Good Enough to Read: Stir-Frying to the Sky’s Edge

Veteran food writer Irene Sax tells us about a new cookbook and shares healthy and delicious recipes. This month's book is Stir-Frying to the Sky’s Edge by Grace Young.
Stir Frying to the Sky’s EdgeStir Frying to the Sky’s Edge

Of course you can stir-fry. Chop chop, toss toss and dinner is ready. And it never tastes bad, even if now and then it’s what cookbook writer Grace Young calls “a soggy braise.” Young, who grew up eating traditional Cantonese food, now lives in New York and knows firsthand how hard it is to make really good stir-fries on American home stoves.

Her book, Stir-Frying to the Sky’s Edge, contains everything you’ll ever need to know about this thrifty, speedy, healthful and flavorful cooking method — including how to do it on a residential stove. But it’s also about the persistence of a cooking technique. As Young gathered stir-fry recipes from Chinese cooks around the world, she was amazed at how innovative they were. In Jamaica, they used Pickapeppa Sauce; in Europe, pancetta; and in the Mississippi Delta, they cooked with turnip greens and thin-sliced potatoes instead of water spinach and lotus root. Yet their food was still recognizably Chinese because it was stir-fried.

“Far from their own country, these mothers and grandmothers preserved the taste of their culture even when they couldn’t get the right ingredients,” she says. “What remained constant was the technique.”

We sat down with Young to talk about that technique:

Weight Watchers: This is your third Chinese cookbook. Why did you focus on stir-frying?
Grace Young: Because it’s true home cooking. You don’t need expensive ingredients or a restaurant stove. If you don’t have a wok, you can use a frying pan. It’s nutritious and it’s quick. Once the ingredients are cut up, the whole process takes less than 10 minutes. You can’t beat that.

Did you grow up with stir-fries?
Absolutely. My family ate the classic Cantonese food my mother knew in China. Because we were in San Francisco with its large Asian community, there was no problem getting the right ingredients, and according to my mother, there was only one way to cook, the traditional way. Broccoli was always cooked with ginger, never with garlic; tomato beef was never made with pork or chicken.

We tend to think it’s a simple cooking method. Do you agree?
Simple only when it’s done well. The Chinese say that well-made dishes have wok hay, or the breath of the wok. Everything is fresh, crisp and smoky, with the flavors distinct but magically combined. It’s simple and also complex. But it’s achievable.

What’s the secret?
It’s all about learning to manage food over high heat. In a restaurant, the wok sits in a hole over a blazing fire. At home, you probably work with a stove that never gets that hot. The book is filled with tips on stir-frying on American stoves, from preheating the wok to drying the vegetables to adding them in the proper order and not overloading the wok.

What about the action?
It’s called stir-frying, but you don’t actually stir. Instead, you slide a spatula under the food and toss it, tumbling it over on itself. This is such a quick and vigorous action that in Cantonese, chau, or stir-fry, is used to mean any kind of quick turnover. You can “stir-fry” stocks or real estate or rock-concert tickets, meaning that you take a quick profit.

Is it a healthy way to cook?
Absolutely. Most stir-fries have a small helping of protein by Western standards and lots of vegetables that are cooked so fast that most of the vitamins are retained. And even though you’re cooking with oil, it’s a small amount of good oil for quite a lot of food.

You sold me, but I’m a novice. Any suggestions for how to start?
Probably the most forgiving recipe in the book is the one for fried rice, because with cold cooked rice there’s less danger of burning the aromatics, the ginger and garlic. And fried rice is so flexible that it always tastes good. If you don’t have scallions, you can use onions. If you don’t have barbecued pork, you can use diced ham or smoked turkey.

The book’s title is unusual. What does it mean?
There’s a Cantonese proverb that says, “One wok runs to the sky’s edge.” The Chinese carried their cuisine, and their culture, wherever they went. That’s what enabled all those moms and grandmothers to feed nutritious meals to their families, to make the most of what they had and to teach their children to be conscious of the importance and preciousness of food. In one way or another, they all said, “I adapted because I had to, but I preserved what was important.”

