Food & Drink

Stir-frying begins with focus on heat, pan, ingredients

Stir-frying is one of the easiest ways to cook Southeast Asian food, but it helps to know a few tips.

Enter Pranee Khruasanit Halvorsen, a Thai-born woman now living in Seattle who teaches cooking classes through her I Love Thai Cooking business.

Pranee says you don’t necessarily need a wok to stir fry. In fact, while using a wok on a gas range works, most woks are too thin to use successfully on an electric range.

The best pans for electric range owners, Pranee says, are cast iron or heavy-duty stainless steel pans with layered bottoms such as those made by All-Clad.

High heat is critical. She recommends heating the wok on the stove’s “high” setting and placing your hand 6 inches above the pan. When you can feel the heat, then add the oil.

Use peanut oil, canola, rice oil or another oil with a high smoking point. Olive oil’s smoking point is too low.

When the oil begins to smoke, toss in the ingredients according to recipe directions and continually stir.

“You want the heat to get directly to vegetables,” she said. “The flavor of stir fry has to be from high heat.”

How long to fry depends on how soft or crisp you want the vegetables.

Asian palates prefer crunchy vegetables, which means 1 to 3 minutes of frying. And don’t stir-fry more than three or four cups of vegetables at a time.

It should go without saying, but cooks need to have ingredients chopped and ready to add before starting the frying.

Nancy Hebb, director of Bayview School of Cooking, advises sticking to recipe ingredients as much as possible.

Practically any Southeast Asian ingredient could be substituted with something found in a standard Western store. But, Hebb warns: Be careful. “It’s all right to substitute one ingredient, but when you are substituting it you start compromising it.”

Switch too many ingredients, she said, “and by the end of the dish it’s not the same.”

Pranee, who offers class-trips to the Seattle International District’s markets, suggests a homework assignment for beginners. “Go to the Asian grocery store and get familiar with the ingredients.”

Here are some common ingredients in Southeast Asian cooking, with descriptions from Pranee and Hebb. It helps to know the native names to decipher recipes and locate the items on store shelves.

Fish sauce. Called “nam pla” in Thai and “nuoc mam” inVietnamese. The Thai version is stronger and darker than the Vietnamese variety; can be used interchangeably if you have one and not the other.

Tamarind concentrate. Tamarind is a fruit, a dried pod filled with seeds and a fibrous pulp. The pulp is infused with hot water to make tamarind juice. Tamarind in stores is available in jars as a puree or concentrate.

Kaffir lime leaves. Leaves that have a lime-like aroma and taste. They are sometimes found fresh in Asian markets, but can be frozen to use as needed. Recipes often say “kaffir lime,” but refer to the leaves.

Coconut milk. If buying canned coconut milk, be aware that the liquid may have separated, resulting in a thick, paste-like cream on the top when the can is first opened.

That thick cream portion can be scooped up and used in recipes calling for coconut cream. For recipes calling for coconut milk, you can use all the liquid after whisking it.

Palm sugar. A sugar made from the nectar of palm tree flowers. It has a caramel-like taste similar to brown sugar.

Lemongrass. A pungent, citrus-flavored herb with long green stalks.

Galangal. Similar to ginger, it’s a rhizome available in a variety of forms, including the root, dried slices or powder. It’s also known as Thai ginger.

Turmeric. A root with brown skin and deep orange flesh that’s commonly available as a root or powder.

Swamp morning glory. A green leafy vegetable that grows in marshy areas near lakes and canals. It’s known by several other names, including swamp cabbage or Chinese water spinach. It’s called pak bung in Thailand, trokun in Cambodia, rau muong in Vietnam, kang kong in Malaysia or ong choy in China.

It’s in the same family but different from the morning glory with the white blossoms that climbs up South Sound fences.

Vietnamese mint or Vietnamese coriander. A leafy herb called rau ram in Vietnam, laksa in Singapore and Malaysia, and chi pong tia kon in Cambodia.

Debby Abe: 253-597-8694