Life as an expat is not without its challenges. It’s exciting, life-changing for sure but there are days when it’s just all too difficult. The language barrier, the produce, the social norms, the challenges of the things that no one tells you about. Some days the homesickness sets in hard.
Missing food is one of those things. It might not even be the food, it might just be the emotional connection of eating something familiar and comforting. Dinners were easy in Australia – supermarkets pretty much have you covered. The quality of our produce is pretty amazing. Meat, fish, fruit, vegetables, dairy – really do have it all. I remember how insistent I was that I didn’t like tomatoes until I tasted my first Aussie supermarket variety truss tomato.
To say life here in Colombo is different is side-stepping the issue a little. It’s challenging. There are things that are easy, the lack of traffic or being able to hire house help cheaply or beautiful beaches and rolling green hills being within driving distance. Sri Lanka is a beautiful country, but one that’s unlike a lot of Asia. There’s not a huge variety of street food, for instance. Walking down Galle Face Green, nine out of ten stalls sell the same three food items. Looking out at the hustle and bustle of the Green on a Sunday afternoon, it’s hard to imagine that a few short years ago this street was bookended with military roadblocks.
Sourcing good produce can be a challenge. As a general rule, fruit and vegetables are easy to find, but it can be tricky getting what you want when you want it. Things that I used to assume would be easily available here, like red chillies can disappear from the markets for weeks a time. The seafood is amazing here though, particularly the shellfish – oysters, prawns, crab and local shoe lobster are readily available. Beef, pork and to a slightly lesser extent, chicken, are of pretty average quality – I guess their animal husbandry has a bit of a way to go.
The good news for those of you, like me, who live in places with miscellaneous quality meat is that the marinade does a good job of disguising the flaws in the meat. Obviously, it’s going to be better if you use good quality beef.
This is what I’d call an intermediate level stir fry. It’s a good recipe and technique to have under your belt – so versatile that it’s easily adaptable to any meat and vegetable, or omit the meat (and use vegetarian oyster sauce) to make it vegetarian. It’s an important lesson in timing, and a bit more complicated than chuck-it-all-a-wok, but you’ll be glad you put in the extra effort and with a bit of practice it’ll become second nature. If you’ve got rice cooker (or even if you’re just cooking it on the stove) you’ll be able to put your rice on and have a one wok meal by the time the rice is done cooking.
Have all your ingredients prepped and cut to size before you start cooking. The process is simple, just follow the formula – meat, vegetables, aromatics, deglaze, sauce and thicken if necessary. This is a fifteen minute meal from when you put the wok on the stove. If you’re worried over cooking or undercooking the vegetables, you can parboil them for 2-3 minutes to make them cook though quicker in the wok (obviously, you’ll need to reduce the cooking time below). I’ll try to give you a guide on timing, but it all depends on the size of the flame and wok and how big or small you’ve cut your vegetables. Realistically though, everyone has a preference for slightly crunchier or softer vegetables – like I said, this is all about timing – the second time you try to cook this dish, it’ll be that much better if you remember what you learnt the first time around.
For the novice stir fry cook, here’s something that’s not explained anywhere near often enough – ignore the ‘heat a wok until smoking’ part if you have a non-stick wok. They’re not great for stir fries in most instances, the problem being that the non-stick coating isn’t designed to withstand high temperatures but if you heat it until it smokes, you’re definitely going to run the non-stick part of your wok. I’ve found that carbon steel woks are relatively inexpensive in Australia, under $20 at places like Chef’s Hat – in my opinion, they’re well worth spending the money on.
- 200g beef rump, fillet or porterhouse thinly sliced against the grain
- 1 tbsp oyster sauce
- 1 tsp light soy sauce
- pinch of sugar
- 4 tbsp vegetable or peanut oil
- 1 head broccoli, cut into small florets
- 6 baby corn, halved lengthwise
- 2 baby bok choi, leaves halved lengthwise
- 5 thin (2mm) slices ginger, cut into julienne
- 2 cloves garlic, thinly sliced
- 1 red chilli, thinly sliced into rings
- 3 spring onions, cut into 4cm lengths
- 2 tbsp shao hsing
- ½ tsp sugar
- 1 tbsp oyster sauce
- 2 tsp light soy sauce
- 1 tsp dark soy sauce
- 2 tbsp water, mixed with 1 tsp cornstarch
- Start by marinating the beef - combine the oyster sauce, soy sauce and sugar in a small bowl and add the beef, mix through and set aside until needed.
- Heat a wok until just smoking, then add half (2 tbsp) of oil and when hot, stir fry the beef until browned about 1 minute - it might not be cooked all the way through yet, but we'll cook it more later. Remove from wok and set aside.
- Add the broccoli to the wok and stir fry for roughly a minute (add a few tablespoons water if it's catching and burning on the bottom) then add the baby corn and bok choi and stir fry for a further minute. Remove and set aside.
- Add the remaining oil to the wok and when just smoking, add ginger, garlic, chilli and spring onions and stir fry until fragrant. Deglaze the wok with shao hsing, then return the beef and vegetables to the wok. Add the oyster sauce and soy sauce and stir fry until all the ingredients are cooked through. If the sauce isn't thickened to your liking, add the cornstarch mixture and cook until slightly thickened. Remove from the wok and serve while hot.