Wednesday, June 10, 2009

Chao - Stir Frying the Chow

The cooking method we associate most with Chinese cooking is the stirfry, or chao 炒.

A proper stirfry is not a saute, although that's what you may get in bad restaurants. No, a great chao 炒 is created in a really hot, well-seasoned wok, with skill that almost brings the pan to life. The texture, the aroma, the flavor are all enhanced in an almost magical way. The Cantonese call it "wok hei", which means the "spirit of the pot". In Mandarin, hei translates to qi (or "chi" as yoga enthusiasts will often call it) which is the word for "source of energy" and "breath" as well as spirit.

Restaurant menus don't use chao 炒 in the name of all stirfry dishes. You'll see it now and then, especially Cantonese menus. The most common things you'll see with the character chao is with fried rice or chao fan, as below.
You'll also sometimes see it with a character will get to next time - mian 麵. (Just don't confuse chao mian 炒麵 with "chow mein".)

How to recognize. On the left we have the radical for fire 火 - our little dancing guy that we saw in BBQ or shao - on the right is the character for "a few". (The top is little, the bottom is just a slash radical.) The idea is that the heat of the fire is very quickly applied. I also think that the right side kinda looks like the motion of stirring some thing up. Swish swash!

The Pinyin spelling is chǎo, or chao3 (third tone).


  1. Hi- I'm a native Chinese speaker but I can't read (much) Chinese. I find that learning through menus is great practice and your blog has been a great help. Thank you!

  2. Hello! Apologies for leaving this as a comment instead of just emailing you, but I couldn't find your email address.

    I just wanted to let you know that I'm doing a similar project to this:

    If you get a chance to have a look at it, I'd love to know what you think.