, sliced ginger, and flavoured with some oyster sauce, fish sauce and salt.


  • 300-400g snowpeas or sugar snap peas
  • 3 shittake mushrooms, soaked till softened and sliced
  • 8 prawns, shelled and deveined and sliced in half lengthways
  • 2-3 cloves crushed garlic
  • 2 pieces of ginger, sliced
  • 1 cup of water
  • ½ teaspoon of salt
  • ½ tablespoon of fish sauce
  • 2 tablespoons of oyster sauce
  • 1 teaspoon of cornflour
(Measurements are a rough guide only as I have cooked this dish so much that I don't need to measure anything, I just add each bit in and then taste to correct the flavour. So feel free to play around with the ingredients to your desired tastes.)


  • Heat up a wok, add a little vegetable oil and cook the shiitake mushrooms and prawns first. Set aside.
  • Then fry the garlic and ginger with the snowpeas in the wok, add in some water, cover and cook for 2-3 minutes until the snowpeas change colour and turn a dark green (uncover and stir from time to time).
  • Then add back in the shiitake mushrooms and prawns, add in a pinch of salt, some oyster sauce and fish sauce (add in a little more water if necessary).
  • In a small bowl mix a little cornflour with water and add into wok to thicken the sauce.
Be careful not to overcook the prawns or snowpeas. When you bite into the prawns they should be soft and tender (not rubbery) and the snowpeas should still have a crunch.

You may note that in the photo there is no sauce but around 1 cup of water was added. The cornflour thickened the sauce so that it coats all the ingredients.

Only add enough water to cook with, adding too much water will dilute the flavours of the ingredients resulting in more seasoning required which will affect the taste of the dish.

You are making a stir fry and not a soup, the meats and veges should not be drowning in their own sauce.

I love this dish because it’s simple to make and tastes amazing!

We are known to have four basic tastes - sweet, salty, sour, and bitter. Some argue that there is a fifth taste called ‘umami’. Umami is best described as savoury and is found in amino acid rich foods that give a sense of lingering mouth-feel. Umami is not a strongly detectable taste of itself, but it tends to accentuate and embolden other tastes. Umami intensifies sweet and salty, and rounds out sour and bitter.

Shiitake mushrooms and fish sauce are high in umami!

Umami is also found in MSG (surprise!)

So next time when you want to make a stir fry, stop and think about what you are putting into it….don’t bastardise it!


  1. hahah I am guilty of bastardising stir-fries, forgive me!

    They are often my way of using up random vegetables that are left-over in the fridge.

    I will have to try your way sometime. x

  2. What bought this on? Who did you see making a bad stir-fry?

  3. You are very right about the stir fries and pasta's as well.

    It is called KISS keep it simple stupid