Cantonese Cooking 101: Stir-fries

I look what I am and there is no denying that I am Chinese, specifically Cantonese. Although I grew up in Sydney, I also grew up within a Cantonese family environment. We had rice for dinner pretty much every night of the week, although my lunchbox would be filled with sandwiches for school during the day. Frequent visits to Hong Kong (plus a short stint living there) as a child opened my eyes to a different part of the world, a different pace of life, bright lights and a whole new subset of food that was part of my culture but not available in Sydney.

When it comes to cooking Cantonese food I do not follow any recipes and neither does my mother. Skills are learnt through observation and practise, and my mother has never actually ‘taught’ me to cook. And although there are many cooking methods – shallow-frying, deep-frying, steaming, stewing, braising, boiling – the Cantonese don’t traditionally bake and ovens didn’t, and in Asia often still do not, feature in their kitchens. Almost everything can be done stove top and by far the most used cooking technique is stir-frying.

Commonly the types of stir-fries seen in the home contain one meat with one vegetable. A frequent misconception is that there are several types of vegetables in the one dish as seen when dining out, which makes for lots of time-consuming chopping when trying to replicate at home. It is important that the vegetable pieces are cut roughly to the same size for even cooking but, as with all cuisines, there is a valley of difference between home and restaurant cooking and Cantonese cooking is no exception.

With home stir-fries, the most important aspects in my opinion would have to be timing and the marinade. Timing really is something that can only come through practice and through getting to know your stove top and how much heat is transferred by your pots, pans and wok. No, I don’t always stir-fry in a wok – a wide but deep saucepan can often work just as well. Ginger is optional except for when dealing with seafood and, no, we don’t throw spring onion segments into our home stir-fries. (And when spring onions are used as a garnish, they are always sliced on the horizontal and never on a diagonal.)

To time meat and vegetables to cook evenly, I often see my mother brown the meat first in a hot pan until it looks 80-90% cooked before fishing it out. She then cooks the vegetables to around 70-80% cooked before returning the meat to the pan. Any additional seasoning, if required, such as salt or oyster sauce are added at this stage before the whole lot is tossed a few more times until everything is cooked through. This is the process that I have inherited and use as well.

As for the marinade, except for specific dishes, each household normally has an all-purpose formula regardless of whether they are cooking beef, chicken or pork. (Cantonese do not traditionally consume lamb or goat as the local terrain lacks large expanses of grass required for grazing.) The marinade provides flavour to the meat as well as accompanying vegetables. It revolves around, but is not limited to, any combination of light soy sauce, dark soy sauce, sugar, cornstarch, sesame oil and white pepper. Salt is never used to marinate beef as it apparently makes the meat tough.

The proportions of marinade ingredients will vary from family to family and due to personal tastes. Mine is different from my mother’s as well as my mother-in-law’s. Shaoxing rice wine (紹興酒), when used, is usually added during cooking rather than to the marinade itself. Different brands of soy sauce will have differing levels of saltiness, so get to know your ingredients and adjust the amounts below according to your preferences.

What about that oft quoted term ‘breath of wok’ (鑊氣)? It’s something that is considered hard to replicate at home as the heat output of domestic stoves, regardless of whether gas or electric, is inferior to that of commercial ones. However gas cooking is preferable as it makes stir-frying easier due to faster heat up and cool down times. Here, I share with you the marinade that is used in my household. Recipes for stir-fries will come in future posts.

My All-purpose Cantonese Marinade (for 200-300g meat)

·         ½ tsp sugar
·         ½ tsp potato OR corn starch (Potato starch, available from Asian grocers, is finer in texture and is less claggy than corn starch)
·         2 tbs light soy
·         1 tbs dark soy
·         1 tsp sesame oil (optional)

Place sugar and starch in a medium bowl before pouring in soy sauces and mixing to combine. Add sliced meat to the bowl and turn a few times to make sure all slices are evenly coated – there should be no residual marinade pooling at the bottom of the bowl. If using, add sesame oil before turning meat again to evenly coat. Set aside to marinate for 20-30 minutes prior to cooking.

happy cooking!


  1. I love stir fries - and thank you for sharing your all around marinade recipe! What does the cornstarch do?

  2. Great post! I'm ashamed to say that although I'm Cantonese, I can't cook Cantonese food to save my life! Really must get my mum to teach me someday...

