As a departure from our regular reviews of local food joints, I wanted to share a little bit about some of the tools that you can use to create great dishes in your own kitchen. One of the first things that most of us think about when we think of Chinese cooking is the wok.
What makes a wok special? Why couldn't you simply use a frying pan or skillet to cook Chinese dishes? Grace Young writes in The Breath of a Wok that the Cantonese believe that the wok imparts a special flavor known as 'wok hei' which means 'taste of the wok'. Indeed a well-seasoned wok creates a taste that cooking in a pan or skillet cannot reproduce. The circular shape of the wok allows for food to be cooked at various stages of heat and the seasoning of herbs and spices works itself into the essence of wok.
When purchasing a wok, avoid stainless steel woks. They take to long to heat up and will not season well. Avoid buying woks in big name department stores. They usually appear high quality but stink when it comes to cooking. (And for heaven's sake..don't ever, ever, ever even look at electric wok's. There are no regions of varying heat in these for proper cooking, just one big warm shell!) A good wok is created using hammered or spun steel. The spun carbon steel looks like the tracks on an album (if you can remember albums..I can..and I can remember eight tracks but that's another story) The grooved spun steel is a perfect surface for cooking.
I would suggest buying your wok from an ethnic market where 'non touristy' woks can be found.
Woks come in a couple of body styles. The traditional rounded bottom woks are made for stoves with gas. Flat bottomed woks sits nicely on an electric power range.
Cooking on the wok is an art. Oils like sesame oil or peanut oil are suggested as they can survive high heat without burning. They also impart a great flavor and scent. After cooking on a quality wok, it will build a patina that will season it. The following is a great cutaway shot of a wok in action.
Cutting ingredients to go into the wok should be complimentary to the wok. Meat and vegetables should be cut into small pieces and thin strips so that they will cook quickly. This technique was implemented in areas of China where fuel could be conserved by cooking foods at a quicker pace.
The words 'stir fry' in the Bible Belt may conjure up images of 'La Choy' tasteless mixed vegetables and bamboo shoots mixed with waterfalls of soy sauce and bite size chicken pieces.
Stir frying is a technique used in cooking Chinese dishes. Known as 'Chau' in Cantonese, the technique is used to preserve textures and lock in flavors. Stir frying focuses on 'tossing' ingredients around the pot to lightly sear them without burning them or drying them out. The term first came on the scene in the U.S. in 1945 when an English Chinese cookbook written by Buwei Yang Chao spoke of the 'chao' cooking technique. The writer shares that "chao may be referred to as big fire shallow fat continual stirring quick frying." A long description that he suggested be called 'stir fry' for short.
Instead of pouring a ton of ingredients in your wok, start out with a basic sesame oil and minced garlic. The scent and seasoning of the two is amazing...