Friday, 27 July 2012

Goks and Woks

A seasoned wok
I am loathe to admit that Gok Cooks Chinese has reignited my passion for cooking Chinese food at home. Loathe, because there is something that irritates me about Gok Wan's fashion/body-image programme, and I had jealousy made derogatory comments about his sudden transition to TV chef stardom. However, I was forced to eat a leaf of humble bok choi when I watched the show and realised his restaurant-owning chef-father had taught him to cook and that Gok is actually pretty authoritative on the subject. (I must also admit that the infuriatingly nice Ching-He Huang's 'Chinese Food Made Easy' inspired me to try Chinese home-cooking for the first time.)

So, full of enthusiasm and armed with £20, I set off for Chinese-supermarket-Mecca, Wing Yip, intent on equipping myself with a wok and a cleaver. I’d had a tip-off that their woks were not to be sniffed at and that their Chinese cleavers were good value. However, without a wok expert whispering advice in my ear, I couldn’t really pick out any discernible difference, except size, between the cheaper woks. My theory was that when properly seasoned (more on that later) a cheap one would be as fit for purpose as the Ken Hom endorsed non-stick variety. I opted for a wok around the £7 mark, incredible value considering the versatility and efficiency.

Next up, the cleaver. My only requirement was that it be sturdy, with enough weight to glide through some of the bulkier vegetables and to mince meat coarsely. So I felt the weight of a few in my hand, and - after more deliberation than I had expected - chose a heavy, wooden-handled cleaver at £7. Feeling pretty happy with my purchases and left with a surplus of £6, I bought some store cupboard staples - 100% sesame oil and some Shaoxing rice wine.

Chinese cleaver
At home it was time to begin the seasoning. To the uninitiated, this doesn’t involve sprinkling the wok with liberal quantities of Maldon and sitting back waiting for something magical to happen. Seasoning is the process by which a wok is given a non-stick shiny coating or patina. It involves coating the surface of the wok with a thin layer of oil then heating it to the point that the oil smokes. This temperature is maintained until the oil ‘cracks’ and forms, by some rather complicated chemical reactions, compounds that turn the surface non-stick. The same process is used on cast-iron frying pans.

Modernist Cuisine's guide to seasoning a wok

The instructions that came with my wok informed me that it was necessary to remove the rust-proof coating before seasoning. I'm not sure if this is the case for all woks of this type, but grab a wire brush and some cream cleaner or detergent and scrub. Don't fret if the wok looks like its gone 10 rounds with a pack of mountain lions, it's going to be black and dirty-looking once seasoned. 

Incidentally, if your wok is looking worse for wear here's a good video I found on how to give an old wok a facelift on the Chow website.