  3. Great tips! I do stir-fries quite a bit (because of my indolence!), and your marinade is ideal for most situations. Cheers!

  4. I've always batled with stir fries, i think as a result of my mother doing a chinese cooking course and subsequently od'ing on them!

    @Trissa the cornstarch is to thicken the sauce

  5. We got given a wok for xmas, after years of just using our big pan. Apparently this means we'll have to cook more stir fries! Yay!

  6. Yay! High-five to a Cantonese/Hong Kong blogger :) I'm pretty sure my mother uses that same marinade!

  7. Gotta love a good stir-fry! You're right, it's pretty hard to get the wok hei at home, especially if you're like me and have a crappy electric stove top and a teeny tiny wok!

  8. Thanks for the cooking lesson :) My wok situation is woeful - I have a nice seasoned wok but my electric stove is absolutely useless. I am thinking of buying one of those portable gas cookers from a camping shop for my wok use!

  9. my dad cooks so many stir fries and i have yet to pick up a wok and make my own! you've written a great piece based on your observations - i can identify with you on so many levels!

  10. So, so true about skills being learnt from observation. My mum is now handing over recipes in written form which is really lovely to have! :D

  11. I love Cantonese food and Schezuan. Please don't ask me for specifics. I love them. Looking forward to the recipes....and thanks for the feet congratulations :-) You spurred me on!

  12. Can't live without stir-fry and wok!

  13. u r so right abt the non measurement part of chinese cooking :)

  14. I love a good stir-fry! But hate it when restaurants add tons of onion as a cheap filler.

  15. Congrats on your new job. I hope you enjoy it, make a few new, good colleagues and learn a lot! Best wishes

  16. The 'wok hei' is certainly an elusive thing. I don't think I've ever had it at home, let alone at my mother's! Thanks for the sauce recipe, very useful.

  17. "We had rice for dinner pretty much every night of the week, although my lunchbox would be filled with sandwiches for school during the day." <-- ditto to that! :)

    My parents had a food business when I was a teenager, and so I learnt to stir fry on commercial gas wok burners. There was so much heat the food would cook in 5 minutes! You're right about it being difficult to replicate at home - I still miss those wok burners.

  18. Oh that is so interesting! I've always wondered what the magical, secret ingredients are to Chinese stir fry! Thanks so much for this!!!!

  19. Hey Trissa, you're welcome =) The cornstarch is to seal in the meat's juices and to thicken any juices from the vegetables to become a 'sauce'.

    Hey Jacq, start with stir-fries - easier than you may think!

    Hey Joey, stir-fries are under-rated as a lazy option but are incredibly tasty!

    Hey Reemski, don't compare yours to your mother's - they'll be different and better in their own ways!

    Hey Fiona, yay for a new wok! And don't limit it to just stir-fries, they're also great for steaming and stewing.

    Hey AY, thanks for dropping by =) And haha, the marinades are all pretty similar hey?!

    Hey Steph, the 'wok hei' thing is better now that I live somewhere with a gas cooktop but it's never the same as eating out where they have a burner as wide as the wok itself!

    Hey Conor, I've heard those portable gas burners can be quite good. I've known people to do their stir-fries in the backyard or on the back porch on them!

    Hey Panda, thank you =) And make sure you make a stir-fry sometime. I started off with baking because my mother doesn't, but we can't live off cake eternally!

    Hey Lorraine, lucky you! I don't think I'll ever receive any recipes in written form...

    Hey Kitchen Butterfly, so glad to see that you got feet =) And thanks, the job involves a lot of learning at the moment so hopefully it just gets easier as time goes on!

    Hey Ellie, I know - what would I cook for dinner if I didn't make stir-fries even some of the time!

    Hey Betty, not for home cooking anyway! I'm sure in respected restaurants that they have a secret recipe for everything.

    Hey Jen, thanks for swinging by =) I know, I've been to restaurants where the only 'vegetables' are onion!

    Hey Belle, you're most welcome! I agree, the 'wok hei' thing isn't even worth sweating over at home.

    Hey Agnes, commercial cooking is a whole different experience hey? The heat extends all the way up the sides of the wok and everything is flash fried!

    Hey Trisha, not exactly the magic formula but it is a start for home cooking =)

  20. My parents purchased a commercial wok burner - it's a turbo gas stove top that sits outside our house. It's SO Asian! But it's awesome!

  21. Hey Jade, that IS so Asian =) But if it produces good food...!


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