The wok, known as “chao guo” 炒锅 in Mandarin, is a true time-tested kitchen tool, having held an important position in Chinese kitchens for over a thousand years and continues to do so today.
For centuries, Chinese families used cast-iron woks which were sometimes passed down over several generations. Uncoated carbon steel, a relative newcomer is gaining popularity, however they tend to warp relatively easily compared to cast-iron.
One of the reasons for carbon steel’s popularity is due to it offering the same advantages as cast-iron, without the heavy weight of a cast-iron wok. However, this advantage is largely applicable against Western-made cast-iron woks which are usually thick and bulky. In contrast, traditional Chinese-made cast-iron woks are considerably thinner and therefore lighter. As a result, the traditional cast-iron wok is still a popular choice among Chinese families and, due to their durability, the cast-iron woks currently used by some families are inheritances from previous generations. My grandmother’s Chinese-made cast-iron wok is made entirely of cast-iron including the handles. After several decades of use, her cast-iron wok is still of great service to the family, well-seasoned and perfectly functional, occupying a central position in the kitchen and used almost every day by her children and grandchildren.
For authentic Chinese cuisine, a good-quality wok is essential for several reasons.
Ability to withstand very high temperatures
A signature technique in Chinese cooking is fast cooking and extremely high temperatures to produce vibrant, crunchy vegetables and firm meat. Extremely high temperatures, ensures that the food does not “sweat”, slow-cook, boil or steam. Achieving “wok hei”, demands extremely high temperatures.
Woks, particularly the classic, traditional cast-iron woks are well suited to withstand the high heat that Chinese cooking demands which other cooking utensils such as modern non-stick skillets are unable to tolerate.
Ability to retain heat
Certain dishes in Chinese cooking call for fast cooking. Towards this end, the cookware should be able to retain heat because if it loses heat midway, say after the addition of some ingredients, then the food ends up slow cooking instead since the cookware would take time to recover the heat it lost. This results in dull, soggy vegetables and meat which are undesirable in Chinese cooking.
For instance, leafy greens cooked typically Chinese style, such as with oyster sauce and garlic oil calls for leaves that are blanched in boiling water – quickly – and then immediately taken out and dunked in cold water to stop cooking (click here for Culinary Connoisseur’s “Chinese style Asian greens with oyster sauce and garlic oil” recipe). This quick cooking process ensures that the leaves retain their vibrant green color and natural crunch. If the temperature of the water drops immediately as the leaves are added (which is a standard characteristic of inferior-quality woks), this results in a slower than acceptable rate of cooking. As a result, the cooked greens lose their color, texture and is no longer “authentic” Chinese cooking.
If the wok is of poor craftsmanship, heat will be unevenly distributed, which in turn results in unevenly cooked food – needless to say, this is undesirable in Chinese cuisine or any cuisine for that matter.
Most modern-day non-stick cooking utensils lose their outer non-stick chemical coatings with time. Cast-iron woks on the other hand (which are crafted with natural materials) retain their non-stick properties for generations (with proper maintenance). Being naturally non-stick and not requiring any artificial coatings, also offers other advantages; it is believed that with no flavor adulterations from artificial coatings, the original flavor of the food being cooked is retained, and additionally, being free of artificial coatings makes the wok a healthier cooking tool too.