For thousands of years people on the continent of Asia have cooked their food in woks. A single wok could have been used to cook thousands of meals over several decades. One pan, perfectly constructed and seasoned could be used to feed several generations of one family. A wok is a family treasure, a practical necessity and requires constant care to retain its function.
I owned 2 woks until yesterday. Both are rather jazzy numbers made of shiny stainless steel and are scrubbed clean after every use. The only resemblance they hold to a traditional carbon steel wok is their shape. With the money I spent on these two pans alone I could have fed several villages in the Szechuan Province. Asian people would not call what I have a wok. That changed yesterday.
I am working on an assignment that requires me to cook, and show cooking, stir-fry recipes in a flat-bottomed, carbon steel wok with wooden handles. I set out yesterday, on one of the hottest days of the year to find one. Home Goods, of course not, but it was worth a shot. Five different Chinese kitchen stores on Bowery…lot’s of woks…not the one I wanted. Finally, in the basement of the Sur La Table store in SoHo they found me the wok I needed.
I brought it home to begin the seasoning process…did I mention it was 95 degrees yesterday…which requires standing with this huge hunk of metal over an open flame until the entire pan was caramel in color and then scouring it with steel wool while it’s still hot. I did not realize I was going to be working in a blacksmith’s shop for this assignment. The purpose of this is to remove the protective coating that was covering the bare metal. It took me close to an hour of heating, scrubbing and sweating to get to the shiny silver payload.
Next, I had to re-heat the pan with a thin layer of oil (vegetable oil, not olive oil) until very hot…let cool…wipe out the excess…and repeat 3 times. Now, after close to two hours of hard labor my new wok was seasoned and ready for use.
This morning, I used my wok for the first time and it was a noticeable difference from my fancy All-Clad yuppy woks. everything heated quicker; my stir fries were all 3-5 minute recipes and were perfectly on their cook times. It was bigger, deeper and kept my stove from being covered in ingredients…and…of course…the food tasted better. Veggies were crisper, meats browned more evenly and noodles cooked perfectly. It was a revelation.
I cleaned the kitchen and saved the wok for last. I carefully cleaned it with warm, mildly soapy water, wiped it dry and meticulously applied a new, thin coat of oil before proudly hanging it on my pot rack. I felt a bond with my new wok…we had been through a lot together in the first 24 hours of our partnership. I look forward to my new wok becoming blackened with use and having a beautifully browned interior from years of lovingly feeding my family. I looked to my daughter as I was putting it away and began to explain why it’s so important to take good care of your wok…and the history of the wok…and the bond the wok has with traditional Asian cooking…and on and on…She looked at me, rolled her eyes and went back to playing with her yo-yo…another ancient Asian invention….hmmm…Hey, Julia….did you know that the yo-yo…