Seriously Asian: Stir-Frying with Booze

Seriously Asian

Asian cookery, with an emphasis on the traditional, underappreciated, or misunderstood elements thereof.


Sweet potato greens. [Photographs: Chichi Wang]

Some vegetables at your Asian market taste remarkable when stir-fried with booze. Namely, you'll want to pair your wine with water spinach and yam tops. Both are seasonal in the summer, though water spinach is often available during other months of the year.

Not all Asian vegetables benefit from a mingling with wine, but water spinach and yam tops are particularly good when paired with alcohol. The two types of greens aren't related on a horticultural level, but as far as flavor, both possess an herbaceous undertone with leafy greens and tender stalks that, when stir-fried with a healthy dose of rice wine, take on a savory-sweet, mellow flavor.

Across vast stretches of China, Southeast Asia, and beyond, the weed-like water spinach grows in such abundance that it's a staple in most cuisines in the region. Chili pepper, garlic, ginger, vinegar, soy sauce, and sweet soy bean paste are common pairings for the vegetable, but in southern China, you're likely to eat the greens stir-fried with nothing more than a bit of garlic and Shaoxing rice wine.


Cooked sweet potato greens.

Sweet potato greens, which are the young leaves and shoots of the tuber, are especially good paired with rice wine because the stalks are firm and hardy—perfect for soaking up alcohol. Depending on what I have on hand, I use either Shaoxing rice wine or sake; vermouth would be a fine replacement for either.

Although alcohol is more commonly used in stir-fries containing meat, pairing wine with vegetables is an easy way to build complexity of flavor without exerting any effort. Compared to just a stir-fry with salt and garlic, adding wine as a finishing touch to the dish infuses a heady perfume in the greens. Try it just once and you'll be keeping the bottle on hand for more than just an accompaniment to your meal.

Finally, it's best to keep on hand an anodized aluminum wok in which to stir-fry with wine. The alcohol will quickly wear away that precious patina you've been building on your cast iron or carbon-steel woks.

About the author: Chichi Wang took her degree in philosophy, but decided that writing about food would be much more fun than writing about Plato. She firmly believes in all things offal, the importance of reading great books, and the necessity of three-hour meals. If she were ever to get a tattoo, it would say "Fat is flavor." Visit her blog, The Offal Cook.

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