Wok Words


The cast iron wok surrounded by other Chinese cooking tools, including a bamboo steamer, bamboo cutting board, two cleavers, a wire and bamboo skimmer and the wok shovel.

Gong hay fat choy!

Or, in other words, happy new year!

Today is the first day of the Chinese year of the Rooster, and it is a good time to buy a wok. Buying kitchen utensils in the new year brings prosperity and luck to the kitchen. At least, it sounds good to me.

But don’t take it from me that it is a good time of year to buy a wok. Check out this New York Times article on the subject; apparently it really is a good time to purchase new kitchen goodies like woks. (Again, if registering to read the article torques your gizzard, try bugmenot, then read it anyway. I wouldn’t direct you there if it wasn’t good.)

I don’t need to buy a wok myself, mind you–I own four at this particular moment. Not that it would stop me from buying a nice hand-hammered one if I were browsing around in Tane Chan’s Wok Shop in San Francisco’s Chinatown, but I am not, so the wallet is safe. At least, for now. Though the article mentions some new iron contraption that lets you use a round bottomed wok on an American stove. It is supposed to be a great improvement over a wok ring, which keeps your wok too far from the heat–that is tempting.

Because then, I could -justify- having a beautifully made hand-hammered carbon steel wok.

Hmm. I must think on this.

At any rate, I use my woks for everything. I stir fry in them, of course, but I also deep fry in them. The shape of the wok means you use much less oil for deep frying than you do in a typical straight-sided pot or dutch oven. Indeed, deep fried foods like spring rolls are often the very first thing I cook in a wok after I season it, because the heat from the oil really opens up the pores in the metal and lets lots of the hot oil get in there. It hastens the natural patina process of continual seasoning that happens the more you use a carbon steel or cast iron wok.

I even scramble eggs in my woks. They cook faster and with less fuss in a wok than in any other pan. They are also fun to cook in a wok, which is really a substantial reason why I like cooking in them. It is fun.

My fifteen-year-old daughter was allowed to cook in my cast iron wok without me doing a lot in the way of assistance recently, and she took to it like crispy duck to a pancake. It was obvious to me that she had grown up watching my movements with using the wok, because she wasn’t clumsy at all with the wok shovel. (I cannot say the same for myself–there was that incident, long, long before she was born that I tried to help an inebriated friend make fried rice when I was equally inebriated. A lot of rice ended up flying through the air and landing on the floor. It wasn’t pretty. But the rice that stayed in the wok tasted really good.)

Upon tasting what she had cooked (the filling for char sui bai–steamed barbeque pork buns) and recognizing the presence of wok hay–the distinctive, but elusive flavor that comes from a hot wok, hot oil and properly dried food, was to jump up and down and dance around the room.

“It has wok hay!” she crowed as she pranced. Then she gobbled up another spoonful and boogied some more before declaring, “That was so much FUN! When can I do it again!”

She didn’t even mind cleaning the wok with the bamboo brush and hot water, then drying it on the stove, and rubbing a bit of oil over the hot surface to deepen the seasoning. “Can I make fried rice for breakfast tomorrow?” she pestered.

When I answered in the affirmative, she bounced some more and then capered off to stick her nose back into Grace Young’s The Breath of a Wok and digest more about the history, mystery and mastery of the Chinese kitchen.

Seasoning a new wok is really the only troublesome thing about owning one and it is so simple that I hesitate to call it a chore. A sidebar to the New York Times article gives Grace Young’s method which involves frying garlic chives in hot oil. I will have to try that on my next wok.

Did I say that?

Yes, I did. I know that I am going to get another wok or more in the future. I just know I am. Call me a wokaholic, I don’t care–I love the feel of them, the way they cook and the smell of them–yes, they have a smell. Well seasoned, or as the Chinese would say, “virtuous” woks have a smell to them–that is the essence of the breath of the wok–wok hay. My house often smells of it, especially in the winter when I cook with the windows closed. It is a scent that makes me comfortable and happy.


