Growing up in Thailand, stir-fries were probably the biggest part of my family’s diet. On any given night, there may or may not have been a curry on the table, but there was always a stir-fry. Or two.
In part, that's because stir-fries are so easy and quick to make that it’s a go-to for any meal, breakfast, lunch, or dinner. But it's also because stir-fries are central to Thai cuisine, and there are so many kinds that are so vastly different from one another that you could easily have three stir-fries on the table and it wouldn’t be considered too much of one thing. The same can't be said for any other category of dishes; you’d never sit down to a Thai meal of three curries, three salads, or three of anything else.
Though there are endless varieties of stir-fries, I’ve broken them down into three main categories to make it a little easier to grasp for those learning to cook Thai food: Thai-style, Chinese-style, and a hybrid of the two.
The Origin of Thai Stir-Fries
As essential as stir-fries are to Thai cuisine, they’re actually a relatively newer addition to our repertoire. Chinese people have been trading with and immigrating to Thailand for several hundred years, and of course along with the people came their food and cooking techniques. As the number of Chinese immigrants increased, Chinese cooking techniques and ingredients started to become more prevalent, and as a result stir-frying, the wok, and many Chinese dishes became completely integrated into the Thai way of eating and cooking. One of the most visible ways in which Chinese cooking has been totally assimilated by Thai cooks is the fact that the wok has become an indispensable cooking vessel.
Growing up, my family only had one pan―a wok. Sure, we had steamers for steaming and pots for boiling, but everything else got done in a wok, including stir-frying, deep-frying, pan-frying, dry-roasting, and some steaming and boiling.
However, our philosophy on wokking is slightly different from the one that's prevalent in Chinese cooking. Getting that elusive smoky wok hei isn’t really part of our cooking repertoire. It's true that some restaurants and street vendors use carbon steel woks over extreme high heat to achieve wok hei, particularly for fried rice and stir-fried noodle dishes like pad see ew, but this is not something the typical Thai home cook is concerned with. So most homes and many restaurants use aluminum, stainless steel, or nonstick woks.
Growing up, we used an aluminum wok, which is common throughout the countryside because it’s inexpensive, light, and thus very easy to wield, and relatively durable, which is an important quality for a piece of cookware that gets used multiple times for almost every meal. We later upgraded to a heavier and sturdier stainless-steel wok, however those qualities made it harder to wash and carry around. Today, we still use both stainless steel and aluminum woks, though aluminum is preferred by my grandmother because of its light weight. Many Thai people use nonstick woks simply because they're easier to clean.
The Three Types of Thai Stir-Fries
I’ve grouped stir-fries into three categories: Chinese-style, Thai-style, and a hybrid of the two. These are not official categories; rather, this grouping is something I devised when I wrote my first cookbook, Hot Thai Kitchen, as a way to help people wrap their heads around the huge variety of stir-fries, and to give them a framework to create their own dishes using what they have in their kitchen.
This style of stir-fries has been adopted by Thai people with only slight changes and looks at first glance very much like a Chinese stir-fry. However, unlike traditional Chinese stir-fries, the sauces are never thickened with starch, so it eats quite a bit lighter. Vegetable stir-fries are commonly done Chinese-style.
The seasonings are kept relatively simple; Thai oyster sauce and various types of soy sauces, which are also of Chinese origins, are the main players. The flavor profile is generally salty-sweet, not spicy, with few, if any, herbs and spices and aromatics used beyond garlic and ginger.
Gai pad king is a great example of a Chinese-style stir-fry: Chicken stir-fried with ginger and wood ear mushrooms, seasoned with soy sauce and oyster sauce.
These are dishes that borrow only the Chinese stir-frying technique, but use no Chinese ingredients. So no soy sauces, oyster sauce, noodles, and arguably pork because pork only became popular in Thailand because of Chinese influence. The flavor profile of these dishes is unmistakably Thai as they incorporate ingredients like curry pastes, Thai chile paste, coconut milk, fish sauce, tamarind, palm sugar, and lots of fresh herbs. These dishes also tend to be spicy.
Khua kling gai is a great example of a Thai-style stir-fry: minced chicken stir-fried with a southern Thai-style curry paste.
