When he returned from his post-college travels, I asked my son David what food impressed him the most. He said it was the food of rural south-west China, where he was brought into kitchens to indicate items he wanted from an array of fresh vegetables and meats.
The chefs then cooked his selection quickly in woks. He described the woks as sitting into holes in a stone-like surface. When a chef lifted a wok off its hole, the flames below shot up, reaching higher than the chef's head.
The wok has been used in China over the past 2,000 years, but it is only in the past 30 or 40 years that it has found its way into the kitchens around the world. Essentially, it is a frying pan with high sides, the advantage of the high sides being that there is plenty of room to toss the ingredients together. If you don't have a wok, a large frying pan can be used effectively instead for stir-frying.
High heat is vital for cooking in a wok. A gas cooker is the most effective as the flames will lick up the sides and give a greater hot area. Because of the speed of the cooking, the food used must be tender and prepared in advance, with the ingredients cut into small, similar-sized shapes so they cook evenly. A handy tip for hard vegetables such as carrots and broccoli: once they are chopped and prepared for the wok, blanch them. In other words, cook them quickly for a few minutes in a saucepan of boiling water, then immediately plunge the vegetables into a bowl of cold water to refresh them and to arrest the cooking progress. Spread the blanched food on a plate to ensure it cools until you are ready to cook in the wok.
Pad Thai is one of Thailand's national dishes. Stir-fried rice noodles are combined with egg, fish sauce -- known as nam pla -- tamarind juice or lemon juice, red chilli peppers and other ingredients -- as with all traditional recipes, there are many variations. If rice noodles are not readily available, use egg noodles. Some versions of pad Thai include chicken as well as prawns: to include chicken in this recipe, see the note below. Serves two to three.
You will need:
125g (4 1/2oz) rice noodles
3 tablespoons lime juice
1/2 teaspoon cayenne pepper
2 teaspoons light brown sugar
2 tablespoons fish sauce (nam pla)
2 tablespoons vegetable oil
1-2 garlic cloves, chopped
1 baby bok choy, sliced
200g (7oz) cooked tiger prawn tails
4 spring onions, chopped
15g (1/2oz) salted peanuts
Handful fresh coriander, coarsely chopped
Sweet chilli sauce (optional), to serve
Wedges of lime, to serve
Firstly, prepare all your ingredients, and place them within easy reach of the cooker.
Put the rice noodles in a bowl and cover with boiling water for four minutes, then drain them and refresh under cold running water. If you are using egg noodles instead, prepare them according to the packet's instructions and refresh them in the same way, under cold running water.
Put the lime juice, the cayenne pepper, the light brown sugar and the fish sauce into a bowl and mix well.
Heat the vegetable oil in a wok or large frying pan and fry the chopped garlic and the sliced baby bok choy until they have softened. Then add the tiger prawn tails and toss and cook to heat them right through. Add the chopped spring onions and the cooked drained noodles. Pour in the lime juice mixture, the salted peanuts and half the chopped fresh coriander. Cook for a minute or so until everything is piping hot. Pile on to hot plates and scatter with the remaining chopped fresh coriander.
Accompany with the sweet chilli sauce if you are using it. Decorate with the lime wedges.
To include chicken, use one 175g (6oz) breast, cut into small chunks. Add to the wok along with the chopped garlic. Cook, stirring, for three or four minutes, then add in the baby bok choy and continue as above.
Inspired by a recipe of Jamie Oliver's, this recipe uses spices which add great flavour to some nice beef. Szechuan pepper has a good tongue-tingling effect and the five-spice powder has a special, slightly aniseed flavour. Serves four.
You will need:
2 x 250g (9oz) rib-eye steaks
1 teaspoon Szechuan pepper
Chinese five-spice powder
2cm (3/4in) piece fresh root ginger, grated
1/2 red chilli, finely chopped
1 garlic clove, chopped
For the noodles, you will need:
400g (14oz) medium egg noodles
Squeeze lemon juice
1-2 tablespoons runny honey
Squeeze lime juice
Salt and freshly ground black pepper
Put the rib-eye steaks on a chopping board and cut them into thick fingers. Transfer them into a bowl. Sprinkle the Szechuan pepper and the five-spice powder over the meat, rubbing them in and then tossing everything well together. Then add the grated fresh ginger, the finely chopped chilli and the chopped garlic. Toss again, ensuring the meat is fully coated, then leave to reast for 15-30 minutes so that the flavours can mingle.
Prepare the egg noodles according to the packet's instructions, then drain them well.
Meanwhile, using a piping hot wok or frying pan, heat some olive oil and fry the fingers of spice-coated meat in small lots. Quickly brown the outside of the meat, then lift the browned meat fingers out on to a warm plate. Add the cooked noodles to the wok -- if you prefer, you can wipe out the wok first and add a little fresh olive oil. Toss the noodles to heat them through, then add a squeeze of lemon juice, a spoon or two of runny honey and a squeeze of lime juice. Season with some salt and freshly ground black pepper.
Divide the mixture between four serving plates and place the pieces of fried steak on top.
NASI GORENG (MALAY FRIED RICE)
Serves two to three.