Any suggestions for composing a healthy stir-fried meal?
Cook plain brown rice and serve it with these two dishes. They’re both traditional Cantonese classics that my mother would have approved of.

Classic Dry-Fried Pepper and Salt Shrimp

Serves 2–3 as a main dish with rice or 4 as part of a multicourse meal


  • 2 Tbsp plus 1/2 tsp salt
  • 1 lb large shrimp, peeled and deveined
  • 1/4 tsp sugar
  • 1/4 tsp roasted and ground Sichuan peppercorns*
  • 2 Tbsp peanut or vegetable oil
  • 1 Tbsp minced garlic
  • 1 Tbsp minced ginger
  • 1 tsp minced jalapeño chili, with seeds
  • *Put 1/4 cup Sichuan peppercorns in a dry, cold wok and remove any tiny stems. Stir over medium-low heat for 3 to 5 minutes until very fragrant and slightly smoking. Once they’re cooled, grind in a mortar, then store in a jar.


  1. In a large bowl combine 1 tablespoon of salt with 1 quart cold water. Add shrimp and swish shrimp in water with your hand for about 30 seconds. Drain. Add 1 more tablespoon salt to the bowl and repeat. Rinse shrimp under cold water and set on several sheets of paper towels. With more paper towels, pat shrimp dry. In a small bowl combine the remaining 1/2 teaspoon salt, sugar and ground Sichuan peppercorns.
  2. Heat a 14-inch flat-bottomed wok or 12-inch skillet over high heat until a bead of water vaporizes within 1 to 2 seconds of contact. Swirl in 1 tablespoon of oil, add garlic, ginger and chili, then, using a metal spatula, stir-fry 10 seconds or until the aromatics are fragrant. Push garlic mixture to the sides of the wok, carefully add shrimp, and spread it evenly in one layer in the wok. Cook undisturbed 1 minute, letting shrimp begin to sear. Swirl in remaining 1 tablespoon oil and stir-fry 1 minute or until shrimp just begins to turn orange. Sprinkle on peppercorn mixture and stir-fry 1 to 2 minutes or until the shrimp is just cooked.

Notes from Grace Young

  • There are many versions of this beloved dry stir-fry. The absence of liquid in the stir-fry allows you to experience a concentrated shrimp flavor accented by garlic, ginger, chilies and Sichuan peppercorns.

Stir-Fried Ginger Broccoli

Serves 2–3 as a main dish with rice or 4 as part of a multicourse meal


  • 3/4 tsp salt
  • 12 oz small broccoli florets (about 6 cups)
  • 1 Tbsp soy sauce
  • 2 tsp ginger juice*
  • 2 Tbsp peanut or vegetable oil
  • 3 slices ginger, smashed
  • 1/4 tsp sugar
  • *To make ginger juice, grate a small amount of ginger with a traditional Chinese ginger grater, Microplane, or cheese grater and then squeeze the ginger pulp with your fingers to extract the juice.


  1. In a 3-quart saucepan bring 6 cups of water to a boil over high heat. Add 1/2 teaspoon of salt and broccoli and cook, stirring 1 minute, or until broccoli is bright green and water has almost returned to a boil. Drain broccoli in a colander, shaking well to remove excess water. In a small bowl combine soy sauce and ginger juice.
  2. Heat a 14-inch flat-bottomed wok or 12-inch skillet over high heat until a bead of water vaporizes within 1 to 2 seconds of contact. Swirl in oil, add ginger slices and stir-fry 10 seconds or until ginger is fragrant. Add broccoli, swirl ginger juice mixture into wok, sprinkle on sugar and remaining 1/4 teaspoon salt and stir-fry 1 minute until broccoli is just crisp-tender.

Notes from Grace Young

  • This is a great vegetable side dish that goes equally well with a Chinese menu or with roast chicken. Broccoli is a “hard” vegetable that benefits from a quick blanching before stir-frying. Without the blanching, broccoli requires longer stir-frying, which in turn means using more oil. Just be sure all the florets are the same size, even if you have to halve or quarter larger florets. Sometimes I mix in the broccoli stems, peeled and sliced 1/4-inch thick. If they are cut into 1/4-inch thick pieces, they will cook in about the same amount of time.
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