Useful kitchen tools stand the test of time and new technologies. The wok is one of them.
The concaved and round-bottom utensil was designed for fast cooking as China was always short of fuel (Wilson 83). Its metal body conducts heat quickly, while its sloping sides provide a large cooking surface, producing maximum tastes with minimum fuel. The wok also sits securely atop the traditional Chinese stove, a brick- or clay-made open cylinder, but it is not always left to its own devices (Tan 8). A skillful cook likes to give it a jerk in circular motion to cook the food even faster and more evenly. Chinese dishes are by no coincidence pre-cut into fast-to-cook morsels but are designed so for the fuel-poor but food-loving Chinese (Wilson 54-55).
Before small apartments and tiny kitchens, an outdoor wok station was the standard feature in Singaporean houses (Tan and Van 36). Today, the space to wield one’s ladle may have shrunk, but the wok continues to be used in households as well as businesses, because it is versatile enough to stir-fry, deep-fry, braise, stew and steam. As some of these methods transcend tastes and cultures, so has the wok.
The most common use of the wok is stir-frying. Char kway teow and sambal kangkong are examples of local foods produced by this technique. To prevent the ingredients from clumping together or losing contact with the heat, constant stirring and spreading of the food around the wok is essential. Even a clumsy cook can pull this off as the high sloping sides will help bring the food back to the centre, not over the edge. Ingenious hawkers even make use of the heat difference in the wok to standby a few portions by the sides, while they finish up an order in the hottest centre.
To the Cantonese, a stir-fry without wok hei is like sambal without the sting. Wok hei is best understood as the breath of a wok – when the wok breathes energy into the food, giving it a concentrated flavour and aroma. It takes a well-seasoned wok and intense heat to create this prized essence. The wok’s concave shape also helps keep the hot air in, creating a harmony of taste across the ingredients (Young 26). While traditionally a Cantonese concept, wok hei is now coveted by discerning customers of other Chinese dialects, and a pursuit by hawkers and chefs of any cuisine.
A wok becomes useful for deep-frying when filled with enough oil. Compared to a flat-bottom pan, a wok requires lesser oil because its curvature creates depth. The wok maintains a high steady temperature, so that moisture stays in but oil stays out of the crispy batter of goreng pisang or chicken wings. The implement’s high sloping sides are much appreciated for minimising splatters on the stove and countertop.
With good enough depth to swim a fowl, the wok is also handy for bigger projects like a braised whole duck. This Teochew dish is less than ideal without the bursting flavours of stir-fried aromatics. One may start off with that in a wok, adding liquid and duck later, thus, avoid scrubbing several pots for just one dish (Tan and Van 142).
Switch gravy for water and the wok becomes a perfect steam room. Simply use two chopsticks to make a rack, place them above the water level and sit the plate on top. Complementary to this set up is a dome-shaped cover that ensures condensed vapour trickles down the sides into the wok rather than dripping into the food and diluting its flavour (Tan 8).
The wok has a following outside the Chinese communities too. It has been used by the Malays and Peranakans to cook sambal goreng, begedil and serundeng, while the Indians turn it upside down to efficiently sear chapati, an Indian flatbread. So widely used is the wok that each of these communities has developed its own method of seasoning this tool by applying a layer of protective coating. This is to prevent the wok – usually made of cast iron for better heat retention, or carbon steel for quicker response to heat changes – from rusting and food from sticking on it (Tan and Van 36). The older generation of Chinese cooks like to fry a kilogram of pork fat and leave the rendered lard in the wok for days. A Malay makcik heats up coconut oil with her wok, while her Peranakan counterpart stresses on frying a bunch of pandan leaves first, adding the oil only later (Tan 8). Most cookbooks today advise just having a thin layer of vegetable oil inside the wok, and then heating it over the stove until the oil carbonises to form a layer of seasoning (Tan and Van 36; Gritzer). Repeating this process a few times will create a pitch black, well-seasoned wok – the pre-requisite for creating wok hei.
Today, the wok has many new versions: the flat-bottomed wok for electric stoves, the stainless steel wok for induction cooking, and the automated wok for productivity in commercial kitchens (Lee). However, none are as multifunctional as the traditional round-bottomed wok, which is why it still claims a place in the Singaporean kitchen.
Lee, Yen Nee. “Your Fried Rice’s Ready, Chef.” Today, 7 Dec 2013, https://www.todayonline.com/business/your-fried-rices-ready-chef. Accessed 4 Feb 2018.
Gritzer, Daniel. “How to Season a Cast-Iron Pan.” SeriousEats, http://www.seriouseats.com/2016/09/how-to-season-cast-iron-pans-skillets-cookware.html. Accessed 4 Feb 2018.
Tan, Christopher, and Van, Amy. Chinese Heritage Cooking. Marshall Cavendish International, 2012.
Tan, Lee Leng. “The Whys of Hys of Wok Cooking.” The Straits Times, 6 Sep 1980, p.8.
Wilson, Bee. Consider the Fork. Basic Books, 2012.
Young, Grace. “Wok Hay: The Breath of A Wok.” Gastronomica, Summer 2004, pp. 26-30.