I got to admit something: I have difficulty following recipes. I’d like to say it’s because I avoid certain ingredients (like dairy) due to some health issues, but it’s really because I grew up in a culture that cooked with the agak-agak method. It’s not a method like the art of French cooking is a method. It’s more like an anti-method.
Agak is a Malay word best translated as ‘estimate’. Instead of precise measurement of, say, ingredients and cooking time, the agak-agak style, if one can call it that, is based on guesstimation and to some extent, personal preference. That is not to say it’s a hotpot of untested ideas. On the contrary, it’s a conviction of knowledge so ingrained it becomes almost a natural reflex.
How much water do I need?
“Look at the amount of eggs and agak-agak to achieve the desired texture.”
How long do I cook it for?
“Agak-agak 10 to 15 minutes until it is firm but not hard.”
That’s a real conversation I recently had on Skype with my dad, who made a living as a chef in Chinese cuisine. I would love to document his recipes but my previous attempts in his kitchen usually resulted in nothing more than a full stomach and a blank notebook. The ideas and concepts, however, are seeded in my brain from years of observing him (and tasting his food), and I have an ample storage of resources to tap into.
To me, the agak-agak way of cooking is a lesson on self-reliance in the kitchen, passed on to us from a generation that has excelled in creating great food based on intuition honed by time and experience. Sure, it’s trial and error, but don’t forget that experiments breed discoveries. Most of all, it’s an understanding of food and its elements: taste, texture, behavior.
Wok hei: The breath of a wok
There is perhaps no better introduction to the effectiveness of agak-agak cooking than the stir-fry. And for that we need a wok – the cooking vessel with a round bottom and high slopes designed for tossing and flipping ingredients quickly to mix over high heat. The flash cooking means that vegetables retain their freshness and meats stay succulent, while the constant movement helps all ingredients cook in harmony with the seasonings and benefit from the smoky essence of the wok the Cantonese call wok hei or ‘the breath of a wok’.
If there’s an image of my dad I can pluck from memory and stick on the wall, it’s the one of him standing in front of his industrial-sized wok struck with a brilliant burst of flame. Wok hei. I learned to cook from this man. He did not impart to me a tome of recipes but an early education in the basic common sense of what I put in my mouth.
To ensure that all ingredients cook evenly in a stir-fry, not only should they all be cut to about the same size but tossed into the wok at different times in a sequence coordinated by logic: crunchy vegetables first, leafy vegetables last, for example. I was also taught to cook with my eyes: tender when it turns bright green, soggy when pale. Agak-agak.
Stir-frying is a matter of improvisation. An easy and fast way to prepare food when time is short, a convenient way to use up aging ingredients in the fridge, and a fail-proof way to cook without a recipe at hand. What’s salty for you may not be salty enough for me. And maybe you like your carrots crunchier than I do, and hey that’s okay. But when in doubt, don’t be afraid to agak-agak.
Chicken and Vegetables Stir Fry (Agak-agak Style)
There are no hard and fast rules, but it helps to know your ingredients and how they pair together, in terms of taste and texture. I picked broccoli as the main vegetable because I like crunch in my stir-fry, and added red/yellow bell pepper for contrast in color. And because I tend to eat greens more than anything else, the vegetable to meat ratio is higher. Serves 2.
2 to 3 chicken thighs, cut into bite-sized cubes
2 tablespoons oyster sauce to start, and add to taste
1 tablespoon soy sauce or more, it depends, we’ll see
1/2 cup water
A reasonable glug of rice wine
A good drizzle of vegetable oil
A few garlic bulbs, chopped into small pieces
1 thumb-sized ginger piece, sliced
1/3 yellow onion, cut into big chunks
A healthy amount of broccoli florets
1/2 red or yellow bell pepper, cut into big chunks
Salt and pepper to taste
A handful of cashews, roasted
Coat chicken pieces in some soy sauce and set aside to marinade for a few minutes. Mix oyster sauce, soy sauce and rice wine in water and set aside. Make sure all ingredients are prepared and within reach. Then heat wok in medium-high heat. It’s warm enough when you see a little smoke rise from the wok. Add oil, followed by garlic and ginger, and sauté until the aromas are released but be careful not to burn them. Add chicken and cook until lightly brown.
Add onion and stir. Turn the heat up and add the oyster sauce, soy sauce, rice wine and water mixture. Just as the liquid begins to simmer, add broccoli and toss all the ingredients together. Cover with a lid to briefly steam broccoli. When broccoli turns bright green and becomes slightly tender, add bell pepper and stir. I add bell pepper last because it cooks quickly and I’d like to retain its shape and brightness.
This is when you try the sauce and decide whether you want to add more oyster sauce and/or soy sauce, according to your preference. Or add more water if it’s dry. It should be saucy, with all ingredients nicely coated, but not soupy. If the sauce is too watery, thicken with a tiny amount of cornstarch (start with 1/2 teaspoon) diluted in some water. I do not include cornstarch as a necessary ingredient in the recipe because I am not a fan of starchy stir-fries, and use it only as a remedy.
When all ingredients are cooked to desired consistency (I like my vegetables to retain a bit of crunch), finish off with salt and pepper to taste. Toss in the cashews and give everything a final stir before turning off the heat and transferring to a plate. Serve immediately with rice. But no one will stop you from having it with spaghetti, if that’s how you roll.
There you go, as my dad would say. Happy Father's Day.