Being of Asian descent, you’d think it would be ingrained in me as how to make a good stir fry. Not so, my friend. Sure, I’m ethnically Indonesian, but that doesn’t mean much when you’re born and raised in the States, even if your mom did most of the cooking when you were a child.
More than three decades of life later, I finally decided it was time to figure this out and am happy to report: I have found my stir fry mojo.
When you live in a small town in Montana that has nary a stop light on the main drag – not even a stop sign – you find out real fast that if you want some ethnic cooking, you’re gonna have to do it yourself.
To me, getting the seasoning, the sauce, the heart of the recipe correct is the biggest goal because the ingredients that the flavor envelopes can be (mostly) substituted, even with what are considered non-traditional food items. I’ve tried following recipes before and they’ve turned out fine, but the seasoning of my previous stir fry attempts have never reached that just-so seasoning sweet spot for me. I’ve used hoisin, mirin, soy sauce, sesame seed oil, just about everything, but something has never been quite right. What am I missing?
I did some research online and decided to get back to the basics, something salty and sweet: only using soy sauce (or Bragg’s Liquid Aminos) and sugar for the seasoning. That first attempt at the basics turned out surprisingly well! Then I took another look in my pantry and found a couple of bottles of kecap manis, Indonesian sweet soy sauce, that my mom had gifted me when I moved. Well, why don’t I use that since it’s has both soy sauce and sugar in it together?
Thus was born the heart of my current stir fry flavoring. For a single serving, I start with a few slow swirls of kecap manis (say: KEH-chahp MAHN-ees), a quick circle or two of Bragg’s Liquid Aminos, sometimes a small shake of mushroom seasoning for enhanced umami, and plenty of Sriracha because we like it toasty in this household. When I remember or if I’m feeling slightly indulgent, I’ll add the slightest drizzle of sesame oil (less than 1/8 teaspoon) though I’ll only do this just before serving otherwise the heat completely removes the flavor.
Our Costco (more than an hour drive away, mind you) used to sell these fantastic packets of fresh udon noodles by Annie Chun that would last a long time. Sadly, they’re no longer carried there. Thankfully my parents and brother road tripped it up recently and brought me packets of fresh noodles that can used on a whim or frozen for later! I like single serving fresh noodle packs because it takes the guesswork out of how many noodles are needed.
I’ve tried seasoning the vegetables first then adding the noodles last, or making the sauce right in the pan before putting anything in – you name it – and I still like to season the noodles first similar to how I learned how to make pad thai oh so long ago. After mixing the seasoning and coating the noodles with the sauce, the vegetables that take the longest to cook go in first; the ones that are quick to cook, last (usually ends up being the rest of the vegetables).
I prefer to cook without oil in a non-stick pan but that doesn’t mean you don’t have to leave it out. If you do want to try cooking with water, it’s not hard though the key is to have a cup of warm water nearby to continually add to the pan before the food starts sticking.
It took me a while, but the sauce really comes together at the very end when you let as much of the water boil off as you can dare. When cooking with oil, this isn’t so bad, but with only water? Make sure you’re constantly moving the food around in the pan to aid in the water evaporation and to prevent the food from sticking – this part always happens faster than I think it will! Have a bowl or plate ready to be a temporary home for the stir fry on its way to your belly.
My Signature Veggie Stir Fry
Makes one generous serving
- Glass of warm water on hand
- 1 packet of cooked noodles
- Kecap manis (*see recipe notes if you don’t have this*)
- Bragg’s Liquid Aminos or another soy sauce/substitute
- Mushroom seasoning, optional
- Sriracha hot sauce or other chili sauce, optional
- Your choice of vegetables; or what I used in the photos:
- About 2 handfuls of broccoli, bite-size pieces
- 4-5 mushrooms, sliced or quartered
- 4-5 asparagus, bite-size pieces
- Handful of cut bell peppers, bite-size pieces
- A few thin slices of red cabbage
- Toasted sesame oil, optional
- Green onions for garnish, optional
Add water to your favorite non-stick pan/skillet/wok so the bottom is just covered by a thin layer of water (this is the amount you’re aiming to keep it at during the whole session – except at the very end! – for oil-free cooking). Place the pan on med-high to high heat. (As you’re waiting for the water to reach almost boiling, this is the time to start loosening up your packet up fresh noodles with warm water. Sometimes I fill a bowl with hot water and put the packet in it to soak up the warmth before opening.) When the water is almost boiling, add the noodles to the pan and keep turning and flipping it in order to gently break it up. You’ll keep adding water to the pan during this process. If the noodles aren’t loosening up fast enough (this should only take a couple of minutes max), then turn up the heat and continue adding water as needed. Once the noodles are practically all loose, add the seasonings: 2-3 slow swirls of kecap manis, a quick squirt of Bragg’s, and quick shake of mushroom seasoning (latter is optional). If you like it hot, add the Sriracha now (I usually do 3 or more quick swirls of this because I like it spicy). Quickly mix the seasonings to coat the noodles; be sure to add more water as needed.
Add the vegetables that will need more time to cook; keep adding water as needed and move things around every 30 seconds or so to check the water level and make sure things don’t stick. When the first group of vegetables are halfway done or more, add the rest of them and continue to check and add water. When the last group of vegetables is almost cooked, add the tiniest drizzle of toasted sesame oil (optional), turn the heat up if it’s not already all the way up, and keep stirring until practically all the water is gone in order to thicken the sauce (see recipe notes).
Quickly turn off the heat and plate the stir fry. Add any garnishing as needed and devour as soon as it’s cool enough to eat!
- If you can find some fresh, vacuum-packed noodles, more power to you – just give them a rinse in warm to hot water then in the pan it goes. Like I mentioned above, I usually let the unopened noodle packets soak in a bowl of hot water before I get started. If you only have access to dry noodles, then cook them according to the directions and drain them.
- If you can’t get your hands on a bottle of kecap manis (Indonesian sweet soy sauce), then go back to the basics and use your usual soy sauce and add some sort of sugar to the pan (brown, white, honey, I wonder if maple syrup would work?). I’d start with a scant teaspoon but that may be my personal “manis” preference talking.
- When it comes to what order to cook the vegetables in, I always start with broccoli first. I used to add mushrooms first, too, but found out I eventually liked them just cooked and still big and juicy rather than very cooked and shrunken in size. I like my broccoli just cooked and still bright green, so I only let them sautee in the noodles and sauce for a minute or two before adding the other vegetables.
- If you’re hesitant about letting much of the water evaporate at the very end in order to thicken the sauce, that’s okay, it’ll just be on the runny side. I personally like the sauce thicker (with minimal water) so it more evenly coats the stir fry but it took me a few tries before I figured out how to do this without making everything stick to the pan!
- Making a stir fry has become one of my go-to ways for cleaning out the fridge. Other dishes that help clean out the fridge? Everything Thai curry and making your own chunky spaghetti sauce with leftover vegetables.
- If you have a big enough pan or wok, you could make more than one (generous) serving at a time. If there’s too much crowding, as in the items are piled up so high in the pan that you have a hard time stirring without spilling anything, then you’re making too much at once. If I had a larger pan/wok, I probably would do double servings but it’s so relatively fast to make a single batch that it’s not a big deal for me to do one at a time.