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.
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.
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
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)
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.
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.
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