I call this legit Asian veg stir-fry because it is the best—and most unique—vegetarian stir-fry you may have ever tasted.
The secret is in the sauce, of course.
Our ponzu citrus sauce is made with kombu seaweed, which is exactly the inspired ingredient that led Japanese scientist Kikunae Ikeda to discover the savory flavor he calls umami.
Umami is actually the fifth official taste after sweet, sour, salty, and bitter. It is a very recent addition, so don’t worry if you haven’t heard of it.
Now, I want you to understand how good umami is.
If you are familiar with MSG (monosodium glutamate), then you already understand umami.
MSG is umami flavor on steroids. Its effect is to bring the other flavors in a dish together, and elevate them.
While MSG still makes a lot of people uncomfortable, (for reasons I will not get into here, but you can read about), we do love the taste. In fact, MSG is widely present in processed foods.
Monosodium glutamate is the main additive that makes your Doritos chips, or your Hidden Ranch salad dressing, so stimulatingly good.
I wanted you to know a bit about the history of umami, but of course we are not going to use MSG in our recipe.
My point was just to share with you how addictive and desirable the umami flavor is, because you can really taste the umami in this Asian veg stir-fry.
There Is Naturally Occurring Umami In Food
Chefs intuitively know that glutamic acid—which is an amino acid abundant in certain foods—makes their dishes taste amazing.
It’s why we crave ketchup, sardines, parmesan cheese, dried tomatoes, soy sauce, aged meats, and more. These ingredients are all rich in glutamates.
Naturally, kombu is also rich in glutamates.
Ikeda himself discovered umami in food. He was enjoying a meal of dashi soup made with kombu one day when he suddenly stopped to wonder why it tasted so good.
(That was also me when I tasted this Asian veg stir-fry with ponzu citrus sauce for the first time. Why did it taste sooo good?)
After reducing the broth to its constituent parts, he discovered glutamates.
Further research has since proven that this taste is unique from all the other tastes.
Our Asian veg stir-fry with ponzu citrus sauce is rich in umami, and when you taste it you will understand everything.
What Is Ponzu Citrus Sauce?
Ponzu sauce is a Japanese sauce flavored with subtle sultry citrus notes, and rich in savory umami taste.
It is really easy to make. In fact, you may enjoy making ponzu citrus sauce as much as you enjoy eating it.
It takes about 5 minutes to put together, however mixing it up at least four hours ahead is recommended to give the flavors time to mingle.
You can easily make it days or weeks ahead and keep it in the fridge as the sauce does not easily spoil. That calls for a double or triple batch maybe?
You’ll need just a few ingredients: kombu, citrus, mirin, soy sauce, water, and sugar.
Let’s take a closer look at some of the unfamiliar ingredients.
What Is Kombu Seaweed?
Kombu seaweed, another name for edible kelp, is super easy to work with.
It is sold in dried sheets, and you can break off the pieces as you need them.
You can buy kombu at any Asian grocery store or online. Since it is dried, it will last for years, so get some!
However, you should be aware that certain brands may contain measurable levels of lead and cadmium, and you may see a warning on the label to this effect.
The reason for the warning is a California law, and the reason for the problem is that similar to this same issue with seafood, seaweeds are pretty good at absorbing what's in their environment.
Occasional consumption of seaweed that contains a warning (and my current brand does), is not going to be harmful. If you were eating it every day, you may need to be concerned.
Your best options are to buy from sustainably-minded brands like Maine Coast or Eden. You can also see these brands in the middle, just below. These brands source from clean environments and regularly test for heavy metals.
For someone who doesn’t enjoy eating seaweed, kombu is the perfect choice, because we are not going to eat it.
We will only use it as a flavoring agent. After the flavor is extracted, the seaweed is composted.
I’ll address another question you might also be thinking.
No. This ponzu sauce does not taste like seaweed.
It does not smell like seaweed either.
The kombu only adds complexity, depth, and a rich mouthfeel to the dish.
