I am writing this note because in Western cuisine it is unusual to add water while stir frying. Hope this helps.
Chinese stir-fry: adding water
A few years ago, my husband decided to learn how to stir-fry Chinese way. I was standing by him to give instructions. After heating up the oil, adding in all of the required seasonings and ingredients, the food was getting dry in the wok. I could almost see the smoke coming out. I said ‘add some water then’, he paused and asked, ‘water? really?’ — Then I learned that when cooking Spanish food, one would add more oil instead of water.
I do think, however, that adding more oil would probably make the dishes more tasty. My mother-in-law always cooks wonderful Spanish food. Sometimes, she would even save some of my favorite dishes for me for my next meal. I love it — every single drop, and I ate it Spanish way — by using bread to wipe up all the tasty sauce in the plate, and that piece of bread.. delicious is not enough to describe it. I knew I was actually having ‘flavored’ oil, but… could not stop.
However, (Northeast) Chinese food is normally very different. Apart from oil frying, the other cooking methods always rely on adding water (or soup) to prevent the saucepan from getting dry…never oil. So, many dishes do not contain much oil at all.
Needless to say, it certainly works out well for soups, but for stir frying, it can be a bit tricky. Plain stir-frying is normally just oil, with ingredients, because it is cooked on strong fire, so you don’t always get the ‘juice’ coming out from the vegetables or meat, thus the wok can get very dry and even burnt. Most of the time, you can rely on cooking wine, soy sauce, or even vinegar to get enough ‘moisture’ to finish the stir fry. However, there are times (for example, when stir frying aubergine) when you do need to add some extra ‘water’ to finish the cooking.
In this case, when cooking at home, we normally just pour in some water — not a lot, just enough to prevent from burning, in the end, you still get a ‘dry’ dish. Plain cold water is good enough, but I normally prefer my mum’s spiced water’ – you can get all the seasonings into the food easily when the liquid is absorbed.
Restaurants normally rely on ‘stock’, (boiled chicken in a big sauce pan with some seasonings and lots of water, sometimes vegetable stock), which is a good, but not very practical for home cooking.
The Chinese Wok
Adding water also sounds like ‘cooling down’ the wok — I do think it is true, but with strong fire, the temperature will come back quickly, then it is actually helping the food to get cooked quickly. A very obvious example is when we shallow fry dumplings (instead of boiling), spraying some water in can speed up the cooking process (this is different to Japanese way of shallow frying dumplings, where steam raised from the wok is used to get the dumpling cooked).
However, you need to be careful when adding water. If the wok gets very very hot and dry, adding drops of water can cause flame from inside wok — this is what we normally see in some restaurants, which is a very good ‘direct’ way of cooking — heat up the food directly from the flame, but cooking at home can be a bit dangerous, I almost set the table cloth on fire once. So — unless you are very experienced with this flame, I wouldn’t advice — speaking from the lesson I learned . :))