A Guide to Buying and Using a Chinese Wok

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PHOTO: FOTOLIA/JOSHUA RESNICK
If you want to conserve on cooking space, fuel and time, you need a wok... the simple conical metal pan used by the Chinese for centuries.  

If you want to conserve on cooking space, fuel and time,
you need a wok . . . the simple conical metal pan used by the
Chinese for centuries. Designed by a people perpetually faced
with too little food and fuel, the Chinese wok has “doing more with
less” written all over it. When using a wok only a little heat on its rounded
bottom goes a long, long way up its sides and the Chinese
practice of cutting food into bite-sized pieces insures that
each bit of heat will cook those edibles quickly enough to
preserve almost all their fresh taste and nutritional value.

The wok need not be reserved only for Chinese dishes,
either. It can easily replace several pans and become the
main cooking vessel in any small city apartment in the
world . . . and one wok plus one tin can kettle is all
you’ll need for cooking up a backwoods camping trip’s rice,
noodles, vegetables, meats, eggs, pancakes and heaven knows
what else.

A wok works best over the flame or glowing coals that it
was designed for, which makes it a natural for outdoor or
fireplace meals. When using a wok just nestle the pan in a ring of stones
(spaced to allow for draft) placed around some glowing
coals . . . wood, charcoal, corncob or whatever. The stones
will elevate the wok and contain the heat at the same time.
A flower pot hibachi of suitable size will also support a
wok nicely for outdoor cooking.

Certain modifications must be made if a wok is to be used
on a conventional stove. Unless the one you buy is large
with a flattish bottom, an adapter ring must be used to
support the pan and distribute heat over its bottom six or
eight inches. The adapter is also necessary if your wok has
only one handle . . . to keep the pan from tilting
unbalanced on a flat stove burner. This metal ring has
holes cut in its side to allow for draft and the assembly
resembles a deep dish pie plate with the bottom cut out . .
. in fact, you can probably make your ring out of just such
a plate.

Woks have become quite popular the past few years and you
probably won’t have to go to Chinatown to get one. Most
stores that specialize in cooking utensils and offer more
than the usual run of Corning and Revere will carry a wok
of some sort. I got my twelve-incher at a
china-outlet-restaurant-supply store for about three
dollars.

Twelve inches (diameter across the top) is a nice size for
a wok. It’s not too big to use for two, yet big enough to
turn out plenty of food–accompanied by rice cooked in
a sauce pan–to stuff six or eight people. Don’t be
dismayed, however, if you have more mouths than that to
feed. Since the essence of many wok dishes is quick
preparation, it’s no problem to cook up two or three
batches and serve them all before the first one starts to
get cold.

In buying a wok, choose one which has the top edge rolled
under so that the rim is smooth . . . the straight rim may
not be sharp enough to cut you, but it might be unpleasant
to work with and it certainly makes the wok more
susceptible to dents. Two handles (wood or smooth metal),
rather than one, are a convenience since they balance the
pan when it’s on the flame and make a full wok easier to
carry.

Two-wok sets have qualities to recommend them and are a
good investment if you’re just starting to accumulate
kitchenware. The large wok can be used for rice or noodles,
while the smaller one cooks the meat and vegetables. At
serving time, the smaller is simply inverted over the
larger. The two woks together will keep the food warm if
there are any last minute delays in getting the table or
the diners ready. Simply remove the top wok when you’re
ready to eat.

Whatever kind of wok you do buy, follow the accompanying
instructions when using it for the first time. Usually a
coat of lacquer has been applied to protect the metal from
rust during shipping, and this must be removed before you
cook in the pan. The wok will also have to be “seasoned”
somewhat before it will give the best results.

Don’t attempt to preserve the dull-gray, new look of a wok.
With use it will darken just as cast-iron ware does and,
like cast-iron, will become virtually stick-proof if a
little oil is used each time you cook. If anything does
happen to stick and burn onto the pan, don’t worry. Simply
scrape out as much as you can and burn off the rest by
placing the empty wok over high heat (it’s the same
principle used in the self-cleaning oven.) Never subject
your wok to harsh cleansers, scouring or soaking . . .
they’ll all undo the seasoning.

