The Way of the Wok, an introduction

It’s inevitable when you grow up in the 70’s as the youngest and only girl of four siblings  – your fondest memories are of Bruce Lee movies and playing with numchuckoos. One of this martial arts legend’s memorable films was called “Way of the Dragon” (Return of the Dragon in U.S. theatres). So how is this related to my wok aspirations?

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Wok cooking is as deeply ingrained in Chinese culture as martial arts is. It has been a method of cooking 2000 years ago and the wok is sometimes the only cooking pan in a Chinese kitchen.

I am currently reading the book, “The Breath of a Wok”. There is so much information and lore surrounding this cooking implement that I have acquired a new and almost reverent regard for the one I currently own. The wok is said to last forever if you treat it right. The more it is used, the better food tastes. This is called seasoning and when done right, it almost attains a non-stick surface that requires very little oil.

         As I dust off my neglected wok, I suddenly feel a thread of connection to   Ancient Chinese kingdoms when emperors ruled and imperial dishes were meticulously prepared by the most gifted of Chinese cooks.

         I’ve always had a problem describing that distinctive fire taste of perfectly executed stir-fries. I did not know such a term existed until now. It is called “Wok Hay”, Hay means breath in Cantonese (spelled hei). This is the flavor imparted to food by a very hot wok. It is said that only Cantonese chefs are the masters of wok-hay. I’m not a chef but I am Cantonese so… J

         I have a long way to go before mastering the way of the wok and as I’ve said before there is so much information to be shared. So for this introductory post, I am keeping the recipe simple.

         The first obstacle that one encounters is heating the wok hot enough. Wok hay is said to be achieved only by adding cold oil to a hot wok. This means heating the wok until you can see faint whispers of smoke before adding the oil – this prevents the food from sticking. A Hong Kong chef once said that if oil were heated in a cold wok, ingredients would stick and burn while the inside remains raw. (Of course, I have read in Cookwise, that the metal of a hot pan would have expanded into any existing space inhibiting food from sticking.) To test if your pan is hot enough to receive the oil, a drop of water should evaporate in 2 seconds upon contact.

         I cannot claim originality for the recipe below. A friend of mine tried to copy the delicious shrimp and spinach fried rice from a local Japanese restaurant and was hugely successful. Instead of shrimp, lump crabmeat was substituted. I use Phillips brand, which is easily available in Costco.

         Measurements of ingredients are approximate. Adjust according to taste.

Crabdish

Crab and Spinach Fried Rice

4 cups “day old” rice

1 tub of Phillips lump crabmeat, drained and picked through

9 oz. of spinach

4 whole eggs

5 cloves of garlic, smashed and minced

½ medium onion, diced

2-3 tbs. peanut oil

2 tbs. soy

1 tbs. fish sauce

1 tsp. sugar

1 tbs. seasoning soy like knorr or golden mountain (if none available just add another tablespoon of soy)

Heat the wok and add a tablespoon of oil, scramble the eggs until it is half-cooked, set aside. The eggs should still be runny as it will be added back into the mixture later on.

Clean the wok and return to the flame. Heat the wok until a drop of water vaporizes upon contact in 1 to 2 seconds. Add the rest of the oil, fry the garlic until aromatic, add the onions and fry until translucent.  Add the rice and spread over the pan in as thin a layer as possible and cook undisturbed for around for 1 minute. The grains of rice should start to dance. When it looks like the rice is heated through, pour the soy, fish sauce and seasoning soy at the outer edges of the wok so as not to drop the temperature in the middle. Sprinkle the sugar. Move the rice around briskly to distribute the flavorings and then leave undisturbed again for another minute. Taste the rice and adjust seasoning. Return the eggs, chop it using your cooking utensil and distribute.  Add the crab and fold the hot rice over it carefully so the lumps remain intact as much as possible. When the crab is heated through, add the spinach and continue to cook until wilted.

         Turn off heat and serve immediately.

* I had none available but adding chopped scallions at the end is also an option.

Cooking Notes:

         The best rice for fried rice should be made the day before. This makes it less sticky and drier – cooking it re-hydrates the rice anyway. It is important to crumble the rice with your hands to separate the grains.

The lump crab I used is already cooked and slightly salted which is why all it needed was to be heated through.

I detest greasy fried rice. I am so pleased to see that after consuming a plate of crab and spinach fried rice, there was no oily film left behind.

         Oh, and never clean the wok with soap. I cringe as I remember the times I did this and hope I have not compromised its integrity. Right now, I am using the soft side of a sponge to clean the interior and the rough side for sticky spots. I think a wok brush is too rough for home woks. After washing, put the wok on the stove and heat it until it is dry.