Closeup of wok shovel and bamboo and wire skimmer in the cast iron wok with two thai chile peppers for color.

When I taught Sichuan cooking a few weeks ago, as I was heating up my wok before putting the oil in, a student asked how I could tell if it was hot enough. I told her that the color of a cast iron wok will take on a slight greyish cast, that there may be a thin ribbon of smoke that will spiral out from the bottom of the wok, and that the wok will exhale, and you will be able to smell it.

So, they huddled around the stove and watched as I pointed out the signs. Just as I was about to point out the wafting wok hay, one very eager student nodded enthusiastically. “I can smell it! It smells–brown. And good.”

Indeed it does.

As I usually do when I teach newcomers how to cook Chinese, I spoke at length about woks, and how to use them, and why to use them. As usual, someone brought up Alton Brown’s assertion that one cannot effectively cook in a wok on an American stove, and I had to ask them if they would rather believe Brown, or their own senses. “How does the food taste?” I asked.

They couldn’t answer because they were too busy eating. Later someone said that her taste buds told her that Alton was on the wrong wavelength.

In conclusion, if you want to go out and buy a wok and bring some good new year luck and cooking karma into your kitchen, run right out and think of me while you do it. Pick up a cast iron or carbon steel one (avoid nonstick or stainless steel like the plague) season it, and then cook up a batch of spring rolls in it. Not only will you help along the seasoning of your wok, you will be symbolically bringing even more abundance and luck into your life by eating these traditional new year’s treats.

Spring rolls are eaten at the new year in China for two reasons. One, because they contain bamboo shoots, which are seasonal, and two, because they are shaped like old forms of Chinese gold money, which came in golden bars. My recipe is mostly traditional, except I add strips of lop cheong– sweet dry cured Chinese sausages. The rich chewy sweetness of them adds a lingering, caramelized note to the filling, which brings out the sweetness of the bamboo shoots and shrimp, while contrasting with the dark mystery of the black mushrooms.

Spring Rolls

Ingredients:

2 tbsp. peanut oil for stir frying
Cornstarch for dredging
2 tsp. fresh minced ginger
2 ounces fresh lean pork loin chop, sliced into thin strips, dredged lightly in cornstarch
3 links Chinese lop cheong pork sausage
1 large can shredded bamboo shoots
4 scallions, trimmed and cut into thin shreds
4 dried black mushrooms, rehydrated, and sliced thinly
6 fresh medium shrimp, peeled and deveined, then cut into small chunks, then dredged in cornstarch
1 tsp. sesame oil
1 tbsp. light soy sauce
1 tbsp.sugar
black pepper to taste
2 tbsp. Shao Hsing wine
1 pkg. spring roll skins (thawed, if frozen)
1 egg, beaten with 2 tbsp. water
Peanut oil as needed for deep frying (about 5 cups or so)

Method:

Cut sausage into diagonal slices, then into thin shreds, roughly the same size as the pork strips.

Rinse and drain the bamboo shoots at least twice in warm water to rid them of tinny taste. Pat dry.

Heat wok, adding 2 tbsp. of peanut oil. Stir fry ginger and scallions until fragrant. Add the pork and sausage, stir frying until the meat is cooked. Add bamboo shoots, mushroom and shrimp, then the sesame oil, soy sauce, sugar, pepper and wine. Remove from heat.

Allow filling to cool until you can handle it with fingers.

Wrap spring rolls: Place wrapper so one corner is pointed towards you, and place about 1 ½ tbsp. filling down near that corner, slightly off center perpendicular to the angle of the corner. Dip fingers in egg mixture, and rub along edges of skin on all four sides. Fold bottom corner over filling, then roll once. Fold in the left and right corners tighly, and roll, keeping wrapper tight around the filling. Add more egg wash along edges as needed. Wrap to the upper corner, and press down, sealing with plenty of egg wash.

