Ancient utensils were not just for cooking food
Stir-fry is the most common cooking technique in China, and it only takes minutes to whip up a delicious dish with almost any proteins and vegetables you can find in the fridge.
The wok, the cooking utensil that makes stir-frying happen, is among the most versatile tools in Chinese cooking. The word wok comes from the Cantonese pronunciation of the Chinese character huo (鑊).
Before Western-style cookware was introduced to China, a wok completed almost all cooking tasks, from stir-frying, boiling, braising to roasting, steaming and even smoking — a feast can be made with just one wok to hand.
But the wok wasn’t the first cooking utensil in China’s culinary history. Pans and pots slowly evolved to the form and function of today, and along the way, the development of cookware.
A stone was the first utensil humans learned to use by heating up a flat stone and using it to cook meat.
The earliest pot in Chinese history was the taofu (陶釜), or clay pot, which appeared in the Neolithic Age over 10,000 years ago. The round-shaped cauldron was used to boil food, and it had feet to create a space for a fire underneath.
Fu (釜) is the Chinese character for round pot, a related phrase is “fu di chou xin,” which translates as taking away the fire under the pot, meaning taking full measures to solve a problem.
In the Xia, Shang and Zhou dynasties, another cooking vessel called ding (鼎) thrived. The large bronze pot with three or four feet was an important ritual vessel, as pork, beef or lamb were cooked in a ding for worship events and ceremonies.
As cookware, the bronze ding was used exclusively by nobles and royals. Its role as an expression of the ancient power hierarchy set it apart from daily utensils such as clay pot, wood and stone containers.
“Yi yan jiu ding,” which means one word is as heavy as nine dings, is a Chinese phrase that expresses that what is said carries weight. The nine dings were created by nine states in the Xia Dynasty (21st-16th century BC), they represented the highest power of royalty and a symbol of unity and prosperity.
Zeng (甑) was the earliest Chinese steamer. Bronze zeng appeared in the early Shang Dynasty (16th-11th century BC) and was a vessel used by higher-ranking nobles to cook food with steam. The bottom part, called ge (鬲), was filled with water while the upper part, the zeng, held the food.
Ironware was believed to have emerged in the Spring and Autumn Period (770-476 BC) and Warring States Period (476-221 BC), but it’s not known if iron pans were created at the same time. Iron was very precious and it’s closely related to two aspects that decided the rise and fall of a regime — making farm tools to promote agriculture and producing weapons.
Iron woks became popular in cooking in the Song Dynasty (AD 960-1279) and stir-frying food using such a utensil significantly advanced Chinese cooking. Before then, cookware was mainly used to boil or stew the food.
Common woks are made of carbon steel, which is relatively light in weight and allows heat to conduct quickly. High quality woks are handmade by blacksmiths, and the most crucial step in making an iron wok is to hammer the pan to create a nonstick surface that’s almost as clear as a mirror under the sun.
Chefs mostly use woks with loop handles and hold them with a towel. It’s more physically demanding than the stick-handled wok used in most people’s kitchens.
Traditionally, woks were used over a pit-style hearth and they are settled halfway into the stove top. The wok’s curved bottom not only provides a larger cooking surface, but also makes for more even mixing and tossing of the ingredients.
Pit stoves are now mostly used in professional Chinese restaurants as well as in rural areas. Households use smaller woks on gas stoves.
Cooking with wok
After an iron wok is cast in the factory, it will receive an anti-rust treatment to prevent corrosion in storage and transportation, so new woks are shinier, feel slightly greasy and have a unique scent, which must be removed before first use.
This step called kaiguo, or “start a wok.” After washing the wok thoroughly with water, it should be slowly baked on a low to medium heat while the wok is rotated so every inch is covered. The wok is ready after the entire surface turns a grey blue.
The wok is left to cool for five minutes before being put over a low heat. A bar of pork fat is then rubbed evenly over the wok which will then darken in color. The wok is then left to sit overnight. The next day it is rinsed with hot water and then baked dry over a low heat and brushed with oil to form a protective layer. The wok is ready to stir-fry.
Maintaining a wok in top condition is an art. In China, the process of taking care of an iron wok is called yangguo, with yang meaning to nourish.
When you are finished using the wok, boil some water in it to remove grease and stain, then pour the water out and pat dry with paper towel. The wok should be put back on the stove and brushed with vegetable oil and left on a low heat for two to three minutes.
The protective layer helps to make the wok nonstick. Woks should be kept in dry places to avoid rusting. A well-maintained and nourished wok can last a very long time in the kitchen.
The essence of cooking with a Chinese wok is huoqi, the flavor and taste imparted to the food by the hot wok during stir-frying. It’s a difficult phrase to translate, American food writer Grace Young coined it as the “breath of the wok.”
The wok can cook ingredients with aggressive heat to preserve the flavor and texture at its maximum. The quick stir-frying enables caramelization and a Maillard reaction, bringing out the fragrance and color of the food. Using a larger amount of oil can increase huoqi, though it also makes the dish greasier.
A wok performs best when used over a fire, as an electric stove cannot produce even heat so quickly.