RECOMMENDED RECIPE: Shiitake Mushroom Miso Broth With Udon & Ginger Squash —READ MORE
What Citrus Can I Use In Ponzu Sauce?
For this ponzu citrus sauce you can mix and match your citruses.
I recommend that you use whole fruit, but freshly squeezed juice also works if you’ve got some.
Lemons, limes, oranges, grapefruits, and anything else you have on hand will do the trick. But try to combine at least two or three for greater complexity of flavor.
Meyer lemon is recommended when in season, since it has a sweeter, heavier flavor than regular lemons.
In Japan they use a citrus fruit called yuzu. If you can get your hands on some, then use it.
What Is Mirin?
Mirin is another unique Japanese ingredient that I recommend you stock in your pantry.
If you love a good teriyaki stir-fry, then you’ll probably love one of its key ingredients.
Mirin is a subtly sweet cooking wine. It does have some alcohol content, which is why we simmer it down first to remove that alcohol.
I read online that if you don’t have mirin, you could substitute with dry sherry or sweet marsala wine.
Regular white wine or rice vinegar can also work, but add a bit of extra sugar to balance out the sourness.
I encourage you to invest in mirin, and experiment with it in any, and all, Asian veg stir-fries.
Or you might just enjoy today’s recipe for Asian veg stir-fry so much that you use up your bottle in no time.
8 Tips For Making Asian Veg Stir-Fry
Making the actual stir-fry is a straightforward process.
- Use a large wok or skillet and medium-high heat.
- Prepare all your ingredients ahead of time and have them ready by the stove, since the cooking goes fast once you start.
- Separate the vegetables that take longer to cook from the vegetables that take less time to cook
- Use two wooden spoons to mix, and mix/stir continuously.
- If you want caramelization on the vegetables, keep them in a thin layer. If the vegetables pile up, they’ll steam instead of searing.
- Add the sauce at the end, after the vegetables are pretty much cooked.
- Serve with piping hot rice.
- Eat with chopsticks! Just kidding. But yes, if that’s your thing.
Did you enjoy this post? Let me know your thoughts in the comments below.
Asian Veg Stir-Fry With Ponzu Citrus Sauce
Helpful Kitchen Tools:
For the ponzu sauce
For the stir-fry
Use the following vegetables, or substitute for your favorites (about 8 cups in total)
- 1 large onion, sliced
- 1 cup celery, sliced
- 1 orange bell pepper, sliced
- 2 cups broccoli florets
- pinch Himalayan pink salt
- 4 stalks green onion, sliced
- 2 cups button mushrooms, sliced
- 1 cup tomatoes, chopped
- 2 tablespoons fresh cilantro or coriander leaf, minced (optional) for garnish
Method for the ponzu sauce
- Add mirin and sugar to a small saucepan on medium heat and bring up to the boiling point. Add soy sauce and simmer 5 minutes. Allow to cool, and transfer to a glass jar.
- Add citrus juice, rice vinegar, water, and kombu, and put a lid on the jar. Store in the refrigerator for at least 4 hours. But you can store this for up to 2 weeks. Remove the kombu before using to make stir-fry.
Method for the stir-fry
- Mix the cornstarch with the ponzu sauce and keep it ready by the stove. Prepare all your vegetables for the stir-fry and keep them ready by the stove. Separate out the vegetables that take longer to cook (onions, carrots, bell peppers, and broccoli florets) from those that cook faster (green onions and button mushrooms).
- Heat a large skillet or wok on medium-high heat. Add garlic, ginger, red chili flakes, and sauté for 1-2 minutes. Add the vegetables that take the longest to cook first along with a pinch of salt. Use two wooden spoons to mix thoroughly and continuously. Sauté for about 3-4 minutes, until the vegetables start to soften.
- Add the remaining vegetables and sauté for about 3-4 minutes until the vegetables are cooked to your liking.
- Finally, give your sauce a stir and pour it in. Mix well, and cook for a minute or two more, until the sauce thickens.