Heat about five cups of oil in clean wok over high heat until nearly smoking. To tell if oil is hot enough, dip a bamboo chopstick or other utensil into wok. If bubbles form around chopstick and travel up breaking on the surface of the oil, the oil is ready. Cook spring rolls about 3 or four at a time, until golden and crispy. Drain on paper towels. Serve hot.

Variation:

Vegetable Filling for Spring Rolls: Leave out pork, sausage and shrimp. Add several extra mushrooms, and add jullienned baby carrots, celery and snow peas and lightly stir fry. Not traditional at all, but tasty.

Chinese Hot Mustard: Mix Chinese mustard powder with water, and allow to sit for at least two hours, or overnight to mellow.

Dipping sauces: Equal parts sugar, dark soy sauce, and rice vinegar mixed together. Add a small amount of sesame oil, and any or all of the following ingredients to taste: chili garlic paste, minced fresh ginger, minced garlic, minced scallion and freshly ground black pepper.

8 Comments

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  1. Gong hay fat choy!

    I really enjoyed reading this post. Can you believe that I don’t own any wok? :-( I will either buy a nice carbon steel wok, or if I’m lucky maybe I’ll get one for my birthday. And then I will cook up a batch of spring rolls, modified without meat, thinking of you :-)

    I looked at wokshop.com and saw that they have cast iron tea pots, I’ve been wanting one forever. But they are incredible expensive in Sweden, about $140!! I’ll see if it’s possible to ship one from abroad, and if it’s profitable as they are quite heavy.

    Have a nice day!

    /Dagmar

    Comment by kissekatten — February 10, 2005 #

  2. Hello, Dagmar!

    Good luck on getting a wok! If you ever have questions about one, you can always contact me. I have used them out of just about any material and just about anything that can go wrong with one has when I have had it so I can help you fix the disaster or, even better avoid it entirely. The most important things are for it to be carbon steel or cast iron, and for it to be flat bottomed so it will be close enough to the heating element in order to heat up enough. Woks have to be hot to work.

    I’ll probably pick up one of those cast iron thingamajigs that the article mentioned to adapt a round-bottomed wok to a Western style stove and experiment with it, then report on it after our move. No sense in getting a wok and a hunk of iron and then have to pack it!

    As for the iron teapots–which btw, I have always wanted one of those as well–before you decide to buy one from Tane, check out ebay–you may find one for sale there that is closer to you, like in Europe, so the shipping will not be as expensive. Lots of folks sell them on ebay, at slightly lower prices than they go for here in the US. You may be able to get a better deal that way.

    Ebay is dangerous…that is where I got most of my maneki neko collection, which I bet you would like. Those are the “beckoning cats” you see in Japanese and Chinese businesses. As the main kitchen in the new house will be decorated with them, I’ll likely do a post about them.

    Thanks for commenting, Dagmar–have a good new year!

    Comment by Barbara Fisher — February 10, 2005 #

  3. Happy Year of the Rooster! May it be a good one for you and yours. :-)

    You’ve got me thinking it’s about time I bought a new wok – mine seems to almost always be upstairs with Tatanatanya nowadays anyway.

    BTW, after reading your post I went out and bought Yan-Kit’s “Classic Chinese Cookbook” (oddly enough the only Chinese cookbooks I have are a Ken Hom book someone gave me, Bruce Cost’s “Asian Ingredients”, and K.Chang’s “Food in Chinese Culture: Anthropological and Historical Perspectives”), which I really enjoyed and learnt a lot from. I’m looking forward to trying some of her and your recipes! :-)

    Comment by Christina — February 11, 2005 #

  4. Hi Barbara, Thank you so much. I’ll contact you if I will come up with any questions regarding woks.

    You’re right about ebay, it truly is dangerous… But I never thought of looking for a tea pot there until you wrote about it, and there are quite a lot of them there. I’ll just have to stop myself from bidding immediately as I have a lot of other expenses this month. I really like maneki nekos, and it’s a wonder that I don’t have any (except from a small one that I have on my bunch of keys) as I’m both a weird cat lover and very interested in Japanese culture. I’m looking forward to your post about the nekos when you’ve moved to your new house.

