The Breath of the Wok

The wok is perhaps the most important kitchen equipment in Chinese cuisine. It is incredibly versatile and can be used for a myriad of applications, the most common of which has to the stir-fry. Stir-frying is almost alchemic; using high temperatures and precise techniques, the expert Chinese cook can whip up dishes in literally seconds. This week, let us examine the wok and the art of stir-frying.

“For nearly 2,000 years, the wok has been the principal instrument of cooking in China. Originally cast as a thin, round shell of iron, the Cantonese-style wok is today more commonly forged from carbon steel, which is less brittle. Whether stamped into shape from the single blow of a machine or painstakingly hammered into shape by hand, a good wok is judged mainly by the quality of its patina. On both cast iron and forged carbon steel, the patina provides a protective barrier that inhibits rust from forming and food from sticking.”

Nathan Myrhvold, Modernist Cuisine (Vol.2)

The Iconic “Wok-Shot” (Courtesy : Modernist Cuisine)

A wok may be round-bottomed or flat-bottomed, and the absence of edges in the former ensures that the food can be easily moved around in the wok. A wok also needs to be thin, so that it is light enough for deft manipulation. The handle can be either a loop or a stick. A loop handle takes more arm strength to maneuver. The more common stick handle can either be welded or riveted to the wok or, even better, it is a direct extension of the wok, like the fingerboard of a violin. While buying a wok, try out a number of them and see which one feels more comfortable. As a Chinese wizard once said, “The wok chooses the cook”.

Types of wok (Courtesy : Guy Meets Wok)

Before you start using a wok, it is necessary to season it to create a patina, as mentioned above. It is first scrubbed with soap and water to remove dust. Wipe it clean, heat it up, rub it with a thin layer of oil, and keep heating it till it smokes. When it stops smoking, rub another layer of oil and keep going. This super-thin layer of oil polymerizes at a high temperature to form a solid coating that not only prevents rusting but also creates a great non-stick coating. The gunmetal gray of the wok turns to a more familiar black; the more often you season your wok, the darker it will get.

Seasoning a Wok (Courtesy : Serious Eats)

The wok has multiple uses in the Chinese kitchen. You could toast off peanuts and steam dimsum, for example. Deep frying in a wok takes much less oil compared to a skillet or frying pan of the same diameter due to its sloping edges. The wok can be used for boiling ingredients as well, from a quick blanch of veggies to the cooking of a tough pork belly. “Wok braising” is different from Western braising in the sense that it takes much less time, and refers to dishes that involve a final simmer in a liquid, resulting in a dish with a saucier consistency compared to a stir-fry, like the classic Sichuan mapo tofu. In Calcutta chinese lingo, “gravy” refers to a wok braised dish, while “dry” refers to a proper stir-fry.

A “gravy-style” chicken stir-fry

Before moving on to the stir-fry, let’s take a quick aside to examine the temperature zones in a wok. The conduction zone is a searing 750-800 degrees Celsius. Food here is heated by direct contact with the pan and helps to sear the meat and make the aromatics pop. The middle condensation zone, higher up, is around 100 degrees Celsius. Here the steam partly condenses to water, imparting large amount of latent heat of vaporization to the food. Even higher up is the coolest convection zone, at around. It is still hot enough to cook food, but it occurs at a much slower pace. The trick is to keep the food moving between these temperature zones to get the desired effect.

Wok Temperature Zones (Courtesy : P. F. Chang’s)

A basic stir-fry can be broken down into five components: the aromatics, the main ingredient, (depending on what you’re making, it could be protein, noodle or rice), the veggies, the sauces and finishing ingredients. Common aromatics include ginger, garlic and chillies. The protein can be cut into long slivers (1D, think long strips of beef), flat slices (2D, think squares of pork belly), or even small cubes (3D, think chunks of chicken), so that they cook quickly. The meat is sliced against the grain (direction of muscle fibres) so that it falls apart and doesn’t feel too chewy. Use any veggies lying around the house like onions and bell peppers, although you could go for specialties like bok choy or lotus root.

