The Way of the Wok, an introduction

It’s inevitable when you grow up in the 70’s as the youngest and only girl of four siblings  – your fondest memories are of Bruce Lee movies and playing with numchuckoos. One of this martial arts legend’s memorable films was called “Way of the Dragon” (Return of the Dragon in U.S. theatres). So how is this related to my wok aspirations?

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Wok cooking is as deeply ingrained in Chinese culture as martial arts is. It has been a method of cooking 2000 years ago and the wok is sometimes the only cooking pan in a Chinese kitchen.

I am currently reading the book, “The Breath of a Wok”. There is so much information and lore surrounding this cooking implement that I have acquired a new and almost reverent regard for the one I currently own. The wok is said to last forever if you treat it right. The more it is used, the better food tastes. This is called seasoning and when done right, it almost attains a non-stick surface that requires very little oil.

         As I dust off my neglected wok, I suddenly feel a thread of connection to   Ancient Chinese kingdoms when emperors ruled and imperial dishes were meticulously prepared by the most gifted of Chinese cooks.

         I’ve always had a problem describing that distinctive fire taste of perfectly executed stir-fries. I did not know such a term existed until now. It is called “Wok Hay”, Hay means breath in Cantonese (spelled hei). This is the flavor imparted to food by a very hot wok. It is said that only Cantonese chefs are the masters of wok-hay. I’m not a chef but I am Cantonese so… J

         I have a long way to go before mastering the way of the wok and as I’ve said before there is so much information to be shared. So for this introductory post, I am keeping the recipe simple.

         The first obstacle that one encounters is heating the wok hot enough. Wok hay is said to be achieved only by adding cold oil to a hot wok. This means heating the wok until you can see faint whispers of smoke before adding the oil – this prevents the food from sticking. A Hong Kong chef once said that if oil were heated in a cold wok, ingredients would stick and burn while the inside remains raw. (Of course, I have read in Cookwise, that the metal of a hot pan would have expanded into any existing space inhibiting food from sticking.) To test if your pan is hot enough to receive the oil, a drop of water should evaporate in 2 seconds upon contact.

         I cannot claim originality for the recipe below. A friend of mine tried to copy the delicious shrimp and spinach fried rice from a local Japanese restaurant and was hugely successful. Instead of shrimp, lump crabmeat was substituted. I use Phillips brand, which is easily available in Costco.

         Measurements of ingredients are approximate. Adjust according to taste.

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Crab and Spinach Fried Rice

4 cups “day old” rice

1 tub of Phillips lump crabmeat, drained and picked through

9 oz. of spinach

4 whole eggs

5 cloves of garlic, smashed and minced

½ medium onion, diced

2-3 tbs. peanut oil

2 tbs. soy

1 tbs. fish sauce

1 tsp. sugar

1 tbs. seasoning soy like knorr or golden mountain (if none available just add another tablespoon of soy)

Heat the wok and add a tablespoon of oil, scramble the eggs until it is half-cooked, set aside. The eggs should still be runny as it will be added back into the mixture later on.

Clean the wok and return to the flame. Heat the wok until a drop of water vaporizes upon contact in 1 to 2 seconds. Add the rest of the oil, fry the garlic until aromatic, add the onions and fry until translucent.  Add the rice and spread over the pan in as thin a layer as possible and cook undisturbed for around for 1 minute. The grains of rice should start to dance. When it looks like the rice is heated through, pour the soy, fish sauce and seasoning soy at the outer edges of the wok so as not to drop the temperature in the middle. Sprinkle the sugar. Move the rice around briskly to distribute the flavorings and then leave undisturbed again for another minute. Taste the rice and adjust seasoning. Return the eggs, chop it using your cooking utensil and distribute.  Add the crab and fold the hot rice over it carefully so the lumps remain intact as much as possible. When the crab is heated through, add the spinach and continue to cook until wilted.

         Turn off heat and serve immediately.

* I had none available but adding chopped scallions at the end is also an option.

Cooking Notes:

         The best rice for fried rice should be made the day before. This makes it less sticky and drier – cooking it re-hydrates the rice anyway. It is important to crumble the rice with your hands to separate the grains.

The lump crab I used is already cooked and slightly salted which is why all it needed was to be heated through.

I detest greasy fried rice. I am so pleased to see that after consuming a plate of crab and spinach fried rice, there was no oily film left behind.

         Oh, and never clean the wok with soap. I cringe as I remember the times I did this and hope I have not compromised its integrity. Right now, I am using the soft side of a sponge to clean the interior and the rough side for sticky spots. I think a wok brush is too rough for home woks. After washing, put the wok on the stove and heat it until it is dry.

         I used to put a coating of oil on it before tucking it away, but I have recently learned that the oil might turn rancid and will leave an unpleasant taste on the wok, also it tends become tacky as it attracts dust.

         For those interested in buying a wok, there is a shop called The wok shop. They have a vast variety of woks including pre-seasoned and hand hammered ones. It is my hope to acquire a hand-hammered wok one day as this is said to produce the best “Wok hay”. Of course that will depend if my interest in this style of cooking  endures in my fickle heart.

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