    /Dagmar

    Comment by kissekatten — February 11, 2005 #

  5. Happy Year of the Rooster to you and yours, Christina.

    So you will be in the market for a wok, too? Hearing about friends shopping for new woks is almost as fun as buying my own. ;-)

    Yan-Kit So’s book is really good to learn from; the photographs, in particular, are very useful, and the recipes are accurate and quite flavorful. I also like the look of her in the photos–she has a very calming look to her that I think people will find confidence-boosting.

    I need to pick up that K. Chang book, but I am waiting until after we move. There is no sense in buying any books or anything when I am just going to have to stuff them into boxes and then drag them off to a new home and unpack them again.

    I am looking forward to hearing of your adventures in cooking from your books and my recipes. If you are ever looking for a recipe for a particular dish–let me know. I have a lot of books, many of them containing recipes for dishes you don’t see too often.

    I really should write more about those books, now that I think on it.

    Comment by Barbara Fisher — February 11, 2005 #

  6. I use a portable butane burner for my wok and wok cooking (it uses 8 oz. butane cartridges that are like a can of hairspray, available for around $2 each at Target/Walmart, sporting good and camping stores, or Asian markets–even on eBay). Mine is a high BTU burner by Iwatani, 15,000 BTU’s to be exact (targeted toward the catering industry), and gets my 14″ Chinese cast iron wok WICKEDLY hot. My stir frys have gone up several notches with the new high heat source. Adding food never cools my wok down nowadays, which is a joy, though it does teach you to stir-fry quite fast…!

    But the best part is that because of the design of almost all of these portable burners, they hold a classic round bottomed wok perfectly–no ring or any other gadgetry needed. The wok fits securely in the gap of the top grate, and is bathed in a jet of flames.

    I have heard, over the years, from serious Chinese cooks, that round bottom woks are superior, and though I used a flat bottomed carbon steel wok for years and thought this silly, I now see why they made such bold statements. I find the round bottomed wok much more “ergonomic” to cook with; it’s easier to get thing up on the sides of the wok, and out of the hot zone, and I get much more uniform and even cooking and loads more wok-hay (though I suppose that is due to the high flames/heat).

    Like Barbara I am very attracted to hand hammered carbon steel woks, but my traditional Chinese cast iron wok is so good at getting VERY hot and imparting wok-hay, and it’s so seasoned and easy to use now, I am not sure that a carbon steel would ever get used. I do know that among Cantonese cooks there is real snobbery toward carbon steel. As Barbara points out, I guess it’s best to “never say never” about a new wok coming into one’s life…!

    Comment by Todd — September 10, 2007 #

  7. Hi Barbara,

    I was interested in buying a wok to use in cooking for my husband and me but was discouraged when I read you need high BTUs for woks. I pulled out my gas stove’s manual today and read that my largest burner has 15,000 BTUs. Will that do? Here’s my guess at what I’d need:
    - Cast iron (including handle/s so I can preheat in the oven??)
    - lighter weight
    - not sure about flat bottom vs round and wok ring
    - probably on the smaller size but I don’t know what that looks like – 12″, more?

    Any suggestions?

    Also is the 15 BTU stove top going to work or should I buy something I can use outdoors and avoid the smoke as well? I don’t own a BBQ grill yet either.

    Thanks for any ideas. Your articles makes me want to cook asian food.. and eat it.. immediately. :-) If you’ve already written on this subject point me in that direction, I just didn’t find it. Thanks!

    Comment by Anna — July 29, 2012 #

  8. You can use a flat bottomed Cantonese cast iron wok on your stove–and it should work just fine. Go to The Wok Shop.com and Tane Chan, the owner will help you find the exact wok you need to buy to make excellent Asian dishes on your stove.

    Comment by Barbara — August 2, 2012 #

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