The real title of this month’s article is Dr. Strangelove or: How I Learned to Stop Worrying and Love Stir-fry. Alas, that name is too long for the space provided. Indeed, life in China is strange love for me. From my first days here until three years later, my perspective about this culture, its people, the quality of their lives and mine, and my place within it have all changed phenomenally. After confusion, resistance, apathy and then acceptance, I’ve begun to experience a new phase of cultural integration – pleasure. One day, without being aware of its happening, I realized that I really like living in China.
Most of my resistance had to do with language barriers compounding on my lacking knowledge of China’s history and culture. I noticed people staring at me but rarely understood what they said, or whether whispering was about me or not. All of the frustration, sincerity and humor I heard in the tonal language made no sense beyond that level. On top of that, due to the different ways of using tone for meaning in Chinese, I misinterpreted constantly, thinking people were arguing when they were only speaking loudly or that a pleasant response meant that they were happy to help me with something. My first days were filled with confusion and a lot of skepticism.
As I began learning more Chinese, I started to make sense of context, even without all the details. Context gave me more than just tone, and I soon realized that so many seemingly complicated verbal situations in my daily life were really about trivial things all along. As I opened up to more people and became more familiar with social situations among another culture, I made some real friends and I’ve discovered the complex but abundant generosity of China’s people.
It’s more than just communication. Though, that has conjured this strange love. At first annoyed and often overwhelmed by being constantly surrounded by so many people, I’ve learned to adjust and even have fun with the people dodging and watching. My commute to work is an unavoidable reality in my life, so I find ways to enjoy it, like listening to hip hop or classical music as I shut out the noises and turn the swarms of people moving around me into a pulsing beat or symphony of humanity. When I really take in the scenes around me, I start to notice the beauty in watching a woman lovingly pick the pimples off her boyfriend’s arm, some rebellious graffiti or even the KTV- induced lowering of inhibitions of a people usually painfully reserved.
But really, it was food that first conjured romantic feelings in China. I’ve been adventurous with food for most of my adult life, and it took me a long time to tire of Chinese food once here. Of course, most people can only eat standard cafeteria dishes or large quantities of rice and noodles for so long, but living in large cities has exposed me to an endless variety of Chinese food. Of course, I have my limits. I don’t often eat the organ meat or body parts I’m not used to consuming, like feet and eyes. But I’ve tried almost everything put in front of me at least a first time, and I’ve found some mouth-watering dishes along the way. Dim sum, shaokao, hot pot, Lanzhou la mian, Dongbei food, Hunan food, Sichuan food, Cantonese soup – the list goes on of reasons why I will always love eating in this country.
Even my cooking style has changed. Much like my way of interpreting and enjoyment of the people around me has improved, my ability to understand and make Chinese food has changed beyond recognition. I used to make soupy stir-frys with overcooked and soggy vegetables or over salt almost every attempt. But by eating it enough, and thinking about how different dishes might have been made, I began to realize that stir-fry is about a changing of face. Just like a shy Chinese woman can unleash her inner tigress when pushed, stir-fry is about changing the face of things without changing the real substance. It’s slight crisping and glazing of the outer layer of vegetables, tofu and meat while the inside is softened but otherwise untouched by the hot oil they’re cooked in. Sauces are to be added in so that they only add to softening parts, not saturating them. Once I realized that you can always add more but cannot take a liquid out of a wok, I was on my way to understanding stir-fry.
An article with a name like this one’s should end with a big bang, so this stir-fry recipe’s guaranteed to light a fire in your Chinese cooking confidence, as well as all over your taste buds, because the spice of China is one my favorite parts. Of course, for the more intolerant among you, omit the la jiao. And because stir-fry is a way of cooking rather than a specific dish, I’m leaving this one up to your imagination and creative juices, with a few suggestions.
Dr. Stir Fizzle
- Oil for high heat
- 2 cups hard/crunchy vegetable (lotus root, bell pepper) (or substitute 1 cup with meat or tofu)
- 1.5 cups softer vegetable (green bean, broccoli)
- 1-2 teaspoons soy sauce
- 1-2 teaspoons black rice vinegar
- 1 tablespoon hot chili oil
- Heat wok over high heat. Add oil to hot pan. Add chili oil and heat through.
- Add the hard/crunchy vegetables. Sauté, stirring constantly, until beginning to brown.
- Add the soft vegetables and continue to brown.
- Add soy sauce, vinegar and more chili oil, if needed.
- Combine thoroughly and let juices create a slight glaze on the browned vegetables. Remove from heat and serve with rice.
Serving Size: 2-3 people. Serve with hot tea or Chinese beer.