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stir-fried chinese spinach

Has anyone ever wondered about this before?

You go to a Chinese restaurant and order stir-fried chinese spinach (or watercress or bok choy, etc.) and it comes with the tastiest and simplest sauce - clear with some bits of fried garlic. I've tried to replicate the stir-fry technique (I'm Chinese-American and have some tricks up my sleeve thanks to watching my Chinese mother cook) but I still can't seem to figure out what makes those dishes so flavorful. I usually heat up olive oil in a big wok with fried garlic and ginger, and then I throw in the veggies...but to no avail.

A friend says it may have something to do with the oil - maybe they use peanut oil?

Can anyone help me out?


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  1. Yes,it might be peanut oil or even sesame oil.Have you asked your mom?You maybe using the wrong oil.Try using peanut oil.It has a different flavour than olive,and in China peanut oil is more common.
    When I have stirfried bok choy i have used canola oil or Crisco oil,but left out the garlic.

    1. Among other things, if you're not using salt or anything that contains salt, it's no wonder it tastes "blah."

      Most restaurants use soybean oil which if it has any noticeable flavor at all, isn't anything to seek out, so that's probably not your problem. (If it tasted OK but "different", I'd ascribe it the difference in oil.)

      1. I've encountered the same thing. Delicious tasty stir-fried vegetables at restaurants and good but not as tasty ones at home.

        I generally use vegetable/corn oil at home because it is healthier. I think in restaurants they tend to use peanut oil and a lot more of it. I swear I've been to places that introduce animal fat as well.

        I think many places also may add a bit of broth into the stir-fry. MSG also adds extra flavor.

        1. I think you just need to add some flavouring near the end of the stirfrying. I stirfry the vegetables in peanut oil, and just as the vegetables start to look ready to serve, I stir in a couple tablespoons a couple tablespoons of oyster sauce. I find it ends up tasting the same as what I get at the restaurants. Sometimes, instead of oyster sauce, I'll use a mixture of soy sauce and sherry, with a dash of sesame oil.

            1. It's probably msg that you're missing. They may splash in some sherry and/or soy into it. Unless you're ordering greens in oyter sauce, it's probably not used it what you're referring to. Don't forget the cornstarch slurry to thicken it all up. Oh and peanut oil is the way to go for high temp stir frying. Peanut oil can stand the heat.

              1. yeah, i've always wondered if they happen to slip in some pork fat as well to enhance the taste. but perhaps it is just the type of oil or sherry and soya mixed together. thanks for the suggestions and brainstorming everyone!


                1 Reply
                1. re: taylor_blair

                  I think there may be sherry but it is probably not soy sauce if you are refering to a simple stir-fry of chinese greens and garlic. I've never seen any recipe calling for soy sauce in chinese spinach stif-fry and it just sounds a bit odd to me.

                2. Most Chinese restaurant use soybean oil or a combination of soybean and vegetable oil. Peanut oil has gotten too expensive plus the allergy problem.
                  What makes restaurant vegetable stir fry taste so unique is because of their large hot hot wok, what is known as "wok hay, or wok may", the smell or flavor from a wok. This is very difficult to get at home because our home stove do have high BTU. Most restaurant stir fry cooks in less then two minutes.
                  The stir fry green vegetable is usually oil, sliced garlic, vegetable, salt, and maybe a little sesame oil at the end. Sometime if one orders a plate of gai lan or similiar thick stem greens, there is a drizzle of soy or oyster sauce on top.

                  1. It's oyster sauce! Definitely try it!

                    1 Reply
                    1. re: Kagey

                      Oyster sauce is great with chinese broccoli or heartier vegetables but with water spinach (or chinese spinach), watercress, or lighter vegetables is too strong in my opinion. Water spinach is my favorite vegetable and I think it is best cooked simply with oil, garlic and salt. Although I suppose heavier sauces can be good...the thai stirfry water spinach in a dark soy-based sauce with lots of chili peppers.

                    2. It's the intense heat of the burner that you can't replicate at home. If you cook the veggies in small batches you have a chance to get a similar flavor. I bet when you finish you get quite a bit of liquid in the bottom of your wok. This is because the heat isn't high enough to cook the the vegetables in a flash and you kind of get a stir-fired/steamed product.

                      I'd also nix the olive oil. The smoking point is too low for what you are trying to do. Use peanut/veg/canola. One more thing if you want to add sesame oil do so at the end. Sesame oil also breaks down at very low temps.

                      1 Reply
                      1. re: KTinNYC

                        I agree. If you really want to wok at home like in a Chinese restaurant, you need something like 30,000 BTUs.

                      2. If you have a turkey fryer, use the burner to obtain proper wok heat. Outside only please. Works like a charm.


                        1. Definitely peanut oil. And you have to add salt in some form. The easiest way is to use a bit of chicken broth instead of water to make the corn starch slurry. No oyster sauce or soy sauce for the greens stir fry.

                          So hot, hot, hot oil. Toss in lots of garlic. Stir fry for a quick bit, add the greens. When just about wilted, add the corn starch slurry. That's about as close as you're going to get to the restaurant version without a mega-btu burner and wok. :)

                          1 Reply
                          1. re: TorontoJo

                            I concur. Peanut oil is a must for the aroma and the high heat. And a generous amount of it too (I've seen them use it, and whereas i use a drizzle of oil, they use like half a cup). Also make sure the pan is hot, not just the oil, by the time the stuff goes in.
                            I also agree with no oyster or soy sauce for water spinach (I am assuming that's what you mean by Chinese spinach). I've seen that on bok choy, but never on delicate leafy veggies like water spinach or amaranth. It would simply overwhelm the dish.
                            Salt (and msg) added at the end.
                            The dish should be as simple as possible, no corn starch for a leafy green.
                            Of course it still won't taste as good, but at least closer.

                          2. First fire up the wok, then add the oil. Make sure the oil is hot. Add salt in the wok. Salting helps bring flavor out of the food. Add the ginger and the garlic. Then you stir fry and add more salt to taste. Its also the heat. Remember the restaurants have a very high temperature wok. Its this heat that also makes food taste good. You will never achieve this in a regular stove in a house.

                            1. Perhaps it's "in" the wok... aren't they cleaned w/ just hot water and swished around with that little broom thing???

                              1. I bet it's simply oyster sauce. I have made a great but simple recipe for gai lin w/ oyster sauce, and that's about all there is. Could add a bit of chicken stock. But yum.

                                1. Peanut oil, minced garlic, and fish sauce. For the latter, I use Golden Boy brand from Thailand with perfect results every time.

                                  1. The greens has to be dried and the oil has to be hot. Olive oil will not work in this instance. Also a few tablespoon of chick stock with a pinch of msg.

                                    1. My aunt actually has a "restaurant-style wok" at home and she makes really yummy restaurant style chinese sauteed veggies. here's what i've observed..

                                      please excuse my lack of cooking parlance... i don't cook very often. but, i love watching and learning.

                                      this is how she makes really good bok choy.
                                      1) she heats the wok up really hot with vegetable oil.
                                      2) she toss a few cloves of unchopped garlic in there and let's it fry until it's light brown.
                                      3) she puts in all the washed veggies and covers the wok.
                                      4) after 3 minutes, she puts a little water.
                                      5) after 2 min, she dashes salt, stirs it around and it's done.