Slices of stir-fried pork belly

The sauces are used while marinading the meat as well as added during the cooking process. Common sauces are soy, oyster, and hoisin, all of which pack an umami punch. Vinegar and rice wine are added to balance out and enhance the flavours. Seasoning includes salt, sugar, pepper, five spice powder and MSG. Unless you’re doing a simple stir-fry where you simply season with a splash of soy or vinegar, it is best to make a sauce in advance by mixing the ingredients together, adding it in all at once. A slurry made with water and cornstarch helps thicken the sauce. Finally, there are the finishing ingredients, a handful of scallions, a dash of sesame oil or a smattering of fried peanuts or cashews; things that add another dimension of colour, flavour or texture.

Kung Pao chicken garnished with fried cashews and microgreens

Mise-en-place is key to a good stir-fry. It is important to keep all the ingredients prepped and within reach before starting to stir-fry since everything happens very quickly. It starts with marinading the meat, which is usually really basic: salt, sugar, cornstarch, splashes of vinegar and soy. Indian stir-fries tend to add ginger and garlic paste to the marinade as well to enhance the flavour. The marinated meat can be fried beforehand and kept ready, or cooked together with the stir-fry. Larger veggies like broccoli or bok choy really benefit from a blanch prior to the actual stir-fry.

Stir-fry mise en place (Courtesy : The Woks of Life)

You need a super-hot wok to stir-fry. Although our home stoves don’t get nearly as hot as a restaurant stove, it is still good enough to stir-fry. And since we are dealing with super-high temperatures, make sure to use an oil with a high smoke point, like peanut and sunflower oil. Once the oil starts to smoke, hit it with the aromatics, and there is an immediate explosion of flavour, referred to as bao sang. Next, the protein is added, followed by the veggies, the sauces and slurry. Once it thickens, the finishing ingredients are added, followed by a quick stir, and off goes the flame. It’s been a couple of minutes, and our stir-fry is ready.

Fast and Furious (Courtesy : China Daily)

Although we are used to eating stir-fries as special, celebratory dishes at Chinese restaurants, for the Chinese housewife it is a much more everyday affair, and some everyday stir-fries can be really simple. A great example is the Qingjiao Rousi or Pork with Chillies recipe from Chinese Cooking Demystified. Ginger and garlic in oil, in go the sliced chillies, season with a splash of cooking wine and soy, add the pre-fried slivers of marinated pork, mix, turn off the heat, and finish with a little bit of sesame oil, “and……out”. You’ve got all five components of a stir-fry and the dish comes together within minutes. With the only “special” ingredient being the pork, this dish is an easy, quick and delicious weeknight meal.

Stir-fried pork with chillies (Courtesy : Chinese Cooking Demystified)

Stir-frying isn’t complicated. You could substitute the pork for chicken, although chicken tends to dry out quickly, especially the breast. You don’t need a cornflour batter or an array of sauces. Just keep a good soy, rice wine vinegar and cooking wine at hand, and you’re ready to wok and roll. Mix up the flavours and travel around the world. You could whip up a gorgeous Thai stir-fry using ingredients like basil and kaffir lime or Ethan Chlebowski’s rather interesting recipe for stir-fry using hot Italian sausages, finished with grated Parmesan and a sprig of basil. The possibilities are endless!

Italian stir-fry (Courtesy : Ethan Chlebowski)

Order it at a restaurant or make it yourself at home, the stir-fry is everywhere these days. It has taken numerous forms worldwide, from the Indian Chilli Chicken to the American General Tso’s Chicken. Uncle Roger’s rants about wok hei or “Breath of the Wok” are absolutely on point. Cooking in a wok at a high temperature imparts the dish with a subtle smokiness and a delicious char which elevates it to a completely different level. The wok is undoubtedly one of China’s greatest culinary gifts to the world.

Courtesy : Reddit

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