Cooking With a Wok

When done well, cooking with a wok is a mix of Confucian artistry, Taoist austerity, and Zen harmony.

| September/October 1978

Years ago, I bought a wok—the traditional Asian round-bottomed frying pan—simply because I've always liked Chinese restaurant cooking. And because I had a vague desire to whip up my own chow mein instead of carrying it home in the equally traditional white paper cartons.

Once that wok entered my kitchen, though, it almost magically began to transform my typically mundane American food philosophy into a whole new nutritional consciousness. To put it another way: That funny, bulge-bottomed cooking utensil may have looked sorta strange to my Western eyes at first glance, but it has certainly changed me into a happier, healthier, and more adventurous consumer of all kinds of (both new and reborn old) delectable things eat

The Confucian Taoist Zen of It All ...

As I began to explore my wok's possibilities, I naturally turned to some of the many Chinese and Japanese cookbooks on the market. And I immediately discovered that Confucius (who was a philosopher, teacher, and gourmet 500 years before Christ was born) both advised a cultivation of the taste for fine food and viewed its preparation as an art.

I also learned that the early Taoists—in a quest for natural simplicity and good health—had, through trial and error, created a largely vegetarian diet that modern nutritionists still consider exceptionally well-balanced.

And as I experimented with such recipes, I quickly developed a Zen-like, intuitive understanding, appreciation, and "feel" for what I ate. Pure came to mean "clear and rich" to me. Sweet, "fresh air or water." Smooth, "not pasty." Young and tender, "crisp and fully toothsome".

I soon found that when I thought of a dish's texture, I was actually visualizing several intertextures, including crisp, tender, smooth, and soft (but never soggy, stringy, or mushy). And, above all, I was developing images of clear greens and yellows (vegetables), rich browns (gravies), glossy oranges (glazes), and golden hues (broths) whenever the subject of food color came to mind. Why, I was starting to use my eyes, nose—even my teeth!—as well as my tongue and palate to savor the recipes I prepared and ate. This was a new experience for me.

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