Have you ever noticed that you do things a certain way all your life, not the right way necessarily but you get by, and then one day, for some mysterious reason, you are open to listening and learning and a light goes off?
So it is with me and Chinese cooking. I’ve been making stir-fries all my cooking life but in a haphazard way, with a large skillet and any old utensil, not bothered if the food flipped out of the pan or if I had all the right ingredients. Well, Grace Young’s Stir-Frying to the Sky’s Edge: The Ultimate Guide to Mastery, with Authentic Recipes and Stories has set me on a new path.
Since reading the book, I have purchased my first wok and am in the process of seasoning it. I have been to the Chinese superstore three times to stock up on ingredients and have made several stir-fries, from several different cookbooks, to practise my technique.
This is what I’ve learned about equipment: If you’re in the market for a standard, all-purpose wok and will be cooking on a typical, Western residential range, your best bet is a 14-inch diameter, flat-bottomed, carbon steel wok with one long wooden handle and a small wooden spool handle at the opposite end; it’s comfortable to hold and makes lifting the wok with one hand easier. Other kinds of woks – cast-iron, stainless steel, anodized aluminum and non-stick – just don’t measure up. Once the pan is seasoned, it will have a dark, satiny non-stick patina that will allow food to be stir-fried with a minimum of oil, giving it that characteristic smoky, caramelized taste. Carbon steel woks are also inexpensive compared to top-of-the-line Western cookwear (mine cost about $56), and will last a lifetime.
Here is Ms. Young’s method for seasoning a carbon steel wok: First, scour the inside and outside in hot soapy water to remove the clear, shiny anti-rust coating applied at the factory. (As she points out, this is the only time in the life of your wok that you will scrub it with hot soapy water; once seasoned, it needs only to be washed with hot water and a sponge or given a “facial” with coarse salt and a bit of oil to remove stubborn bits of food.)
Then rinse the wok in hot water and place it on a burner over low heat until any water on the surface has evaporated. Next, place the wok over high heat, swirl in 2 tablespoons of peanut or vegetable oil, add 1/2 cup of sliced, unpeeled ginger and 1 bunch of scallions cut into 2-inch pieces, and slowly stir-fry the mixture over medium heat for about 20 minutes, all the while pressing the seasonings around the entire surface of the wok, including the upper edges. Add more oil if the mixture becomes dry. Once the scallions and ginger are brown and crusty, remove the wok from the burner and allow the mixture to cool. Discard the vegetables, wash the wok with hot tap water and a sponge, dry it on a warm burner, and cool. If the wok is mottled or discoloured at this point, congratulations, you are on your way!
Developing a blackened patina takes time, patience and care. In my short time with a wok, I have found that it’s best to keep it moisturized with oil at all times, and either stored in a paper bag or covered with a piece of newsprint to prevent dust from settling. Best of all is to cook with it often and avoid astringent ingredients like tomatoes or lemon juice, which will strip the seasoned surface you are coaxing along. This would be very discouraging.
There is lots, lots more to learn about Chinese cooking – particularly about the many ingredients – but we’ve made a good start. Here is a basic recipe from another great Chinese cookbook, Simple Chinese Cooking by Kylie Kwong, to keep in your repertoire. It’s easy, delicious and nutritious. Be sure to prep every last detail before you start, as the actual cooking time is just a few fast minutes.
- 12 uncooked king prawns (jumbo shrimp), about 600 g (1 lb 4 oz)
- ⅓ cup vegetable oil
- 4 free-range eggs, lightly beaten
- 2 sticks of celery, finely diced
- 1 tablespoon finely diced ginger
- 4 cups Steamed Rice
- 2 tablespoons shao hsing wine or dry sherry
- 2 tablespoons oyster sauce
- ⅔ cup finely sliced scallions
- 1¾ teaspoons sea salt, or to taste
- Serves 4 as a main course or 4-6 as part of a banquet
- Peel and de-vein prawns, then roughly dice prawn meat.
- Heat half the oil in a hot wok until surface seems to shimmer slightly. Pour beaten eggs into wok and leave to cook on the base of the wok for 10 seconds before folding egg mixture over onto itself with a spatula and lightly scrambling for about 1 minute or until almost cooked through. Carefully remove omelette from wok with a spatula and drain on kitchen paper. Set aside.
- Heat remaining oil in hot wok and stir-fry prawn meat, celery and ginger for 30 seconds. Add rice, wine or sherry, oyster sauce and reserved omelette and stir-fry for about 1 minute, using a spatula to break up the egg into smaller pieces. Lastly, toss in spring onions and salt and stir-fry for a further minute or until well combined and rice is heated through.
- Transfer rice to a platter and serve.
- Serves: 4-6
- 1⅓ cups uncooked jasmine rice
- 2⅔ cups water
- Makes about 4 cups cooked rice
- Place uncooked rice in a sieve and rinse under running water until water runs clear. Combine water and rice in a medium-sized heavy-based saucepan. Bring to the boil, immediately cover with a tight-fitting lid and reduce heat to as low as possible. Cook, covered, for 10 minutes. Do not remove lid during cooking.
- Remove saucepan from the stove and stand, covered, for 10 minutes. Fluff rice with a fork before serving.
- Serves: 4-6