achieving wok hay

Ever since reading Fuchsia Dunlop’s Shark’s Fin & Sichuan Pepper last year, I’ve been hankering to get into more authentic Chinese cooking. I realize “authenticity” is subjective and can be cause for debate, but in the broad sense I mean food that would actually be prepared in a Chinese home, rather than  dishes that were created Stateside and appear on every Chinese take-out menu from Dubuque to Des Moines.

With that in mind, I picked up The Breath of a Wok by Grace Young from the library recently. It focuses in on the techniques of wok cooking as a necessary component of Chinese cookery, as opposed to some Asian cookbooks that reassure the cook that it’s fine to just stir fry in a skillet if need be. The way Young describes the use of a wok, it’s practically an ingredient unto itself. Anyone who’s had a well-prepared stir fry can identify the flavor of wok hay, the essence or “breath” of the wok, as Young translates it. It’s that underlying hint of smokiness that you just don’t get unless you cook at extremely high temperatures, and it is simply not possible to accomplish with a Western skillet.

So vital is the selection, care, technique and culture of the wok that Young spends the first 65 pages of her book discussing these topics before any recipes are given. I read most of those pages, but the other night I was feeling eager to dive in so I thought I’d forge ahead and try my hand at one of the recipes, a scallop & asparagus stir fry. Apart from one misstep at the very beginning (minced garlic that turned black within seconds of being added to the uber-hot wok), the recipe was a breeze. Best of all, when I tasted the dish, there it was- the slight “grilled” flavor of wok hay! It felt like a revelation. I served it with a very non-authentic but delicious variation of my favorite carrot and avocado salad, where I subbed in ginger, hot chili paste, rice vinegar and a touch of soy sauce for the French vinaigrette.

Even if you only make the occasional stir fry, I would highly recommend reading Young’s chapters about wok use and putting her advice into practice. That little bit of knowledge just might have you creating some wok hay of your own, and I’m here to tell you it’s worth whatever small extra effort might be involved. My scallop stir-fry was easily one of the best I’ve made- the scallops seared but juicy; the vegetables crisp-tender; the sauce just a sheer glaze that nicely flavored without drowning the ingredients. I have a feeling the wok is going to be put to use a little more often in our household in the near future.

I can’t summarize Young’s 65 pages for you, of course, but here are a few tips for achieving wok hay in your own kitchen:

  • Use a carbon-steel wok, never nonstick.
  • Have all ingredients close at hand; the process goes lightning fast and there’s no time to realize you forgot a component during cooking.
  • Don’t exceed the amount of ingredients a recipe calls for or add too much to the wok at one time; it brings the temperature down too far and your food will steam instead of sear.

Scallop & Asparagus Stir-Fry (adapted from The Breath of a Wok by Grace Young)
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Notes: The original recipe called for 1 lb of asparagus. I only had about 3/4 lb so I subbed in some snow peas for the remaining 1/4 lb. The important thing is not to go over 1 lb total of vegetables, because it will reduce the wok’s heat too much. The only other change I made was to sprinkle the garlic on top of the scallops when I put them in the wok. When I put the garlic in first, I found that it instantly burned and I had to start over.

1 lb. scallops (if you want to splurge, use fresh dry sea scallops, but I used frozen, thawed bay scallops and they tasted fine)
1 lb. asparagus, trimmed & cut into 2-inch pieces
1 ¼ tsp salt
4 tsp Shao Hsing rice wine or dry sherry
2 ¼ tsp cornstarch
1 ½ tsp oyster sauce
1 tsp sesame oil
½ tsp ground white pepper
1 Tbs peanut or other  vegetable oil
1 Tbs minced garlic

Put 2 cups of water in a medium saucepan with 1 tsp salt and bring to the boil. Add asparagus. When the water returns to a boil, remove from heat and drain the asparagus; set aside. (If using any snow peas, they do not need to be blanched.)

Rinse the scallops and pat dry thoroughly with paper towels. Combine in a bowl with the sesame oil, white pepper, 1 ¼ tsp of the cornstarch, 1 tsp of the rice wine and the remaining ¼ tsp of salt; mix well to combine. In another bowl, combine the remaining 1 tsp cornstarch, rice wine, and the oyster sauce with ¼ cup cold water.

Place scallops, asparagus, sauce and garlic within hands’ reach of the stove. Heat a 14″ flat-bottomed wok over high heat until a bead of water vaporizes within 1-2 seconds of contact. Swirl in the vegetable oil. Add the scallops, carefully spreading them in a single layer. Sprinkle the garlic on top. Cook undisturbed for 30 seconds to allow them to brown; then stir-fry with a metal spatula for 30-60 seconds or until scallops are light brown but not cooked through. Add the asparagus. Stir the sauce mixture and add to the wok. Bring to the boil to thicken the sauce and finish cooking the scallops, about 30 seconds.

Serves 4 as part of a multi-course meal.

6 responses to “achieving wok hay

  1. i have those little orange bowls! i got them from an estate sale in royal oak last summer. there were like A BAJILLION OF THEM, is that where you got yours?

  2. No! Marvin had it, he got it from his mom, and we only have the one. :(

  3. A flat bottomed wok? An authentic, curve bottomed wok with a fire ring (for cooking on a gas stove) works better, IMHO, and they’re not hard to find if you’ve got an Asian grocery in town. I use mine several times a week for everything. It’s irreplaceable!

    • I don’t know about flat-bottomed woks being “inauthentic” (hehe, there’s that pesky word again!). The author, who is Chinese and has studied wok cooking extensively, recommends them as being better (and safer) for cooking on Western stoves than the round bottomed ones (in fact, this recipe actually specified to use one). It’s true that round bottomed woks are more common in China, but that’s because the design of a Chinese stove vs. a Western one is totally different. I found the flat wok worked just perfectly for me (the flat part is only about 4″ diameter anyway), but, if something else works for you, that’s great! Personally, I think the actual cooking techniques (keeping a high heat; not adding too much to the wok) play a bigger role in the success of the dish.

  4. This morning I listened to an old Splendid Table podcast on the way to work and heard Ming Tsai tell Lynn Rosetto Casper how important owning a wok is. I rarely use mine. This must be a sign from the universe.

    • I know, I hadn’t been using mine either and I want to get back into it! The more you use it, the better it is for the patina. Mine is looking a little sad right now but I hope to change that.

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