The Actual Meaning Behind The Term 'Stir-Fry'

Homemade stir-fry is a great anytime meal for its versatility and combination of vegetables and optional meat. But according to chef and cookbook author Grace Young (via Food & Wine), many people may not be making a stir-fry with the correct techniques, which may be attributable to how the Cantonese word for stir fry was translated into English.

There are many important steps to making a tasty stir-fry. The Woks of Life states that it starts with choosing the right ingredients. While a stir-fry can be a good way to use up odds and ends, only three to five main ingredients should be used in order to have the proper balance of flavors and textures. Once selected, it's important for ingredients to be cut to the right size for cooking, per The Woks of Life. Not all the vegetables should be cooked at the same time, advises Food Network

First to be cooked are the denser vegetables (think broccoli) and then softer vegetables like mushrooms. Some vegetables may need to be blanched or cut into very small pieces, such as carrots and broccoli, per The Woks of Life. When cooking a stir-fry that contains meat, it should be marinated before it is seared and then added back into the dish later in the process. While many versions of stir-fry call for sauce, The Woks of Life states, it's not always necessary. If a simple sauce is desired, the Food Network recommends one made of soy sauce and Chinese rice wine.

Lost in translation

As its name seems to imply, making a stir-fry involves stirring vegetables and meat in hot oil using a wok or another type of pan. However, Young, author of "Stir-Frying to the Sky's Edge," told Food & Wine that the Cantonese word of chau in regard to stir-fry refers to a motion that can best be described as tumbling. 

The translation of chau as it references stir-fry may date to the creation of the "How to Cook and Eat in Chinese" cookbook by Buwei Yang Chao in 1945, according to Cultured Palate. However, in the book, the term stir-fry was used as a verb and not a noun. When cooking a stir-fry, the vegetables and meat should be tossed continuously over high heat, so each piece is touched by the heat to create a light sear on all of the ingredients, Young advises. She also said that this cooking technique would guarantee that the ingredients have an even cook and do not burn. To achieve the right technique of quickly moving the stir-fry ingredients, use a spatula with a shovel shape, per Young. No matter the shape of the spatula, it should be made of metal.

Next time you make a stir-fry, remember to make it tumbled, not stirred.