Food & Drink | JAPANESE KITCHEN

How Chinese stir-frying snuck into Japanese homes

by Makiko Itoh

Special To The Japan Times

Stir-frying, often thought to be a part of all East and Southeast Asian cuisines, has a fairly short history in Japan. The method of rapidly cooking chopped food in oil over a hot fire was first introduced to the country by Chinese immigrants in the Meiji Period (1868-1912). This was the era when restaurants serving mainly Cantonese-style cuisine started appearing in Tokyo and other big cities. However, in the days of wood-burning stoves — where heat could not be regulated easily — stir-frying was thought to require professional skills. Home cooks in Japan knew how to steam-cook, stew food in liquid or grill food over charcoal, but stir-frying was not part of their skill set.

It was only as gas-powered cooking stoves with instant on-off cooking heat became common in the latter half of the 1950s that stir-frying became ubiquitous in Japanese kitchens. (The same goes for deep-frying, which was introduced by the Portuguese in the 16th century but remained a cooking method of professionals until the mid-20th century.) Indeed, chūka ryōri, Chinese-style cooking adapted to Japanese tastes, has only been popular in Japan for about the same length of time as yōshoku, which refers to similarly adapted European-style cooking.

Although woks are a common sight in Japanese homes, it’s still not that easy to produce great stir-fried food in a typical kitchen. Unless you have a special high-heat burner meant for wok cooking, it’s almost impossible to get a wok hot enough for proper stir-frying on a typical gas burner — and it’s even harder if you have an induction heat (IH) cooktop.

I think stir-frying works best if you use a frying pan that has a wide, flat bottom that allows for maximum contact with the heat source. It’s also best to stir-fry the ingredients separately, depending on how long each takes to cook, and then to put everything together at the end. Another point that goes against convention is to use fairly low heat — no more than medium on a typical home cooktop — rather than the very high heat used in professional kitchens. Lower heat will give an amateur more time to cook each ingredient properly. And even though a seasoned cast-iron pan is ideal, an aluminum frying pan with a non-stick surface — which should never be used over very high heat — can be used with this method, too. Even a low-powered cooktop in a tiny apartment kitchen is fine, since high heat isn’t needed.

The recipe here is for a miso-flavored stir-fry that demonstrates how ingredients with different cooking times come together at the end. Eggplants are delicious in September, and pork is rich in the B-vitamins that may help your body recover from summer fatigue. It goes really well with plain rice.


Recipe: Miso stir-fry with pork, eggplant, tomato and onions

Serves 2 to 4

Ingredients

  • 200-gram pork shoulder (about two boneless cutlets or escalopes, sold as kata-rosu in supermarkets)
  • 4 small eggplants
  • 2 medium onions
  • 2 medium firm tomatoes
  • 1 piece (about 1.5-cm long) ginger
  • 1 red chili pepper
  • 2 teaspoons sesame oil
  • 1 tablespoon vegetable oil
  • 1 tablespoon sake
  • 2 teaspoons katakuriko (potato starch) or cornstarch
  • 1 tablespoon red miso
  • 2 teaspoons sugar
  • 2 tablespoons water
  • Salt and pepper
  • Green onion for garnish

Slice the eggplants into quarters lengthwise, then cut in half. Put the sliced eggplant in a bowl of water to cover with a pinch of salt and let soak for at least 10 minutes.

Cut the pork into bite-size pieces. Sprinkle with salt, pepper and sake, and coat with the katakuriko or cornstarch.

Cut the tomatoes into wedges and de-seed. Cut the onions into wedges. Finely chop the ginger and chili pepper.

Drain the eggplant well, pat dry with paper towels and place on a microwave-safe plate. Sprinkle with one teaspoon of sesame oil. Cover with plastic wrap and microwave on the high setting for five minutes. (This minimizes the amount of oil needed to stir-fry the eggplant until it’s cooked through.)

Mix the miso, sugar, one teaspoon of sesame oil and water together.

Heat up a frying pan over medium heat with half the vegetable oil. Add the onion and stir-fry until it is translucent around the edges. Add the ginger and chili pepper, then add the eggplant and stir-fry until it is tender and cooked through. Remove the pan’s contents.

Add the rest of the vegetable oil to the frying pan over medium heat. Add the pork in a single layer, and fry until cooked through. Add the onions and eggplants back to the pan with the tomatoes, and stir-fry until the tomato skins start to look a bit wrinkled. Add the miso sauce and stir through. Serve garnished with chopped green onion or shredded shiso (perilla) leaves.