It is not lost on me that I have a blog called “Wok with Me,” yet I have hardly posted any recipes featuring the use of a wok. Cooking with a traditional wok is quite the undertaking because it requires intensely hot and high flame, as well as a space with strong ventilation for the copious amounts of smoke produced from cooking. When I was growing up, my family cooked out of a shed that they had erected to model the way of life in the countryside of Vietnam. I remember staring through the screen door in wonder and awe as my grandpa and mom would brave the cold/heat to cook dinner for us. On more than one occasion, the makeshift shack of plywood and cardboard actually caught fire and we were afraid that our house would also burn down with it.
As a youngster, my parents, grandparents, aunts, and uncles would dissuade me from entering the kitchen. “Go and study, “ they would say. Although this was discouraging for me as a child, I now understand that their words and actions embodied sacrifice and love. In their experience, those who worked in the restaurant business had cruelly laborious lives. It was physically demanding to stand in a hot kitchen all day and the compensation was barely enough to sustain a living. So they would undertake the task of preparing meals for me to save me the trouble and physical discomfort. Still, I secretly dreamt of opening up my own restaurant someday while playing my role as a good student. Now that I have finished school, I find that family members still wish to protect me from the physical labor of being in the kitchen. Little do they know that I want to learn their recipes so that I can preserve our family’s culture and history and that I find an inexplicable joy in the simple and almost primal task of preparing my own food.
In a way, every dish I make is a nod to the experiences and people that have shaped who I am. I feel a magical connection to my ancestors and to my roots when I prepare dishes that have been handed down from generation to generation. What’s more, I feel a sense of communion with those from other cultures when I have the pleasure of sampling and cooking their foods.
Kung pao tofu is a very popularized Chinese-American dish that is often served as take-out. Honestly, I’m not sure if it is authentic Chinese cuisine or not as many fusions and blends have occurred from the meeting and mixing of cultures. I would be lying if I said that my family prepared this for me growing up. But the flavors carried by this dish are very familiar to me and I hope that you will enjoy them as well.
An essential nuance in cooking with a wok is timing and knowing which ingredients to stir fry first, which to stir-fry together, and which must be separately stir-fried and then combined later on with the sauce. Most Chinese stir fried veggie dishes start off with the browning of garlic in oil before adding the other ingredients. The problem is that the garlic will quickly burn if it is not given some liquid. To prevent burning of garlic, I usually add a splash of water to my stir-fry after adding the vegetables. Traditional Chinese cooking utilizes LOADS of oil to prevent garlic from burning, but that is a rather unhealthy approach, so I prefer my splash of water.
In stir-fries involving meat and veggies, I almost always stir-fry the meat first, remove it from the pan, and then stir fry the veggies separately. This allows proper cooking of each ingredient, as cooking them all at once will create a watery mess. They are later combined and stir-fried with the sauce, which is oftentimes soy sauce, fish sauce, oyster sauce, fermented bean sauce.
Stir-fried vegetables should always retain some level of crunch after cooking. When in doubt, I sometimes slightly undercook my veggies. That way, the residual heat will do the rest of the softening of the veggies. For people who follow a meal prep life, undercooking the veggies is a good strategy to give your veggies the perfect texture after re-heating. This is especially true for broccoli and bok choy.
Dealing with tofu can be tricky depending on its texture. I always go with firm tofu when stir-frying. Always pan-fry your tofu first: this helps to develop flavor and creates a nice crisp exterior. Skipping this step will leave you with a watery mess.
½ cup peanuts, toasted
1 tbsp oil
1 block tofu, sliced into ½ inch thick rectangles
1 tbsp oil
½ bell pepper, sliced
¼ onion, sliced
1 tbsp oil
2 cloves garlic, minced
handful of dried red chiles
2 tbsp oyster sauce
1 tsp sugar
1 bunch green onion, chopped into 1-inch pieces
Turn on oven to 300 degrees F and toast peanuts for 10-15 minutes, or until golden brown.
Meanwhile, prepare tofu.
Use paper towels to absorb excess moisture on the surfaces of the tofu pieces. Heat a skillet on medium high heat and add oil. When oil becomes shimmery, add in tofu and allow to sit in pan for 5-7 minutes until golden brown. DO NOT move the tofu until the crust has formed. Flip and repeat steps until both sides are golden brown. Set aside.
In a separate wok or pan, turn on heat to medium high and add oil. When oil becomes shimmery, add bell pepper and onion. Stir-fry for 1-2 minutes until slightly softened. Remove from wok and set aside.
Turn on a clean wok to high heat and add oil, chilies, and garlic. Sauté until garlic becomes slightly brown, and then add tofu and vegetables. Stir-fry for 1 minute to allow flavors to combine. Then add oyster sauce and sugar. Lastly, add in green onion and toasted peanuts. Serve immediately.