You will need:
Olive oil for frying
1-2 red chillies, chopped
4 shallots or 1 small onion, finely chopped
1 garlic clove, chopped
150g (5oz) mushrooms, chopped
200-250g (7-9oz) cooked basmati rice
2 tablespoons soy sauce
2 tablespoons chilli sauce, sweet if you prefer
2 tablespoons brown sugar
Cucumber slices, to serve
A little sesame oil, to serve (optional)
Whisk the eggs together. Using a wok or a frying pan, heat a tablespoon of the olive oil . Add half the whisked-egg mixture and fry it to make a thin, flat omelette. Lift the omelette out and repeat with the remaining egg. Roll up each omelette and slice in 1cm (?in) slices -- this will give you ribbon-like strips. Keep the omelette strips warm.
Heat another tablespoon or two of the oil and cook the chopped chillies, the finely chopped shallots or onion, whichever you are using, the chopped garlic and the chopped mushrooms, until they are soft, stirring them frequently for about four minutes. Then add the cooked basmati rice and stir it through, cooking again until everything is hot -- this should take about two minutes. Meanwhile, mix the soy sauce and the chilli sauce together, then stir in the brown sugar until it dissolves. Add this mixture to the basmati rice and stir well.
Pile the rice mixture on to two or three plates and scatter the omelette ribbons on top. Garnish with cucumber slices and drizzle with a tiny bit of sesame oil, if you are using it.
SZECHUAN VEGETABLE STIR FRY
The choice of vegetables can vary so easily in a stir-fry. The selection here is for green vegetables. Serves two or three.
For the paste, you will need:
Grated zest of 1 lime
Juice of 1/2 lime
2.5cm (1in) fresh ginger, peeled and grated
1/2 teaspoon five-spice powder
1-2 teaspoons sweet soy sauce or sweet chilli sauce
For the stir-fry, you will need:
1 tablespoon vegetable oil
1-2 heads baby bok choy, sliced
110g (4oz) broccoli florets, thick stalks removed
125g (4?oz) baby asparagus
1-2 tablespoons light soy sauce
75g (3oz) mangetout, cut down the centre
3 spring onions, sliced
50g (2oz) frozen peas, thawed
1 tablespoon fresh chives, chopped
Small handful fresh coriander, chopped
To make the paste, in a bowl, mix together the grated lime zest, the lime juice, the grated ginger, the five-spice powder and the sweet soy sauce or sweet chilli sauce, whichever you are using.
Using a wok or a frying pan, heat the vegetable oil over a medium-high heat and add the sliced baby bok choy, the broccoli florets and the baby asparagus. Add one tablespoon of the light soy sauce and stir-fry for one minute.
Then add the mangetout, the sliced spring onions and the thawed peas. Stir in the paste mixture. Continue cooking for another two minutes, or until the vegetables are just tender. Add the remaining light soy sauce, the chopped fresh chives and the chopped fresh coriander. Taste and adjust the seasoning. Serve immediately as a side dish to grilled fish or meat or just serve simply with some noodles.
GOLDEN CHICKEN AND PINEAPPLE CURRY IN A WOK
Chicken and pineapple make a typical Thai combination. If you can, use a fresh pineapple as it has such a wonderful taste. The finished dish is a lovely yellow colour, with flecks of the red chilli. The coarsely chopped coriander scattered on top provides extra colour. Serve with egg noodles or with rice. Serves two.
You will need:
1-2 tablespoons sunflower oil
2-3 tablespoons shallots or onion, finely chopped
1 tablespoon green curry paste
1/2 stick lemongrass, finely grated
1 teaspoon fresh root ginger, grated
1 garlic clove, chopped
1/4 teaspoon ground coriander
1/4 long thin red chilli, deseeded and chopped finely
2 skinless 250g (9oz) chicken breast fillets, cut in chunks
125ml (generous 4fl oz) coconut milk
75ml (3fl oz) chicken stock
250g (9oz) chopped fresh pineapple (see note)
1 tablespoon fish sauce (optional)
175g-200g (6-7oz) egg noodles, cooked as directed on the packet and kept warm
Small handful fresh coriander, chopped, to serve
Fresh pineapple needs to be peeled with a sharp knife -- peel enough to cut away the bits of brown in the uneven skin. The central core of the pineapple needs to be cut away and discarded also. Cut the flesh into chunks approximately the same size as those you'd find in a tin of pineapple chunks. The weight given here is for prepared pineapple.
Using a non-stick wok or frying pan, heat the sunflower oil and add in the chopped shallots or onion, whichever you are using. Fry them until they are golden, then add in the green curry paste, the finely grated lemongrass, the grated root ginger, the chopped garlic, the ground coriander and the finely chopped chilli. Cook gently together for a minute or two. Then add in the chicken breast chunks and continue to cook gently, stirring frequently, until all the chicken has lost its raw look.
Next, add in the coconut milk, the chicken stock, the fresh pineapple, and the fish sauce, if you are using it. Bring to the boil and simmer very gently for 5-10 minutes to blend all the flavours together. Serve each portion on a bed of the cooked egg noodles and scatter with some of the chopped fresh coriander.