My wok sees more use than any other tool in my kitchen, hands-down.
It isn’t pretty. It’s a “Joyce Chen”-branded model, which cost all of… maybe twenty bucks? It was the first one I saw that met my two big wok requirements (“made of carbon steel,” and “has a flat base”), and was partly purchased out of loyalty to a fellow North Cantabrigian. The seasoning is perpetually chewed-up. The wooden handle is split; the base is warped from— well, I re-seasoned it with a MAPP gas torch once. Which worked, just for the record.
See, nailing a fussy technique or a particularly steppy recipe is one kind of satisfying—using a wok the right way is another kind altogether. It is the constant pursuit of ever-hotter flames. It is the bane of sensitive-nose’d dogs and smoke alarms alike. It is the final boss of mise-en-place.
This is all to say that this recipe moves quick. Get all your ingredients prepped up-front—and it wouldn’t be excessive to line up your prep bowls in the exact order you’ll need ’em.
Cold and/or wet ingredients are sticky ingredients, and you’re gonna be working with both in this recipe and in basically any other stir-fry scenario. The solution: higher heat. Before you get started, hit your wok with a thin coat of peanut oil (or canola, if you’ve got allergy concerns) using a rag or paper towel. Crank the burner up and heat the empty pan until you start seeing wisps of smoke. Then add the spoonful of oil that you’ll be using to stir fry the first ingredient, and—you guessed it—heat it until it just starts to smoke.
You’re ready to go.
Working in Batches
Once an ingredient hits the pan, it’ll cool things down slightly. That’s good for the state of your smoke alarms, but potentially bad for your final dish. Say you’re making a huge batch of special bell peppers and beef: you’re looking to add a little char to the outside of the peppers, but keep the inside crisp and basically raw. The more you add to the wok at once, the lower the temperature is gonna drop, and the longer it’ll take to get back up to a suitable temperature—by which time your peppers will have cooked through, released a bunch of water—then steamed in that water—and won’t be able to catch a sear at all. Neither time nor temperature can save you now: in just a few short moments, you’ve ended up with mushy peppers.
The solution is to work in small batches. Grab a fistful of peppers and chuck them into your screaming hot wok, leave them alone for a second or two while the wok comes back up to temperature, toss them a couple times so they char evenly, and dump them into a second bowl. Let the empty wok come back up to heat, a quick splash of oil, a moment or two for the oil to come up to just smoking, and in goes the next batch. In an ideal situation, you’ve got a similarly screaming-hot pot of oil on the burner next to your wok—no waiting needed. Just don’t overload the “done” bowl, or residual heat will continue cooking the ingredients lower down in the pile.
There’s a second benefit to this frantic pace: cooking at lower heat makes things stick. For example, say, a big box of freshly-soaked rice noodles. You pour that all in at once and the temperature is going to plummet—by the time the surface temperature comes back up to heat, you’re gonna have a layer of noodles fused to the bottom of your wok, with a Home Depot reciept for a tank of MAPP gas and a weekend re-seasoning project on your hands. If you can keep things hot enough, though, those noodles are gonna kick off enough steam to prevent them from sticking. So again, batches: throw in a handful of noodles at a time, toss them a few times, remove to a second bowl, allow the wok to come back up to heat, add a little oil, repeat. The hotter you can get your burner, the less you’ll have to fuss with portioning—on a huge restaurant burner, you probably wouldn’t have to worry about it at all. On a home burner, well, here we are.
Now, this recipe doesn’t have a lot to it, out of the box. You’ll want to stir-fry the tofu and noodles in batches and set them aside. Fry the aromatics all at once, crack and scramble a couple eggs in there, re-add the reserved tofu and noodles, pour the sauce over it all, and toss to combine—you’re done. The last few bits—the scallion greens, bean sprouts, and crushed peanuts—you’re just softening a little, using the residual heat from the dish. I like to throw more of all of ’em on top for a little extra crunch, with—of course—a healthy scoop of red pepper flakes.
Just keep in mind that anything you add to this—and you should add stuff—will probably need the batch-and-reserve treatment as well. Broccoli and thinly sliced red peppers are a couple of personal favorites, but I’m not gonna tell you how to live your life.
1/4 C. Fish Sauce
2 Tbsp. Light Soy Sauce
2 Tbsp. Salted Radish, shreddedOptional
1 Tbsp. Tamarind Concentrate
1/4 C. Palm Sugar
2–3 tsp. Chili Flakes
3 cloves Garlic, minced
1 Shallot, minced
2 Eggs, lightly scrambled
1 package Firm Tofu, drained, pressed, and cut into thin strips
1/2 C. Roasted Peanuts, roughly chopped
11/2 C. Bean sprouts
4 Scallion Greens, chopped into 1–2 inch lengths
A few tablespoons Peanut oil
Soak the noodles in hot water until they’ve almost reached the desired softness. This usually takes fifteen to twenty minutes for me. Whisk together fish sauce, light soy sauce, tamarind concentrate, palm sugar, and chili flakes.
Over high heat, add tablespoon of peanut oil to your wok and heat until just smoking. Working in small batches, quickly stir-fry tofu until just golden, remove to a paper towel, and set aside. Do the same with any other optional ingredients.
Working quickly, repeat this process with aromatics—stir-fry the shallot until just starting to brown, then add garlic and cook until golden. Add salted radish, cooking for just a few seconds. Add eggs, scrambling and breaking them apart with chopsticks or a plastic fork. Add noodles, tofu, and any additional ingredents, then re-whisk and add sauce mixture, tossing and stirring to coat. Cook just until noodles have reached desired softness; it should only take a minute or two. Add a splash of water if necessary.
Fold in scallion greens, peanuts, and bean sprouts off heat.
Serve with lime wedges and additional chili flakes.