Updated: Sep 27, 2020
In every Chinese kitchen, there’s a specific utensil for each technique, but the wok reigns supreme and for good reason. To call the wok versatile is an understatement, because it can be used for stir-frying, steaming, deep frying, poaching, boiling, braising, stewing, smoking, and even roasting nuts. I heard a lovely anecdote from a young Chinese hairdresser in Bangalore, whose great, great grandmother walked much of the way from China to Calcutta, with her precious wok on her back, using it often as a “shield” from flying arrows. The great great grandson couldn’t tell me who was shooting the arrows but it didn’t really matter, just the image of this young Chinese woman who left her homeland on foot, with just the shirt she was wearing and her wok on her back, was poignant. When I compared the results of my
kadhai-fried noodles with that of anything wok tossed in desi-Chinese homes I have eaten in, I understood why she carried it all the way. (I have since acquired a lovely wok).
The wok is the most important of the Chinese cooking implements, the charismatic band leader if you will and many Chinese dishes are cooked in it. It is a very beautifully shaped pan, made of thin gauge cast iron (traditionally) or carbon steel (more recently), wide and somewhat shallow, with a dome lid. Its special feature is that it gets really hot when there’s a good flame going. It’s the high heat or wok hei, that gives food that flavourful edge. Loosely translated, wok hei means “breath of the wok” which refers to the flavours that only a hot wok can give to food during stir frying, and is particularly important for those Chinese dishes requiring searing heat. Creating wok hei is more than simply raising the flame underneath the wok. What also matters is the quantity of food or amount of oil added to the wok and the timing: too much oil and the food will be fried, too little and wok hei won’t be achieved. Since different ingredients need different timings in a wok, even if they go into the same dish, vegetables and meat are always stir-fried separately and then mixed together just before they are served (all Chinese food must be eaten pan-to-table, to get the best of it). Wok hei is in fact, an acquired skill that often is a measure of a Chinese chef’s expertise! I am dreaming of the day I can toss-it-in-the-wok (preferably in slow motion) like they do on TV food shows.
It is probably also the most “borrowed” of Chinese cooking utensils and although many years have passed since the last Chinese trader stepped off his junk on to the shores of the Malabar, one can find a Chinese wok and a few Chinese ceramic jars in many Kerala kitchens even today. Interestingly, although now locally produced, woks in Kerala are still called Cheena chatti. ( the pickling jar is still called Cheena Bharani)