From My Wok to Yours - Taking the Mystery Out of Everyday Dining and Meals!!

Wednesday, January 28, 2015

Wok Solid Education

As I was preparing myself to cook for some of my good friends, I could not help but to think back on last April, when I cooked a Chinese food lunch for 85 church friends.  It was a menu of regular favorites, including a teriyaki chicken, mongolian beef, and kung pao chicken.  With it I served steamed white rice and fried rice.  And there was a LOT of fried rice.  

Fried rice, when serve best, is served fresh.  I was not willing to compromise on the quality of the rice, so while everyone was in line filling their plates, I was cooking batch after batch of fried rice.  I marveled over the fact that my wok was so hot and so perfectly seasoned that I was literally able to pour a fresh batch into a chafing pan, give it a quick wipe, then start the next batch.  There was no residual food stuck on the wok!!

It is almost a science, one that I really enjoy.

WOKS are missing in many new Asian restaurants.  This baffles me, and should baffle anyone who knows that steel cookware withstands flames and heat up to seven hundred degrees Fahrenheit while other pots and pans melt at that temperature.

Traditionalists, and thankfully I am one, are appalled, even horrified. I often wonder how places such as 'The Big Bowl' chain of restaurants out of Chicago can get decent taste, good caramelization, and fine looking Asian food now that they have scrapped their woks.

Martin Yan, who plans to open a couple of hundred sit-down restaurants tentatively called 'Yan Can Fresh Asian Cooking,' says he never plans to scrap using woks in his upcoming restaurants. Yeah Martin! His upcoming eateries are to be in association with Yum Brands Inc., the parent corporation of Kentucky Fried Chicken, Pizza Hut, and Taco Bell. Hope he holds his course on that issue because that small feature can help their restaurants gain some market success.

Woks, known in Chinese as guo, usually come with two handles, both made of metal. A few are made with one long wooden handle, these are called tiao. Both pans are curved at the bottom, somewhat akin to an upside down coolie hat. And, no matter their handle design, they are the most versatile cooking implement known to man.

Woks have been known for at least two thousand years. Some have been found made of pottery; these were buried in tombs even before that. The purpose for putting them in a tomb is to help the deceased cope in their spiritual afterlife. Metal woks were introduced just about when the Han Dynasty began in 202 BCE. Interestingly enough, their early use was to dry grains. The drying of tea leaves came much later than that. An early record of tea drying can be found in Chien Chun Nien’s Cha Phu which was said to be written in 1539.

Stir-frying, something thought ubiquitous with the wok, did not start and become popular until the Ming Dynasty (1368 - 1644 CE). Only one or two sources say there probably was a very small amount of this type of cooking in use in the Han Dynasty (202 BCE - 220 CE). We recently learned that in the sixteenth century, when cookery books were searched, they found only five of every hundred dishes were made using a stir-fry technique while in the eighteenth century, that number increased to sixteen out of a hundred.

Woks do have many different names. These include tsao, kuo, ting, tiang, and of course kuo and guo. What is special and wonderful about them, no matter what they are called, is that a very small amount of oil goes a long way, and foods can be pushed up and out of the liquid to drain away oil or another cooking liquid; and that one can steam, boil, grill, simmer, saute, deep-fry, and stir-fry in them. Most woks are made of iron, their food mixtures often slightly acidic. That makes them a good sources of that nutrient. Other Asian countries have used or adapted woks to their own culinary needs. Some make them smaller, others deeper, and many replace the two handles with others of different shape and materials.

Some people think woks are indestructible. Not so. Just ask any restaurant owner and he or she will tell you differently. Many have to replace one or more each month because they get dented, cracked, or something else happens to them.

Wok cooking is best done with a specially designed spatula made just for that purpose. Its shape is such that it can get foods parked at the sides of the wok, or toss them to the bottom and up again with ease. Other items that work well with woks are bamboo-handled wire baskets, great for taking small amounts of ingredients out of one, or large and more flat metal strainers that look akin to a flattened colander; their sizes vary.
Woks used for steaming can accommodate any number of steamer baskets topped with a bamboo steamer cover. These are better than metal steamer baskets because they do not sweat, allow steam to escape, and do not need any oil before putting food on them as foods do not stick to them. Should you not have a steamer basket, two pairs of chopsticks making a box shape, that is two in each direction, will hold a bowl or plate of food that needs steaming. Any ordinary pot cover can become a cover for that makeshift steamer basket holder and its contents. No chopsticks in your house? That is OK. Grab a can the size made for tuna fish, remove the contents and remove both top and bottom ends. Then set your bowl or plate on top of that, and your cover on that. This substitute works even in large straight-sided pots.

What cooks best in a wok? Everything! Because of its large surface area, foods cook faster and liquids in them reduce faster when used on a exceptionally hot flame. The texture and taste of any food cooked in a hot wok are sealed in. For those who have no access to gas, and therefore have no flame, hot or otherwise, try a flat-bottomed wok. However, keep in mind that cooking techniques need to change to use them. Because gas temperatures can be reduced with the turn of a handle or knob, flat-bottomed woks on electric burners need to be removed from their electric burner to quickly reduce the heat. Only use a curved wok on an electric stove IF there is a ring set outside the burner for the wok to sit on. And one other thing for safety, when tossing foods in a wok that is sitting on one of those wok rings, be sure to hold the wok handle with a pot holder in one hand to assure that the wok stays put and does not get jostled off the ring.

Wok cooking is by no means limited to stir-frying. This article has already shown that it can be used for steaming. Woks can also be used for stir-frying and deep frying. They can be used for braising and boiling and just about everything else except broiling. Do not purchase one with a Teflon or with another coating. Why not? Because most of the items used to coat pots and pans cannot withstand the heat a wok is exposed to; and many of them might and some do vaporize at those temperatures. A wok made of plain ordinary hammered steel is best. This item of cooking really is best when purchased at the low economic end.

After you buy a new wok, you need to prepare it for use. Wash it well, scrub it with steel wool, dry it well, oil it well, and heat it on a low flame for half an hour or more. Then wash it and repeat this process several times. You will have ‘seasoned’ your wok, as that is called. The better seasoned it is, the better your cooking will be. Unseasoned woks are such that foods stick to their sides. Season yours well, and you will eat well!

For now, Eat Well, Friends...

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