The best introduction to using a wok I’ve found is Gary
Lee’s THE WOK: A CHINESE COOKBOOK (put out by Nitty Gritty
Productions of Concord, California.) While it’s expensive
($4), it’s lucid, entertaining and full of delightful
extras such as how to make your own salted eggs and do the
Chinese marinating-cooking process of “loooing.” Lee
doesn’t give a lot of recipes . . . instead, he sets down
basic techniques and rationale and then liberates you to
wing it on your own.

Frying of any kind is easy and economical in a wok since it
accomodates more food with less oil than a conventional
straight-sided pan does . . . but THE fundamental cooking
technique with a wok is “Chinese frying”, also known as
“stir-frying”.

The first step in stir-frying is to cut all the ingredients
into bite-sized pieces. Chinese practice dictates that
everything in the same dish should be cut into the same
shape and size. Size I agree with (for uniform cooking),
but shape? My fancy inclines to the Zen caprice of cutting
each ingredient into a different shape and having a variety
of color in the pan.

Once the ingredients are cut, assemble them in piles within
handy reach of the wok. For thickening, mix soy sauce and
cornstarch (1 tbsp. per two servings in 1/4 cup of soy)
with pinches of salt and sugar. Also have on hand any
necessary spices and–if you wish–MSG. (The
powdered dry seaweed that is sometimes added to Zen or
Japanese dishes is actually an organic source of MSG and
has been used by the Asian culture for centuries as a
flavor-perker-upper. Be careful, though. Too much MSG will
make you thirsty and some people have strange reactions to
the seasoning.)

Only when all the ingredients are together is it time to
heat the wok. If the meat is raw, it’s the first thing to
be cooked . . . otherwise the longer-cooking
vegetables–such as pepper and onions–are fried
first. After the wok is heated, start with about two
tablespoons of oil and then immediately add the meat or
other first ingredient.

In stir-frying, the food is continuously turned at the same
time that it’s being moved from the center of the wok, up
its sides and back again . . . this way all sides of the
food are eventually cooked.

Since the Chinese use wooden chopsticks, I find that a a
slotted spoon works well for stirring and turning the food
as it fries but, a wooden spoon would also do nicely.

When the meat is half done, remove it and put the
vegetables (slower cooking ones first) and more oil (if
necessary) in the wok. When they’re half done, put the meat
back in and finish cooking everything together. The
vegetables should be crisp-tender and never soft, the meat
(especially pork) cooked through, but not tough.

At the last minute, mix in the cornstarch-soy sauce
thickening and any spices. You may have to add a little
water to make the sauce, but usually the cooking of the
vegetables and meat will yield enough liquid. A lot of
sauce isn’t wanted . . . just enough to cover the
ingredients and seep down a little into the rice or
noodles.

A wok can also be used for pan-frying and deep-frying . . .
it’s especially good for cooking whole fish as the sides of
the pan will accomodate a fish without breaking it.

Steaming in a wok can be a delicate process for delicate
foods or–with steaming trays–a means of cooking
an entire meal in one pan over one fire. Steaming trays are
round bamboo constructions that fit snugly down the sides
of the wok . . . they stack on top of one another and have
lattice bottoms which allow steam to pass from the
simmering water in the bottom of the wok up through the
various trays.

The Chinese use steaming trays chiefly for the preparation
of their dim sum–dumpling snacks–but they’re
adaptable to many other dishes. With the trays, it’s
possible to cook a whole western-style meal of potatoes,
vegetable and fish or meat over one flame. If parts of the
menu have different cooking times, simply put the trays in
one at a time . . . foods that take longest go in first.

To buy steaming trays, you’ll probably have to go to a
Chinatown and find a store that sells housewares for
Chinese homes or supplies for Chinese restaurants. But the
design of the trays is not that complex, and it might be
possible for the ingenious to build them at home.

With or without steaming trays, though, you can start
enjoying quick, tasty and healthful meals just as soon as
you acquire a wok and master its simple techniques.