This is every stir-fry in between, a tasty marriage of the two cuisines. The easiest way to think about these is to start with a Chinese-style stir-fry, and then dress it up with one or two Thai ingredients, like Thai basil or Thai chile paste.
Goong pad nam prik pao, or shrimp stir-fried with Thai chile paste, is a perfect example of the combination of Thai and Chinese flavors: soy sauce and oyster sauce combine with nam prik pao to season the shrimp, oyster mushrooms and long beans.
Another great example of a hybrid stir-fry is makheua yao pad tao jiao, in which fried eggplant is stir-fried with minced pork, seasoned with Thai fermented soybean paste, oyster sauce, and soy sauce, and finished with Thai basil.
Galam plee pad nam pla is a very simple hybrid-style stir-fry, in which cabbage is stir-fried in a very hot wok and seasoned with fish sauce, garlic, and white pepper.
Learning how to stir-fry is a bit like learning how to make a pizza. Once you can make one pizza, you now have the basic understanding to make all sorts of pizzas. Sure, you might still need to follow recipes for different sauces and styles, but you understand the overall process.
The Components of a Thai Stir-Fry
This is the way I view the different elements of a typical stir-fry. When broken down in this way, I've found you can use this list as a template for creating your own stir-fries at home.
- Oil: The oil we use is always neutral-flavored. Any vegetable oil is fine, though lard was also commonly used back in the day. If using coconut oil, be sure to use refined coconut oil, which has no flavor, so everything you cook doesn’t taste like coconut!
- Aromatics: Every stir-fry needs at least one aromatic ingredient. Aromatics are vegetables, herbs, or spices that give flavor and aroma to the dish. It can be as simple as one ingredient (usually garlic), or as complex as a curry paste made up of 15 different ingredients. including things like green onions and Thai basil.
- Sauce: The sauce is made up of all the seasoning ingredients and any added liquid. This is where you determine your sweet-salt-sour ratios by playing with amounts of fish sauce, soy sauce, oyster sauce, sugar, tamarind, and/or vinegar (though the use of vinegar in stir-fries is not common). For saucier dishes, cooks will typically add coconut milk, water, or stock.
- Nuggets: This is the bulk of your stir-fry, made up of meat, vegetables, noodles, or rice; basically anything you can eat, you can stir fry. A stir-fry doesn’t always need to have vegetables; in Thailand, many stir-fries are made only with meat (vegetables are served as a separate dish in the meal).
The Process for Making Stir-Fry
While the exact steps are obviously recipe-dependent, most stir-fries tend to follow this general procedure.
- Brown the meats (optional): While most home cooks will start with step 2, when I stir-fry meats, I always sear them first to get good browning and develop flavor. Once browned and cooked, I remove them from the pan, and add them back in after all the vegetables are done. You cannot get good browning on the meat with the aromatics already in the pan without burning the aromatics. Cooking the meat in this way also prevents overcooking.
- Sauté the aromatics. Aromatics are usually sautéed in oil, not only to cook them, but to allow the oil to be infused with their flavors, so that the oil can then carry those flavors throughout the dish. The only exception is delicate herbs, which are always added at the end and tossed just until wilted. If working with curry pastes, you want to avoid using high heat because the finely-ground herbs and spices in the paste can easily burn.
- Add the nuggets. Meats, vegetables, noodles, and rice are added in the order of how long they take to cook, which will vary between recipes. If your meats have been pre-browned, they should be one of the last things to go in.
- Add the sauce and finishing herbs. Once you add the nuggets to the wok, add the sauce in right away or after a brief toss so that the meat and veggies have time to cook in and absorb the flavor of the sauce. At this point, you may need to adjust the consistency of the sauce. Your stir-fry station should be equipped with water or stock that’s within arm’s reach, ready to be added at a moment’s notice if things become too dry. You can also add small additions of liquid to quickly cool down a wok that has become too hot (a common problem with powerful gas stovetops).
How to Start Cooking Thai Stir-Fries At Home
As for your next steps, I encourage you to start with any of the stir-fry recipes mentioned above, and as you do, try to think about their various components. What’s the style? What are the ingredients in the sauce? What are the aromatics? This way, you can start to see opportunities for where things can be modified to make it your own. Soon enough, you’ll feel confident to create your own stir-fry recipes!