First published on Hyphen magazine’s blog.
Photo courtesy dr. muerte se como el mundo/Flickr
The poor neglected wok. Staple of Chinese kitchens yet disfavored for the frypan, resurrected by ambitious cooks and forgotten again after a few uses. Many Asian American households have one, but actual usage can vary according to length of time in America, kitchen confidence and strength of kitchen ceiling fan. The wok also suffers from a lack of pizzazz: how can it compete with a grill peddled on late-night TV or a candy-hued casserole imported from France? It has no brand power.
Enter Grace Young. A California native, she had a successful career in cookbook publishing before deciding to revisit her Chinese American food roots. She interviewed her parents and other relatives to write The Breath of a Wok and The Wisdom of the Chinese Kitchen,cookbooks and oral histories rich with memories of San Francisco Chinatown and her first forays into food. Her books and classes aim to teach a new generation of wok enthusiasts how to get robust Chinese flavors with modern tools and stoves, while avoiding the pitfalls of inferior materials or haphazard technique.
Her newest book, Stir-Frying to the Sky’s Edge, leaves Chinatown to follow the international Chinese diaspora and its surprising wok creations, like Chinese Jamaican Jerk Chicken Fried Rice and Stir-Fried Bagels with Cabbage and Bacon (don’t invite the rabbi). While she’s open-minded to the various iterations of Chinese food around the globe, Young draws the line at wok misuse. She’s not iffy, she’s not all-inclusive: certain things are never done, like putting a wok in a dishwasher. “Don’t do it! Just don’t. Be smart!” she told a recent audience at New York’s Tenement Museum. Her no-nonsense tone belies her patience with wok newcomers, taking their questions and prescribing a cleaning technique using salt and heat she calls a “wok facial” for rusty, crusty woks headed for the trash. Her book provides play-by-play instructions on how to begin using and properly maintain a traditional Chinese carbon-steel wok. Like the Suze Orman of stir-fry, she delivers her advice with the hope that one day, you’ll finally get yourself together and be able to do it by yourself.
As we wrote about in Hyphen Issue 20, the physics of the wok are not child’s play. A mystical marriage of meats and greens occurs when natural oils have built up on the wok’s metal surface, creating a natural nonstick coating also called “seasoning.” While modern life has forced many changes to the traditional stir-fry (low heat and uneven burners are two common challenges she offers solutions to), Young eschews synthetic nonstick woks, and part of her message is to stop using them. She says their low cost and ease of use is not worth the potentially harmful vapors emitted by the perfluorocarbons — or PFCs — in their chemical coatings. Advocacy groups like Environmental Working Group and the Breast Cancer Fund agree with her, and call for tightened regulation of this class of chemicals.
I asked about PFCs when I reached a representative from Calphalon (which sells high-end nonstick woks) and their trade group, the Cookware Manufacturers Association of America (CMA). They both said that PFCs and their variant, polytetrafluoroethylenes (PTFEs), are completely safe for everyday use. The Food and Drug Administration (FDA) agrees, althoughrecent disputes over GMO labeling and other food safety issues indicate that their findings are not unequivocal. CMA’s website cautions consumers to only use nonstick pans at low and medium heat, to avoid releasing the PFC vapors. Nonetheless, Young says this point is lost on many Chinese immigrant customers, who are accustomed to stir-frying at very high temperatures and may not have FDA-approved ventilation or other safety precautions in place.
Besides the health concerns, she frowns on the nonstick wok’s inability to withstand high heat, the only way to get the correct – and delicious — searing of meat and fish in a proper stir-fry. Traditional wok cooking teaches “hot wok, cold oil,” a technique to seal invisible crevices in the metal and prevent sticking, much like a barbecue grill is preheated before putting the meat on. The danger of heating a nonstick wok while dry is a flavor deal-breaker to Young. “Low heat prevents the perfect sear, and you end up with a soggy stir-fry, more like a braise. It’s just not worth it,” she says.
Instead, she encourages stir-fry aficionados to buy inexpensive carbon steel woks online or in Chinese stores, and follow her directions to maintain them. I used to think flat-bottomed woks weren’t “real woks” but she praises them – on a western stove they allow the heat to get as close as possible to the food. She claims her seasoning techniques make a wok last forever and allow the most wok hay – the “life force of the wok” — to come into the food. “When a chef has mastery of the wok, it produces a taste unlike anything you’ve ever had,” she says.
My old banged-up wok seems suddenly exciting, a vessel for magic tricks and a practice canvas for whatever Chinese-inspired food experiments I’m able to dream up. All it needed was an American-style rebranding.