Forget the takeout—flavorful and fragrant, true Chinese food has a lightness, balance, and simplicity that any home cook can easily master.

By Sara Gauchat
Updated March 13, 2012
Anna Williams

Chinese takeout is standard fare for many families’ weeknight dinners. Everyone has her must-order dish, from sweet-and-sour shrimp to General Tso’s chicken. But what you’re getting in that familiar white cardboard box isn’t exactly the real thing.

“Whether you order beef, chicken, or vegetable Chinese takeout, it all tastes the same because it’s all covered in a sauce laden with too much soy sauce and cornstarch. It’s a travesty,” says Ming Tsai, chef and owner of Blue Ginger in Wellesley, MA, member of Macy’s Culinary Council, and contributor to The Macy’s Culinary Council Thanksgiving and Holiday Cookbook. It’s time for the secret to come out: Authentic Chinese cooking is decidedly free of thick, gloppy sauces.

“Chinese cuisine has a tremendous range of flavors and styles. Whatever my mood is, there’s something that satisfies me,” says Grace Young, author of Stir-Frying to the Sky’s Edge ($35, “It’s based on color, taste, and aroma—it should be beautiful to the eye, flavorful, and fragrant.” And it offers up flavors to suit virtually any palate. There are hot, spicy notes that will set tongues tingling alongside lightly seasoned dishes that are friendly to even the most delicate taste buds.

Spicy or mild, most Chinese dishes start from a common foundation. “Garlic, chili, and ginger are often called the holy trinity of Chinese cooking,” Young says, with scallions playing only a slightly less important role. And no self-respecting Chinese chef would find himself without a bottle of soy sauce. Used in countless different ways, soy sauce provides much of the saltiness in Chinese cooking while adding a round, full flavor.

The Chinese diet is also a fairly healthy style of eating, when you consider the typical ratio of protein to vegetables to starch. In the United States, “one person will eat a 16-ounce rib eye, and in China that would feed four to five people in a stir-fry,” Tsai says. “Meat is used more as the flavoring than as the focal point—it’s as much about the vegetables and noodles or rice.”

Essential to any stir-fry, the wok is the heart of the Chinese kitchen. Ginger beef, fried rice, beef chow fun—there’s almost no limit to the number of delicious dishes that can come out of an unassuming wok on the stovetop. The quick-cooking method may also preserve vitamins in the vegetables and even save on fuel usage.

Wok queen Young recommends using a flat-bottom, 14-inch carbon-steel model with a long wooden handle if you decide to tackle stir-frying. The wok needs to be seasoned before its first use. (Note: It’s normal for the wok to turn yellow, blue, or even black on the bottom of the interior side when you first start using it, so though you may think you’ve ruined it, you haven’t.) Always preheat your wok before adding your oil; use one with a high smoking point that can stand up to the heat, like peanut or canola. Then add your aromatics or raw ingredients. Tsai advises stir-frying in batches so as not to overcrowd the wok. You’ll know the oil is hot enough when you get that distinctive sizzle sound as the ingredients hit the pan. Stir-fry until the vegetables are cooked but crisp and the meat is perfectly seared. (Tsai also suggests you practice flipping food in your wok with some dried rice and beans—in the backyard, ideally—before making a messy first attempt in the kitchen.) With time and plenty of cooking, your wok will eventually darken in color and develop a natural nonstick surface.

“You can make very complex or very simple stir-fries. The results can be really satisfying and give you the confidence to move up to even more complex dishes,” says Young. Try starting with fried rice, because it’s simple and splatter-free, or perhaps a beef and broccoli dish. Focus on dishes with just a few ingredients and basic seasonings.

“People have a misconception that Chinese food is hard to do, but it doesn’t take longer than any other type of food,” Tsai says. “You can do a lot of the prep ahead of time (like chopping the vegetables and meat), which makes it so much easier. It never takes more time than it would to make steak and mashed potatoes.”

“And you can sneak healthiness into a Chinese stir-fry a lot easier than you can sneak broccoli into steak and potatoes,” he adds. “Why would anyone want to eat steamed broccoli? But wok-stirred until it’s crisp, and they’ll gobble it up. That ginger, garlic, and scallion combination makes any vegetable taste good. You can eat flavorful and eat smarter with stir-fries.”