A little history of Chinese Restaurant stir fries (and how to make them at home)
Updated: Sep 23, 2020
Growing up, the only type of Chinese food my parents cooked was a meat (or tofu) and vegetable stir fry, using whatever veggies we happened to have around the house, in a salty brown sauce thickened with cornstarch. It somewhat resembled Chinese restaurant food in appearance but did not really taste like it. I imagine this was the result of cooking Chinese food recipes from the Joy of Cooking and the Moosewood Cookbook and whatever other boomer-era cookbooks brushed against ethnic cuisines. With the internet it is now much easier to find authentic international recipes, but it can still be very difficult to sift through all the sources and options, especially if you are looking for "authentic" American Chinese food.
What is American Chinese food, let alone "authentic" American Chinese food? What is the magic that happens between the salty brown stuff of my parents' 1990s kitchen and the silky, delicate-tasting chicken with broccoli so ubiquitous to American Chinese restaurants?
If, like me, you were born after 1980 and grew up on one of the coasts, or are not from American, you may never have had chop suey or egg foo young. But these were the classic dishes of Cantonese American restaurants of the early 20th century. They were created by Chinese American chefs to attract non-Asian customers to Chinese restaurant business. During the era of Chinese Exclusion (1882 to 1943), Chinese laborers were excluded from emigrating to the United States, and Chinese immigrants living in the US already were unable to become naturalized citizens. Labor and immigration laws, as well as anti-Chinese racist sentiment, made it extremely difficult for Chinese workers and their children to find work following the end of the California gold rush and completion of the transcontinental railroad. Restaurants and laundry were two areas where Chinese immigrants could run their own businesses when they were underpaid or fully excluded from wage work. Making Chinese food accessible and appealing to non-Chinese people was a tactic of survival. It also showcased some major skills of creativity and adaptability of immigrants working in a new world with new ingredients.
In her recent Hulu series Taste the Nation, Padma Lakshmi spent a full episode exploring the history of Chop Suey in America, and it had me thinking a lot about the legacy of American Chinese food. Chop suey is the quintessential Chinese stir fry of the American imagination—boneless meat chopped up and tossed with a mix of vegetables and aromatics, with a slightly-sweet corn or potato starch thickened sauce. Even if you haven't had chop suey, the concept of "stir fry" in the United States cannot be separated from it. Though Lakshmi used chop suey as a jumping off point to explore the history of Chinese exclusion and inclusion in America, the overall message of the episode was that Chinese food has finally freed itself from the drudgery of chop suey joints and can now be another bougie, elevated cuisine; and that degrading Americanized Chinese food—the food invented by immigrants—is okay as long as you are Chinese. Whether this was the intended message or not, the episode left me with a feeling that the work of our elders, the immigrants who made lives in America, who invented ways of being American and ethnic all at once, are disposable.
As far as I know, I have no Chinese heritage. But as a Jew whose grandparents were immigrants—immigrants who maintained a strong sense of Yiddish, Jewish identity—I am no stranger to the pain of assimilation. In Judaism, the unleavened bread "matzo" is called "the bread of our affliction" because it was what the Israelites had to eat when they were forced to flee Egypt with none of their belongings. Chop suey is, in a sense, the food of Chinese American affliction. It was created out of necessity to survive in a hostile culture. But it's more than that. When Cantonese immigrants created Chop Suey, they were not just catering to white taste; they were carving out a space for Chinese culture intrinsic to American culture—that is, a restaurant culture uniquely Chinese American. Chop Suey is not an "authentic" dish in that it is not from any known region of China, but it is an authentically Chinese American food. And it is not purely the product of affliction; it is shaped by Cantonese flavors and methods of cookery, contextually transformed.
Simple stir fries of a generic variety, made with readily-available American meats and vegetables, are not destined to be gloopy, dark, and overly salty when made at home. They are the descendants of classic Cantonese vegetable or meat stir fries and Americanized chop sueys and are some of my favorite week night dishes.
You do not need special equipment, but you will get the best results if you have a heavy-bottom carbon steel or castiron wok. You can buy ones that have a flat bottom on the underside that work for American domestic stoves, both gas range and electric. An Asian rice cooker is also an excellent addition—it makes perfect rice every time and doesn't get in the way of stovetop cooking.
Though you can get most of these ingredients in the international section of a well-stocked chain grocery store, I urge you to check out local Asian family-owned grocery businesses for your ingredients. The variety of vegetables and flavor sauces are much better, as are the prices, and you are supporting a local business. Major Asian grocery chains 99 Ranch and H-Mart also carry some products local to their communities—here in Austin, 99 Ranch carries some specialty noodles and tofu produced in Houston.
