Back in the day when I was in cooking school at the Culinary Institute of America, students were exposed to so many different cuisines, and in many cases, unique or specific utensils or cookware essential to creating the authentic results our chefs wanted us to learn. One of the most fascinating for me was learning about the many distinct sub-regions in China that, combined, are generally known for Chinese food.
In ancient times, China was a nation spread out over an enormous track of land, with limited means of transportation or communication between settlements spanning hundreds, if not thousands, of miles from one another. As a result, many distinctly different cuisines emerged, each utilizing the ingredients and staples of its region, ranging from Canton in the south to the isolated regions of Mongolia in the north.
Likewise, cooking techniques also evolved to best suit each region’s special ingredients, ranging from fresh fish caught at sea to animals herded by Mongolians far inland. While many things have changed in the thousands of years that have passed, one piece of cooking equipment, one tool has managed to remain almost untouched and unimproved since its introduction nearly 2000 years ago.
That tool is the wok.
The first known woks were likely created in The Han Dynasty, which lasted from roughly 200 BC until about 200 AD. Similar devices were used throughout Asia and India. Now, when you hear the word wok, you may only imagine it being used to stir-fry foods, and no doubt that is one of its best uses, but what makes this cooking device a historic invention is its absolutely amazing versatility.
You can use a wok for stir-frying (which is obvious), steaming (by just putting some water in the bottom, a perforated basket on top, then a lid), pan frying, deep frying, poaching, boiling, braising, searing, stewing, making soup, smoking (just like steaming, except you place soaked wood chips in the bottom instead of water, then the perforated basket on top and a lid) and even roasting nuts.
The word wok literally translates to cooking pot in Cantonese, and it cooks nearly everything, any way you can think of.
Woks can be made (nowadays) from many materials, including steel (traditional) to cast iron, aluminum and Teflon (non-stick coated). You can buy them with a rounded bottom (again traditional) to flat-bottomed, single- or double-handled, and even–I wince to even say this–electric. For my money, you can forget EVERYTHING except the traditional, hand-hammered carbon steel. There’s a reason this one’s been around for 20 centuries.
Why carbon steel? Why hand-hammered?
One of beauties of the wok is its simple but highly effective curved, concave shape. That particular shape allows you to use less fuel and allows for easier food manipulation (tossing). At the same time, it allows you the flexibility of using a higher heat at the bottom and then pushing the product up higher on its sloped sides to then continue cooking at a slower, slightly cooler temperature. It will also allow you to push stir-fried pieces of meats and vegetables up onto its sloped sides, leaving the bottom well available to make a sauce at the same time.
Now, if those sides are polished smooth or if they’re non-stick, you’re going to have a pretty difficult, if not impossible task, of keeping the food up on the sloped sides of your wok, and you’ll lose out on one of its best features. On the other hand, if you have a hand-hammered wok, it has small dimples that help the food cling to its upper sides. That’s what you want.
Carbon steel is the preferred material among wok aficionados because it is durable, flexible and capable of transferring heat almost instantly. If you buy a new wok, you’ll need to season it first. The best way to do that is to first scrub the interior with a stainless-steel scrubbie and then heat it (dry) over an intense open flame until it gives off a smoky haze.
Purists then remove the wok from the burner and add a bunch of Chinese chives (Nino’s has Nira, which will do nicely) and a dash of peanut oil. Then, they swirl it around. They contend that the swirling removes the metallic taste of the steel when it’s next used. In the end, after a few uses, you’ll have a glossy black patina on the inside of your pan, and it will (for all intents and purposes) be non-stick, as the pores of the steel will have sealed.
When using a wok at home, you’ll be most challenged not by the recipe but by the lack of heat, which most residential ranges produce–about 10 to 20 thousand BTUs. That can get your wok to a working temperature of about 400 F to 500 F (using a wok ring positioned over your burner to rest your wok on), and that can be sufficient heat as long as you don’t crowd the wok with too much product, which will cool the wok down. Professional wok chefs working in high-volume restaurants get around this by using woks many times larger and heat up to 100 thousand BTUs. Unfortunately, you don’t have that luxury (or the accompanying danger), so keep your portions small.
Wok cooking is typically done with the movement of the wok accompanied by a long-handled spatula (chahn) and/or a ladle (hoak). The ladle can also serve as a dipping spoon for adding various ingredients and sauces arranged next to the wok’s work station. The long handles keep the user at a safe distance from the extreme heat emitted from the wok. That heat is called Wok hei, or loosely translated, “the breath of the wok.”
If you’ve never owned a wok or experimented with wok cooking, you owe it to yourself to give it a try. Woks aren’t expensive. I’d recommend one of at least 16” in diameter, which you can buy online or even at a restaurant supply store. They have a nice selection at Gold Star Restaurant Supply in Oak Park, Michigan.
Oh, and you’ll need a simple recipe to get started, and this one’s just right. You won’t even have to worry about a sauce. We make a wonderful Mongolian Marinate & Sauce here at Nino’s, which is perfect for this dish.