Chinese cooking authority Martin Yan is well known for reminding his American television audience that the culinary term is stir fry, not stare fry.  Stir frying is a Chinese technique in which small pieces of meat and vegetables are fried quickly by stirring them continuously in a hot wok with a little oil.  The curved bottom of the wok, a bowl like iron or steel pan, causes the ingredients to fall back into the oil each time they’re tossed up, reducing the amount of oil needed for cooking.  Stir frys have gained worldwide popularity because they are quick (dinner can hit the table in as little as fifteen minutes), have moderate fat content, and produce well seared meat and vegetables that retain bright color, firm texture and high nutritional value

The technique was established in China as a way to prepare food during the Ming Dynasty (1368 to 1644), but initially only restaurants and the wealthy could afford the oil and fuel required to stir fry.  Until well into the 20th century, the bulk of the Chinese population boiled or steamed their food.   Stir frying eventually predominated because the wood and charcoal used to fire stoves increased in cost, especially in urban centers.  A stir fry cooked food quickly without wasting fuel.  The term ‘stir fry’ entered the English language in 1945 with the publication of Buwei Yang Chao’s cookbook How to Cook and Eat in Chinese.

In China there are two types of stir fry, chao and bao.  While both stir small pieces of food over high heat, the chao method, which is similar to Western sautes, adds more liquid. First the wok is heated and, just as it begins to smoke, a small amount of oil is dribbled into one side of the wok and quickly swirled to coat the pan.  Next seasonings like ginger, garlic, scallions or shallots are added and tossed briefly until they are fragrant.  The seasonings are followed by other ingredients, starting with those, like meat or tofu, that take longer to cook.  All of these ingredients are cut to roughly the same size.  In chao stir frys, when the meat and vegetables are almost done, a mixture of soy sauce, vinegar, wine, salt or sugar is added, along with thickeners like cornstarch, water chestnut flour or arrowroot.  Chao stir frys are softer than bao stir frys which, fried in a red hot wok and absent the sauce, remain crispy.

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