The professional Chinese kitchen is an impenetrable fortress of closely guarded secrets, where skills and techniques are often passed down from master to disciple. So when I found out that Singapore-born and raised Gerald Ong (@project_enoki) was learning about wok cookery at a Cantonese restaurant in Australia, my interest was piqued.
Ong moved to Australia seven years ago to pursue a Hospitality Business degree. He considers himself a traveller, with a background in cooking ranging from French cuisine to open fire. For the past three years, he has devoted himself to understanding the finer points of Cantonese cuisine.
“Many Chinese techniques are quite opposite to the fundaments of Western cookery. The environment, structure and kitchen culture are also very different from Western kitchens,” he speaks of his steep learning curve.
“My wok master is a hardened, elderly Cantonese man who swears like a sailor but dances like a ballerina on the wok. It’s beautiful because even though we don’t speak a common tongue, we understand each other through action and observation.” In his own words, condensing wisdom gleaned from his sifu, Ong shares the finer points of making your stir-fries taste closer to your neighbourhood tze char.
Gerald’s sifu at Chairman & Yip
(Video: Gerald Ong)
1. Make your own stock
A lot of your favourite Chinese dishes can get a tremendous boost from using homemade stock over the packaged variety from the supermarket. Master a good stock and half the battle is won for flavour town. Though the Chinese kitchen uses an array of different stocks, superior chicken stock is undoubtedly its workhorse. It is a clear flavoursome broth with colour resembling Chinese tea. It is made from old hens, Jinhua ham, dried shiitake mushrooms and aromatics, such as ginger and scallions. (Click here: Superior chicken stock)
How to: Whole old hens are typically used to make stocks in the Chinese kitchen owing to their richer flavour and tougher flesh. Regular chicken is fine, but old hen or kampong chicken would make your stock even better. Ask your local butcher and they will be happy to facilitate. Most saucy stir-fry dishes use a splash of chicken stock together with some potato starch slurry to thicken. This is done towards the end as the last step before plating.
“The other stocks in the Chinese arsenal include cloudy stocks, which are made by emulsifying water and bones over the high heat of a wok. One of the more complex and delicious examples of this stock is cloudy fish stock, the soul for a really good fish slice bee hoon.”
(Video: Gerald Ong)
2. Consider the slice
In a Chinese kitchen, meat is not the focus of a stir-fry dish. Rather, Chinese cookery emphasizes the concept of a “balanced” dish, where vegetables and meat are featured with equal prominence in each stir-fry. The traditional version of kung bao chicken calls for the chicken to be cut into the same size as the cashew nuts, thereby putting the importance of both ingredients on par when eating. However westernised Chinese food favours larger cuts of chicken to highlight the protein over the other components.
How to: Cut your meat and vegetables to the same size for a stir-fry when preparing dishes such as kung bao chicken or gu lu yuk. Keep each piece bite-sized – if there is a dextral challenge picking up the food with chopsticks- the size and shape of said ingredient must be reconsidered.
An example of a stir-fried dish where the stir-fried vegetables are cut roughly to the same proportions as the meat/ seafood.
(Photo: Gerald Ong)
3. Soak ingredients in water
The Cantonese are advocates for highlighting the clean and pure natural flavours of ingredients, and copious amounts of water seem to be the method of choice to reach that goal. Coming from a Western culinary background where washing mushrooms is taboo, I had my left eye twitch uncontrollably the first time I saw my wok master wash mushrooms for a good minute.
I soon learnt that this step impacts the texture of ingredients as well. Soaking in water firms the cell walls of vegetables, resulting in a crispier texture when stir-fried. Soaking in water also removes the astringency from onions and leeks, rendering them less harsh in a stir-fry dish. In meat, haemoglobin and unwelcomed fluids are flushed away. The meat plumps and swells with water, priming it outstandingly for the velveting technique (see point 4).
How to: After cutting your vegetables or meat, soak the ingredients in running water (a copious amount of water will work as well). Drain in a colander or sieve and dab dry with paper towels. Vegetables can also be spun dry in a salad spinner before stir-frying. Soaked meat should be velveted before stir-frying; the starch in the velveting process will sponge the excess moisture up. I would not recommend soaking seafood as they are very delicate. A quick wash under cold water is essential though.
4. Velvet your protein
Velveting is the technique of coating meat or seafood with a seasoned cornstarch slurry, which forms a barrier against the heat of a wok. This prevents moisture within the meat from escaping, thus sealing in the juices. The alkaline nature of baking soda in the marinade denatures protein strands and transforms tough cuts, such as pork neck, into silky soft morsels, and gives prawns a desired QQ effect.
How to: For best results, start with soaked meat (see tip 3). Season meat or seafood with Shaoxing wine, white pepper and salt. Wok masters aren’t shy to taste raw meat, and once satisfied with the flavour, they add a pinch of baking soda and cornstarch or potato starch to sponge up any loose liquid. Mix well in a clockwise direction until the mixture turns a little bit sticky and more cohesive. Allow the protein marinate in the fridge for at least 1 hour, or up to 12 hours, before stir-frying. It is worth deep-frying or blanching the meat quickly to firm the slurry around the protein, reinforcing the barrier. This would take mere seconds with a wok.
Velveted meat, ready to be used in a stir-fry.
(Photo: Gerald Ong)
5. Season your wok
The art of the wok is a rewarding journey to master, and it all begins with seasoning. The goal of seasoning a wok is to render it non-stick, and thin so as to be as receptive as possible to the heat source. The latter allows for an intense sear, producing the elusive wok hei (breath of the wok). A badly seasoned wok will result in food sticking to the wok, and black specks of carbon sticking to the food.
How to: Heat the wok over high heat until it goes red hot. Using a pair of pliers or heatproof gloves, shift the wok around the heat source for even heating. Carefully bring the wok over the tap, stand back, and allow the water to cool the wok down. Use a metal brush or scourer (never with soap) to scrub around gently until surface of wok is smooth and thin. Heat again until bone dry. Wipe the entire surface of the wok with a cloth and some canola oil. The oil will smoke and carbonise onto the metal. Your wok is now seasoned. Repeat process once it loses its non-stick properties.
Gerald’s seasoned wok
(Photo: Gerald Ong)