         I used to put a coating of oil on it before tucking it away, but I have recently learned that the oil might turn rancid and will leave an unpleasant taste on the wok, also it tends become tacky as it attracts dust.

         For those interested in buying a wok, there is a shop called The wok shop. They have a vast variety of woks including pre-seasoned and hand hammered ones. It is my hope to acquire a hand-hammered wok one day as this is said to produce the best “Wok hay”. Of course that will depend if my interest in this style of cooking  endures in my fickle heart.

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21 thoughts on “The Way of the Wok, an introduction

  1. OMG Veron, I am in the backwoods for a week. We'll be 'dining' on canned soup and some bread I brought on the plane.
    Stir fry, wok cooking is something that has totally evaded my skills. Your spinach and crab or shrimp . . . oh how I long . . .
    Love the sound of that book.

  2. Hey Veronica,

    Great article on wok cooking. I, too, am a huge fan of "Breath of the Wok", and while I am no expert in the art of "Wok Hay", I have tasted its power on more than one occasion. I've actually got an Accidental Chef piece coming out in a few weeks on this exact subject. Hopefully, we can inspire more folks to experiment with wok cooking at home. Nice job!

  3. I have a serious weakness for fried rice.

    Reading your post made me long for Guyana where I was born. We have a large Chinese-Guyanese population and the majority are Cantonese. Would you believe that back in Guyana I had heard of the term wok hei and actually tasted its flavour and seen what you spoke about the wisps of smoke etc?! Only I was not smart enough to fully understand it back then.

    Oh gosh, I need to make a trip home!

  4. Breath of a Wok is one of my all-time favorite cookbooks. In the introduction there is a photo of a man in Shanghai hand-hammering a wok, with a bit of a story about him. A friend visited Shanghai a couple of years ago and brought me a wok made by that man! It's well seasoned now, and I use it whenever I cook from this book.

  5. A sign of a good restaurant (according to my mother) is whether it has wok hei, as in 'hmmm, quite good wok hei, maybe eat here again'. And thanks for the great recipe and tips!

  6. Thanks Tanna – hmmn…kinda tough doing stir fry in the backwoods but I read in China they set the wok over coals.
    Thanks Kendra – looking forward to your article about wok cooking. I actually met Grace Young at Can can when her book came out..they were doing something to promote her book but I was not able to get a copy then.
    Thanks Maria!
    Hi Cynthia – I feel exactly the same way. i want to go home and learn…I even want to go visit my mom's relatives that live in china just to learn everything!
    Hi Lydia – I am so jealous that you have that wok…I'm sure you treasure it!
    thanks bee- your char siu dish has me drooling!
    Hi Belle – your mom is absolutely right!
    Hi T.W. – most american woks are made of for electric stove. Mine is flat bottomed too but I do have a gas stove top.
    Hi Jaden – yep that wok lore alone in that book is worth it!

  7. I rarely take the time to pull out the wok, but I do love a good stir fry! They're so versatile, and a great way to use up any veg you might have in the fridge.

  8. Oh my gah, this fried rice dish looks incredible! I wish I could've had it for dinner rather than two-day-old leftovers 🙂 Great job!

  9. Hi Veronica,
    I can't tell you how much I enjoyed this post. I do hope you will be sharing more about the history of the wok. I find it most fascinating. I too will be changing my electric stove to gas as soon as I am permanently in PA. I couldn't help thinking how similar the wok "advice" is to my cast iron pan, seasoned etc. Jeff Smith, The Frugal Gourmet use to always say on his show, Hot Pot No Stick! Of course, you wouldn't remember that, I think he was on in the early 80's. GREAT post! I look forward to the next…

  10. I appreciate all of the detail on how to properly heat a wok! I've been using a wok off and on for a little while now, but never really thought about how I might need to use it differently then other pans. Meaning I've had rather mixed results with what I've made. So, thanks for the tips!

    Also, that fried rice looks fabulous!

  11. Bought a $50 "Earthchef" supposedly nonstick wok which was totally useless! Switched to a $20 cast iron wok from Chinatown, seasoned it like the guy at the store advised and totally love it now. Great wok hei and it has become essentially nonstick too! U are totally right abt not using detergent..an authentic bamboo brush is likely the best way to clean. If there are some sticky stubborn spots just let the wok boil with water in it for a few minutes, then clean under the tap, without detergent.

  12. Pingback: I think I’m turning Japanese… | Kitchen Musings

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