This is really a non-recipe, more of a general guideline for how to make a weeknight stir fry that tastes restaurant-good. Pictured is a beef and Chinese cauliflower stir fry. This recipe will serve 2-4 as a meal with rice or 4+ as part of a larger family-style meal. The more ingredients you use, the more of a one-pan chop-suey-esque meal it will be. You can even mix types of meat, but follow the instructions for specific cooking methods. Pork and shrimp go well together, as do tofu and dark meat chicken.
For excellent, easy-to-make specific Chinese food recipes, Fuchsia Dunlop's Every Grain of Rice is my favorite Chinese cookbook for beginners. The websites The Woks of Life and Rasa Malaysia also have some good online recipes.
My parents' Chinese cooking has improved too since better resources have become available in English. You stir fries are not destined to disappoint, whether you are looking for "authentic" Chinese regional cuisine or typical American Chinese restaurant taste.
For the meat:
3/4 lb boneless meat such as beef, dark meat chicken, or pork, or firm tofu, cut into bite size pieces
2 tbsp potato starch
1 tbsp Shaoxing wine
1 tbsp soy sauce
For the stir fry:
Mix of vegetables cut into bite size pieces, such as: Chinese broccoli, bok choy, Chinese cauliflower, broccoli, baby corn, shiitake mushrooms, cabbage, green beans/long beans, and/or thinly sliced carrots. Cut baby bok choy into quarters.
4 cloves garlic, chopped
1.5-inch knob ginger, chopped
3 green onions, whites chopped, greens sliced for garnish
2 tbsp neutral oil, such as sunflower oil
handful of dried small red chilies (to taste)
1 tbsp sugar
1 tbsp potato starch dissolved into 1/4 cup warm water
3 tbsp Shaoxing wine
splash of soy sauce/tamari
Chicken stock, vegetable stock, or water
salt or msg, to taste
Unlike a recipe for a specific dish, this is really a series of guidelines for making consistently good stir fries even when you use different ingredients. You need to make sure the meat is cooked through but not overcooked, the aromatics are properly layered to bring out their best qualities, and the vegetables are added to the pan in the order of how long they take to cook so you don't end up with brown mushy veggies.
For fatty cuts of dark meat chicken, pork, and beef:
Cut meat into bite size cubes. Toss with the potato starch, Shaoxing wine, and soy sauce. Let sit for at least 30 minutes or up to an hour.
You will cook this meat during the one-pan cooking process
For white meat chicken, shrimp, beef tenderloin/lean beef, and quick-cooking seafood:
Marinade the meat same as above.
Sprinkle with salt and pepper.
Cook meat in 1-2 tbsp neutral oil over medium high heat. Set aside to add back into the stir fry later.
You do not have to marinade the tofu to tenderize it as you do meat. It is also already salted.
Remove the tofu from the brine or plastic wrap (if fresh). Let rest on a paper towel for 10-20 minutes to remove excess liquid.
Cut into bite-sized triangles
Fill a pan with 1/2-inch depth of a neutral high burning temperature oil, like sunflower or peanut. Cook the tofu for a few minutes on each side, until it shrinks up a bit and it golden. Let drain on a paper towel. Alternately, you could dredge the tofu in potato starch and deep fry or air fry it.
How to put it all together:
Dissolve the sugar into two tbsp warm chicken stock, then mix with the Shaoxing wine.
Bring 2 tbsp neutral oil to medium-high heat. Add the ginger and stir fry for 1 minute. Then add the garlic and onion whites and stir fry for another minute. Then add the dried peppers and stir fry one minute more.
If using a tougher meat, add it to the pan now. If using pre-cooked meat or tofu, skip this step.
Add the potato starch slurry to the pan and cook until it becomes thick and translucent. Add the sugar/wine/stock mixture.
Add the toughest, longest cooking vegetables like cauliflower, broccoli, mushrooms, and long beans first. They should be close to cooked through when you add the next layer.
Then add leafy greens such as bok choy, choy sum, and cabbage and toss for about a minute.
Finally add the cooked meat and anything that just needs to be heated through like baby corn, pea pods, canned mushrooms, canned bamboo, canned water chestnuts, and thinly sliced carrots.
If the vegetables seem dry and are not coated with the sauce, add more chicken stock and stir until the sauce is thickened and glossy again. Splash with some soy sauce (up to 1 tbsp) and salt or msg to taste.
Turn of the heat and place a cover over the wok to steam any remaining rawness and let the flavors meld, about 1-2 minutes.
Garnish with onion greens and serve with white rice.