The wok is one of the oldest cooking utensils known to humankind. The Chinese have used it for centuries. Here in the West it’s gained prominence in the last generation, with more and more people applying it to their cuisine. The uses of a wok are almost limitless. It can be used as a steamer, or double broiler. It’s also good for making sauces and soups, for stewing, sauteing, smoking foods, and even baking (like egg-cake baked in a wok). But it’s most popular use is for stir-frying.
A wok is nothing more than a deeply-dished basin made of metal. Its components could be steel, aluminum, or cast-iron. These days they are even made of ceramic. I prefer the cast-iron version. Problem is, they are hard to find. You may have to go on the web or via a catalog place to get one. Once you acquire a wok, if it’s made of metal, it has to be seasoned. This ensures the wok is in prime working order. The procedure is simple enough. First, wash the wok with hot water and soap to remove the special anti-rust coating. Rinse and dry with a clean towel or paper towels. Rub the inside surface with a thick film of peanut, corn, or soybean oil. Heat the wok over low heat for about 3 to 5 minutes until the oil steams. Turn off the heat and allow the wok to cool. Wipe away excess oil with paper towels, and your wok is now ready to use. After cooking, the wok should not be washed with soap or detergent. Just rinse it with hot water and, if need be, scrub it with a plastic (not metal) pad or you can purchase special bristle scrubbing brushes sold in Chinatown or most Asian stores. Wipe wok thoroughly dry and apply a light coat of vegetable oil to keep the wok from rusting.
As to using a wok in your kitchen, in the old days woks came with a round adapter ring. You put the wok on top of the ring to balance the round surface of the wok. This made woks work well with a gas range. It did not work that well with an electric one. Today there are woks made with a flat base so that you don’t need the adapter ring. Also, the adapter ring has a tendency of leaving a burn mark on the surface of the range after constant use. That’s why I prefer using a wok without the adapter ring.
Most woks come with a spatula (wok chan) and a long spoon (siu hok), for ease of cooking. It goes without saying, you’ll also need a sharp knife or, better yet, a sharp heavy cleaver for cutting, slicing and chopping. A good chopping block is another necessity. These can be made of treated plastic or wood. There is an argument about this. Old timers still prefer the heavy wooden chopping block that can be found in stores in various sizes and shapes. Some claim the non-wooden chopping boards are best since they minimize the danger of bacteria build-up (even after cleaning with chlorine bleach). What type of cutting board or block you use? That’s something you’re going to have to decide for yourself.
Below is the easiest stir-fry recipe I know. Served over steamed rice, it makes a great vegetarian dish. But be aware that you can cook fish, meat, poultry, whatever, in a wok. Usually the ingredients are cut in such a way that all the pieces will be of uniform size; and the food which takes the longest time to cook will be put in the wok first. Another thing, most Chinese dishes call for soy sauce, of which there are two types: light and dark. Light soy sauce has more of the aroma of soybeans and is best used in soups, with white meat and cold dishes. Dark soy sauce has a stronger flavor and more sugar and is best in fried dishes and stews.
STIR-FRIED TOMATOES, ONIONS AND GREEN PEPPERS
3 tablespoons cornstarch
1/2 cup water
2 tablespoon soy sauce
3 tablespoons peanut oil
1 large onion cut into 1/8-inch thick slices
2 green peppers, diced into 1-inch squares
1 clove garlic, peeled and crushed
2 large tomatoes, each cut into eight wedges
1 teaspoon sesame oil
1. Blend the cornstarch in water.
2. Add soy sauce and mix. Have it ready beforehand. Chinese stir-frying goes very quick.
3. Preheat wok over high heat. Do not heat the oil in the wok before adding food, otherwise the food will stick to the wok.
4. Add peanut oil and heat over medium flame.
5. Add onion and stir-fry for 1 minute, stirring constantly.
6. Add peppers and garlic and continue cooking for 2 minutes.
7. Stir in tomatoes. Add the cornstarch-soy mix, and stir to to thicken (about 1-2 minutes).
8. Remove from heat, and add sesame oil. The function of sesame oil is to give the food a pleasant aroma. If it is included too soon, the aroma is lost. In general, it should be added before the food is served.
Yield: 4 servings
Note: If you want a more Asian flavor, add 1 teaspoon fresh grated ginger root to the vegetables while cooking; and garnish the finished dish with chopped scallions.