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Stir-fry : a history

Shared Taste Events
28-30 June 2018: Conference: Shared Taste: food and exchange in Asia and Europe, keynote Françoise Sabban

25-29 Sept 2017: Summer School: Asian Food: History, Anthropology, Sociology, hosted by IIAS, LeidenAsiaCentre and Shared Taste

11 April 2017: Symposium: Global Jars, with Anna Grasskamp. Venue: Leiden University

28 Nov 2016: Symposium: Global Food History, joint collaboration of Leiden and Warwick. Venue: Leiden University

29 Nov 2016: Symposium: Chinese export paintings: studies and interpretations. At Volkenkunde Leiden, with support of Hulsewe-Wazniewski Foundation

29 Aug- 4 Sept 2016: IEHCA summer university in Tours, France, participating in the 2016 Summer University on Food and Drink Studies

22 April 2016: Lecture Françoise Sabban "The disputed issue of the origin of noodles", Sieboldhuis Leiden

9 November 2015: Asia in Amsterdam Symposium, Rijksmuseum Amsterdam

1 May 2015: Dr. Ines Prodöhl (German Historical Institute, Washington DC), ''High diplomacy and a humble bean', University of Leiden

March 2015: 'ideas lunch', to share and exchange ideas on Asia foodways and food culture, Leiden

13 Feb 2015: ''De vroege wereldreizen van een theekopje''. [In Dutch] At Princessehof Leeuwarden, accompanying the exhibition 'Time for Tea'

12 Dec 2014: Inaugural lecture of 'Kikkoman Chair' professor Anne Gerritsen, Academiegebouw, Leiden University, 16:00 hrs

19 Sep 2014: Launch of website 'Shared Taste' and announcement of 'Shared Taste Lecture Series'. Venue: cafe 'Grote Beer', Rembrandtstraat, Leiden, 17:00 - 18:30 hrs.

In our modern life style it is perfectly normal to go to the supermarket for some meat and veg, slice them in bite-size pieces and then X these in a wok or saute pan. When you think about what should come in the position of ‘X’, it is obvious we need a special verb here. We can’t use ‘roast’, ‘boil’, ‘fry’ or simply ‘cook’. These all do not sound right when using a wok. We need a special word to describe what we are doing when we are holding a spatula and preparing something in some hot oil in our woks, a verb which in Chinese is called ‘chao’ 炒.

The character for ‘chao’ shows the ‘fire’ radical on the left and then several strokes on the right, which at a closer look, could really resemble a hooked spatula with some edible chunks to either side, scraping the tilted bottom of a wok. And ‘chao’ing is actually that: scraping and stirring ingredients to cook evenly.

The Chinese word is not hard to translate, in fact we all know how to: it is called ‘stir fry’. This term has spread everywhere, from professional kitchens to ordinary homes and has been widely accepted throughout the past twenty years, when both the usage of a wok and the technique of stir-frying became mainstream in our everyday cooking routines.

Just going to the supermarket will prove this point. Marketeers and food companies have embraced the use of the word ‘stir-fry’ and have created all kinds of new words and combinations. The first combinations in which we find ‘stir-fry’ is in ‘stir-fry oil’, ‘stir-fry seasonings’ and the popular ‘stir-fry sauce’, for example on a package of ‘black bean stir fry sauce’ or a jar of ‘Kung Pao stir-fry sauce’. Another appearance of the word ‘stir-fry’ is in prepackaged bags of sliced vegetables or meats. Stir-fry here stands for ‘using in a stir-fry’. We found ‘British pork stir fry’ in the meat section and both in the fresh and deep freeze sections products like ‘stir-fry vegetables’, ‘vegetable stir fry pack’, ‘stir-fry mix’ and also a ‘stir fry vegetable medley’.

So the ‘stir-fry’ combo can refer to either Chinese, Japanese, Thai or other Asian flavourings, or to ingredients which are sliced in bite-size pieces for quick and easy preparation. Instead of ‘stir-fry’ the word ‘wok’ is used, in for example ‘wok seasonings’ and ‘wok sauce’, or even the tautological combination of ‘wok pan’. A wok can be referred to as ‘stir-fry pan’, go check the kitchen department and you’ll see.

