Chinese Cookery: Notes on the History of Chinese Stir Fry

When asked by Chinese acquaintances if I enjoy Chinese food more than American cuisine I often reply, “I like Chinese food. The problem is, Chinese food does not like me!” I speak this truthfully. Few national cuisines can compare with the savor of Chinese cookery. Alas, what is pleasing to the tongue does not always please the belly. During my last trip to Beijing I learned this lesson all too well—I was not three weeks in the country before recurring attacks on my stomach had me doubled over, each assault of greater violence than the last. The advice I frantically found on every medical website only deepened my misery. “Step #1,” they read, “don’t eat any oily foods until your stomach has recovered.

These advice-givers had obviously never tried living in China. In Beijing you will have better luck finding beverages that contain no water than finding a full course meal with nothing cooked in oil. 

I survived the experience on skipped meals, steamed buns, small bowls of plain white rice, and frequent trips to cheap Japanese restaurants where oil is not the central ingredient. Surprisingly, this dismal experience did not diminish my fondness for Chinese cuisine–though I must admit I remain leery of committing myself to any diet whose chief entrees are all stir-fried again. 

The famed sages and heroes of Chinese antiquity would probably face Beijing’s oily cuisine with similar trepidation. As Endymion Wilkinson notes in the unparalleled historical trivia-fest that is Chinese History: A New Manual, Chinese style stir-fry is a fairly recent invention:

The modern word for stir-fry is chao (炒)…. Chao only appears in the Tang sources in the context of roasting tea-leaves, but it is mentioned in about 12 Song recipes. By the Ming, stir-frying (which is not found in other cooking traditions) was becoming more common and by the Qing it was differentiated into many specialized procedures….

Even so, only five or six out of a total of 100 recipes in the sixteenth-century novel Jin Ping Mei are stir fry recipes, and wok dishes only accounted for about 1% of the recipes in the most famous eighteenth century recipe book, Suiyuan shidan. Despite this there are signs that stir-frying was spreading. This was no doubt in part linked to the desires to prepare food as quickly in possible to conserve fuel, which was increasingly rare and expensive in and near big cities by the late Ming….

Another factor encouraging the spread of stir frying was the increasingly commercial nature of city life in the late Ming and Qing. People were in a hurry to be served (compare colonial America where frying was used for breakfast because the farmers were in a rush to get to work with the animals and in the fields. By midday when the sun was high and too hot for working, there was more time, so the old methods of steaming, roasting, and baking were preferred). By the late Qing a wok range (chaozao or paotai zao) became standard in most kitchens. It had a large space for the fire and wide apertures in the top in which to sink the bottom half of the wok into the flames. When a surge in heat was required an assistant, acting on the shouted instructions of the cook, fanned the stoking hole at the back of the range.

In the twentieth century the old portable charcoal stove was gradually replaced by various more efficient ones, for example, beehive coal briquette stoves, or kerosene, diesel, or gas stoves. These provided a reliable and easily adjusted heat source and were ideal for the small family kitchen as well as for the itinerant producer of quick meals using a single wok. Their huge disadvantage was that they were often the cause of ruinous urban fires.

The widespread overuse of oil with stir-frying (much commented on by foreign observers starting in the nineteenth century), was a late appearing aberration that should not be allowed to detract from the unique advantages of stir-frying, properly executed.

 So how do modern Chinese eaters respond to Chinese cuisine of the pre-chao world?  Wilkinson conducted an experiment to find out:

“As an experiment, during a three-month period in Beijing winter of 1999-2000, I asked my chef to prepare dishes on the basis of cooking methods, ingredients, and recipes found in the early sixth-century Qimin Yaoshu . The ingredients included many grasses, for example, bulrush and fibrous plants difficult to find today, but not unpleasant to anyone fond of vegetarian cooking. To say the least, the dishes are thick with taste, because they are seasoned with pastes made of fermented meat, fish, or soybean and cooked with fermented black beans. I found that the absence of later ingredients, such as soy sauce, vegetable or peanut oil, sugar, chili, and tomatoes a welcome break and the use of boiling, roasting, or baking a relief from the monotony conferred by oily stir fry which is so often encountered today. However, most of my Chinese guests felt that what they were eating was foreign, not Chinese.

Perhaps more predictable was the Shang dynasty restaurant that opened in Guangzhou in the early 1990s. It served reconstructions of Shang period dishes, but closed within weeks of opening, because its customers, brought up on Cantonese cooking, found its dishes totally alien.” [2]


[1] Endymion Wilkinson, Chinese History: A New Manual (Cambridge: Harvard University Press, 2013), p. 459 section 36.17.1.

[2] ibid., p. 442, box 63, section 36.1.

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That's not necessarily about oil per se, but the bad quality of ingredients they often use in China.

I'd suggest you try Chinese food in Japan, which has a tradition of its own, mostly run by Japanese people using Japanese ingredients and slightly modified recipes.

I do like the real thing better, but the Japanese version has never disturbed my stomach.


I actually suspect that whatever bug I had came from the water supply. Although the air pollution gets all the news, I found China's dirty water to be far more vexing and much harder to adjust to. Oily food only made the illness worse.

But your comments echo those made by an acquaintance of mine, of Chinese descent but having spent most of his life in Australia. (We had this discussion in Beijing). He was quite insistent that the best Chinese food he had ever had was not cooked in China, but in Tokyo.

More surprising to me,he said the same thing about Italian food. The Italian food in Italy was good, said he, but it could not compare to the Italian food he found in Japan!

One day I will visit the islands and test this claim.

TGreer, Italian restaurants in Japan obsessive-compulsively reproduce faithful Italian dishes but outside the designated Italian restaurants the Japanese also make many consciously pseudo-Western dishes. In terms of "Japanese-Italian" you should try the many pasta dishes, especially "mentaiko" (google it). That is delicious. It's perfectly conceivable as an actual Italian dish, but the chief ingredient does not exist in Italy, even though it could be reproduced.

TGreer, have you never had Chinese food in Taiwan or Hong Kong ?

India also has its own Chinese cuisine — not terribly faithful, of course, very distinctively Indian yet also kind of Chinatown-style Chinese. And extremely delicious. But for TGreer's delicate constitution it may pose the same problem as food in China.

I have not yet traveled to southern China or Taiwan, so I have not had the chance to try Taiwanese or Yue-style cuisine in either locale.

I still think the problem was one of bad water, worsened by large intakes of oil. I have not had any comparable experience with Cambodian cuisine, though the ingredients were often of poor quality and the food sometimes under-cooked. Much less oil, however.