Fiery breath of the wok

Fiery breath of the wok

Picture credit: Tony Webster

Chinese food being cooked is a sight to behold. The intense flames, tossing and speed of cooking make things all the more exciting.

Tasty as the cuisine is in restaurants, it is common to wonder why Chinese delicacies prepared at home almost never tastes like that.

Take the case of plain fried rice. There are not too many ingredients and it appears to be pretty simple to prepare. However, the final output makes us think about what went wrong.

Chinese food does not really involve elaborate cooking procedures like some other cuisines. The processes are simple, but the food is very tasty. There are a couple of reasons for that. The cooking vessel that is used makes all the difference, and so does the intense heat food is cooked with.

The ‘wok’ makes all the difference. It is a round cooking vessel with one long cylindrical handle (Mandarin wok) or two small U-shaped riveted handles (Cantonese wok). It originated in China a couple of thousand years ago. The wok is also used in many countries in South East Asia, South Asia and Japan. There are regional variations but largely the same. In India, a variant is what we popularly know as the kadai. Many shops sell it as the Chinese kadai. It is even called cheena chatti (in Tamil and Malayalam).

Mandarin wok. Picture credit: Caureus

The wok is a very versatile cooking vessel. It can be used for a variety of tasks, including stir frying, steaming, deep frying, roasting, searing and braising food.

It is not merely the wok that helps cook good food. Equally important is the heat at which food is cooked and also the method. Wok cooking involves high temperatures. This intense heat shortens cooking time. More importantly, it helps release and retain nutrients and flavour in the food. While the outside of the vegetable or meat becomes slightly crisp, the inside remains soft. Moreover, too much oil is not used and this makes the food healthy too.

Tossing food is not just to make the cooking process impressive. It has a purpose. The bottom of the wok is extremely hot and food can begin to burn in a matter of seconds. The process of tossing does not let the food burn and also mixes the vegetables, noodles, rice or meat with the sauces. Even this needs to be done properly. The angle at which the wok is leaned away from the chef and how the handle is held are important factors to get the tossing technique right and, of course, not spill food all over. The food will get burnt if there is no rhythm in the tossing technique.

As important as the wok is, a big flame is required to keep the vessel hot. Domestic stove burners are not capable of producing the kind of heat needed for wok cooking. This high heat is the reason flames arise from the wok. This is called ‘wok hei’ or breath of the wok.

If a wok is used at home with normal stoves, it might just take longer to cook food but may not necessarily get the taste of restaurant food.

Carbon steel and cast iron are the most common metals used for producing woks. Carbon steel is far lighter than cast iron and is generally the preferred material. However, carbon steel woks have to be seasoned first. If not seasoned, they will rust easily. Seasoning is to heat it and burn off the factory coatings during manufacture and to get the black layer that will ensure that it becomes non-stick. Oil has to be heated till it becomes smoky and repeated a couple of times till the metal blackens.

Cantonese wok (left) and kadai: Picture credit: FiveRings

The easier way out is to buy a Teflon-coated non-stick wok. But the drawback is that food cooked on non-stick woks may not get the same taste as food in carbon steel woks. Also, with Teflon-coated woks, steel ladles and spatulas cannot be used since they will scratch the coating. A ladle is used to mix the food well and is an important part of wok cooking.

Western variants have a flat bottom so that they can be used with induction cooktops.

Iron or carbon steel woks are pretty inexpensive and can be bought from hotelware stores. A 12-inch iron wok can be as inexpensive as Rs 300, while the cast iron ones can cost more than Rs 1000.

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