On the Wok

By Faye Zhang ’17

From the time I first peered over the stove at my mother’s hand deftly flipping eggs, tomatoes, and rice, to a year spent living and cooking solo on meager means, I’ve grown to appreciate—nay, love—the wonders of the wok.

The wok, an English label, is a misnomer. In Mandarin Chinese, the wok is known as a “guō”. In Indonesia it is known as a “penggorengan” or “wajan”. In Malaysia a small wok is called a “kuali”, and a big wok “kawah”. In the Philippines it is known as a “kawali” or a “wadjang”. In Japan, “chūkanabe”. In India, ”cheena chatti” (literally, “Chinese pot”) or “karahi”.

No matter its name, size, or country of origin, the wok varies little: a round-bottomed, cast iron pan attached to a long wooden handle. According to legend, woks originated during Chinese military marches, when soldiers gave their war helmets a double role as cooking vessels over campfires. Perhaps “double” is too limiting. The wok serves nearly any purpose: boiling, braising, deep-frying, roasting, smoking, searing, steaming, stewing, and its most well known use, stir-frying.

With a wok, one never struggles to remove charred bits of food that stick to the bottom of a pan and refuse to budge. The cast iron material and round shape allows a spatula, or traditionally, a set of long wooden chopsticks, to chase down every particle and douse it with seasoning. Food sticking to the pan is no matter at all: the wise cook prizes the caramelized layers of past flavors, each of them lending mysterious savor to each new dish.

With a flick of a chopstick, the sizzling food slides over a steaming bed of rice to finish the dish. In my case, food often never left the wok—the round pan serves as a perfect, albeit hot, bowl. No use complaining, though. The wok was built for heat; perfect for cooking over a traditional pit-style stove filled with smoldering coal or wood. Fire would lick the iron rim, creating 180 degrees of perfect thermal conduction.

Modern stovetops, such as flat electric stovetop surfaces, have led to the creation of frying pans attempting to pass as flat-bottomed woks. Heavy cast iron has been substituted for lightweight stainless steel. Wooden handles have been replaced by smooth rubber. The Presto 5900, a stainless steel electric automatic wok, essentially cooks by itself.

And yet, food made in these modern contraptions somehow tastes off. Broccoli has no bite, meat is tepid, stews lack depth. Perhaps it’s the relentless cleanliness and efficiency; modern woks scrubbed clean after each use never get the chance to accumulate flavor history. There is a Chinese dish called “guō-tie”, potstickers—a clever use for leftover dumplings made in huge and un-finishable quantities during holidays. To make them, day-old dumplings are dumped into a hot wok, doused with oil, and left to sizzle. They’re called potstickers because, while the innards simmer, the thin dumpling skin sticks to the wok and fries to a crispy, salty-sweet crust.

Guō-tie is impossible to get right on stainless steel. One bite proves why: the blackened dumpling rim which envelopes a release of savory juice can only be created by a properly aged wok—the kind passed down from ancestors, full of browned, crusty memories.​

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