So when exactly did the word ‘stir-fry’ enter the English language? Don’t we need a wok first before any stir-frying can take place? And did these woks come to America or Europe, along with the first Chinese and their restaurants ?
The answer to this riddle turns out to have a very clear and definite answer. The word ‘stir fry’ was used for the first time in the 1945 cookbook How to Cook and Eat in Chinese by the author Buwei Yang Chao 楊步偉. The word was invented by Yang’s husband Yuen Ren Chao (趙元任), an American linguist who helped devising the Gwoyue Romatzyh transcription system and worked for the dictionary project of the Harvard-Yenching Institute. Yuen Ren Chao loved translating and playing with word puns and meanings, proof of which is his translation of Lewis Carroll’s ‘Alice in Wonderland’ into Chinese, including the notoriously difficult poem ‘Jabberwocky’.

Hu Shih says in his foreword to Mrs. Chao’s cookbook that he ventures to predict that “some of the new terms like “Defishers”, “Stir-frying”, “Meeting”, “Plun-ging”, and a host of others [..] will come to stay as the Chaos’ contributions to the English language”.*
And how right he was. ‘Stir-fry’ (and also pot-sticker for guotie /gyoza) have survived to this day. Stir-fry as a term is thriving as never before. From stir-fry, ‘chao’ is translated into Dutch as ‘roerbakken’ and this word made quite a surprising career there too – something which we will elaborate on in a Dutch post on this subject.

Reading Chao’s delightful cookbook makes one want to try out many of her dishes. And we love all the other made up words by Yuen Ren Chao. I’ll give you my favorite, which I think should be used in the English language as soon as possible please: wrapling. Wrapling! It’s so simple and clear, one can almost guess what it means. It is what we call Chinese dumplings, little skins of dough with a meat or vegetable filling. Wrapped one by one, hence wrapling. Shall we stir-fry some wraplings from now on?

Returning to the wok and stir-frying, it looks as though stir-frying is slowly drifting away from Asian flavours to become a cooking technique in its own right. This can be seen in the example of ‘stir fry pizza’. Pizza? You must be as surprised as I am. How can pizza and Italian cuisine have anything to do with stir-frying or Asian cooking? Is some fusion-crazed person stir-frying pizzas, in slices perhaps ? And what kitchen utensils can tackle this job, surely a wok or at least a ‘stir-fry pan’? Well, I tell you what I found. It means one prepares a pizza dough (either fresh or from frozen) and then tops it with a stir-fry of vegetables or meat, which are stir-fried in a wok beforehand. The pizza with these toppings is baked in a hot oven until ready. Let’s welcome the Kung Pao Pizza.

Further reading & notes:

  • Defisher actually stands for ‘qu xing 去腥’, the practice of adding wine to seafood before cooking to get rid of the fishy taste, ‘de-fish’.
  • Hu Shih’s foreword to the cookbook is in his English Writings of Hu Shih : Literature and Society (Volume 1) (Springer, 2012), p. 156
  • It is curious to see that ‘chow’ as in ‘chow mein’, an American household term for fried noodles, was not chosen by Chao as a ‘translation’ of ‘chao’. Chao says playfully on p. 219 of How to Cook and Eat in Chinese: ‘you top it off with some Stirred (=stir-fried) Noodles, or, if you are in America, you can order chow mein’.
  • has a special section in ‘kitchen and home’ called ‘woks and stir-fry pans’ (accessed 17 September 2014)
  • Stir-fry recipes better than takeout (accessed 18 sept 2014)
  • On going mainstream: Jamie Oliver explains his ‘Stir Frying tips’ in a Youtube video for a Western audience: stir-fry is “quick, exciting, tasty”. The fire should be ‘full whack’ and the wok ‘hot hot hot’. Watch here
  • Wikipedia (accessed 18 sep 2014)


  1. […] een geheel eigen kooktechniek wordt en steeds minder minder met Aziatische smaken te maken heeft. (Shared Taste) [foto: Brian […]


  2. OH MY GOD! See how amazing this is!!!
    I used to work a bit on Chinese food’s name translation for my BA Thesis, and that gave me a really hard time. This article is exactly how I shall introduce 炒, my favorite cooking method, to my friends.


  3. […] Stir fry is my go to dish when I’m in the mood for something quick and flavorful. Rather than combining it with rice, asparagus also makes a nice side dish. Stir fry can be made with beef as well as tofu, but my favorite is chicken. […]


  4. C says:



  5. […] by the way the smell permeated your nose when you walked in. I ended up ordering a food called Stir Fry. It was beef with mixed-vegetables and stir-fried. To be more specific this dish came with […]


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Why 'Shared Taste'? There is so much to know on Asia, Europe and the role of food between us! We would like to start exploring texts, tastes and textures on this tantalizing subject, not only in the present day cultures, but also in the history of food, foodways and commodities.

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