When it comes to cooking Chinese food, there are three aromatics—garlic, scallions and ginger—that form the basis of most stir-fries. Sometimes referred to as the “holy trinity of Chinese cooking,” these ingredients are distinct layers of flavor that are quickly cooked and infused in hot oil right before any of the other main ingredients are put in. They are great for a quick leafy green stir-fry or for any protein—be it tofu, beef, pork, or chicken.
In Chinese folk medicine philosophy, all three of these aromatic ingredients have heating energies and can really boost the “qi” of a dish. While this may not mean much to the average cook, the major takeaway is that they add a much-needed boost of flavor and heat.
Here’s how to work with them: Simply take a hot wok, add a couple tablespoons of cooking oil such as canola or peanut, and when that oil heats up, add the holy trinity. When the aromatics become fragrant, then it’s time to add in your protein or leafy green. Lastly, season with a dash of soy sauce, wine, sugar, or salt.
It’s not just stir-fries where the trinity is useful. You can throw them into a long braise or make them into a great dipping sauce, as long as they’re pulverized and mixed with a dash of oil and salt. They are also great in steamed fish; just stuff chunks of them inside the cavity of a whole fish and steam. Ginger is especially great at balancing out overwhelmingly fishy odors.
There aren't a lot of hard rules with these aromatics. Dice them finely for a stronger pop of flavor, or cut them up roughly and throw them in a wok. The only important tip is to cook the white parts of the scallions first and use the green parts as garnish. The tender green parts of the scallions have a tendency to wilt and turn brown over high heat.
Here’s a simple chicken stir-fry that maximizes the potential of the three aromatics. I like to dice up the ginger and garlic really finely, so that they permeate through the whole dish.
Cooking time: 15 minutes, including marinating time
1. In a small bowl, combine chicken breast, corn starch, soy sauce and wine. Marinate for at least 10 minutes.
2. In a hot frying pan or wok over medium-high heat, add 2 tablespoons of oil and add in the chicken. Cook the chicken until it’s gently seared, but not cooked all the way through (about 5-7 minutes). Remove from heat and transfer to the plate.
3. In the same frying pan or wok over medium-low heat, add in 2 more tablespoons of oil and then add in your aromatics—the ginger, garlic and scallion whites. When fragrant, add in the semi-cooked chicken and salt.
4. Turn up the heat to medium-high, and cook for 10-15 minutes until the chicken is cooked through.
5. Turn off the heat, and add in the rest of the scallions. Season with a pinch of white pepper. Mix and serve.