The wok has been central to my life as a professional chef and food writer. But it was central to my childhood and youth as well. To grow up Chinese means enjoying wonderful foods prepared in the wok.
The wok has been central to my life as a professional chef and food writer. But it was central to my childhood and youth as well. To grow up Chinese means enjoying wonderful foods prepared in the wok. It also means learning how central the wok is in the Chinese idiom. Terms such as "stir-frying the real estate" -- to engage in land speculation -- and "breaking the wok" -- to divorce or to break up the home -- indicate how deeply the wok and its telling metaphors have penetrated the language. The wok and its applications dominates the Chinese kitchen and is as well imbedded in our expressive understanding of all other aspects of life. Only a devoted Jungian psychologist could exhaust the rich content of its symbolism.
My mother put together three- or four-course meals every night in a tiny kitchen, ill-equipped by modern Western European standards. In my eyes, she did this quickly and smoothly. I never heard her complain of any technical problems. Our dinner was on the table within an hour of her coming home from work.
Usually, the dishes were simple: a soup, which we consumed as a beverage; one or two stir-fried dishes, either pork, chicken or sea food with vegetables, a simple vegetable dish; and, of course, the rice. The tool at the centre of this culinary creativity was the richly blackened, perfectly seasoned family wok, expertly manipulated by my mother. It was and remains the indispensable tool in the making of such wonderful foods. There were also a few steamers and pots for soup and rice, but the wok was the rightful ruling monarch of the batterie de cuisine.
Today, the wok still commands pride of place in my own professional kitchen. And increasingly, it is becoming central in many Western kitchens. My mother never would have predicted such a development among the non-Chinese. But the wok remains what it has always been, an extremely versatile, reliable, and easily mastered implement. Its enduring and endearing qualities are such that it needed only to be discovered to be loved and adopted. With today's hectic lifestyle, in which time in the kitchen is limited and yet people are so mindful of health and nutrition, the wok is something of a wonder. With the wok, the harried cook can prepare nutritious, delectable, and satisfying meals in a very short time -- just as my mother did so many years ago.
Now, the wok did not just happen to be. Chinese cuisine has accurately been defined as a cookery of scarcity. In a geographic situation of limited arable land and even more limited forests, providing food and firewood for so many millions of people was an enormous challenge. Over the centuries, the Chinese learned how to extract from nature the maximum amount of edible ingredients and to prepare them tastefully with a minimum amount of cooking oil and fuel. Out of these necessities, the wok was conceived and fashioned.
Traditional Chinese kitchens are sparely furnished. The substantial kitchen stove is usually in the shape of a large rectangle, with two openings above the fire chamber. Large round-bottom cast iron woks fit tightly on these openings so that all heat is transferred to the wok and none is wasted. Bricks insulate the fire chamber so that heat is retained and the proper cooking temperatures are quickly attained. Every tool in the kitchen is versatile, every technique extracts the full nutrition and flavor from ingredients, the foods themselves are prepared so that they cook quickly in a bit of oil, and not a British Thermal Unit is spent beyond what is necessary. The wok evolved to its perfection in this environment, warm stove and versatile wok becoming synonymous with hearth and home, at the centre of Chinese family life.
WHENCE THE WOK?
Wok is a Cantonese word; originally it referred generically to all cast iron pots. In Mandarin or pinyin Chinese, the word is guo. While the wok is used throughout China, it is the Cantonese who are the great travelers among the Chinese and thus it is their pronunciation of the term that has won worldwide acceptance. Archeological evidence indicates that the wok came into use shortly before the Christian era, that is, about two thousand years ago. This is not too long ago, by Chinese standards. Why it took so long to appear is related to another development, namely, the late arrival of China's Iron Age.
The European (ancient Greece) Iron Age began ca. 1200 B.C. but not until 500-600 B.C. do we find clear indications of Its beginning in China. Of course, iron and iron woks might have been in use earlier. Iron does rust away without leaving a trace. And literature and the arts usually pay no attention to prosaic utilitarian kitchen implements; nor were rulers likely to feel honored if upon their deaths woks were included among the burial artifacts. What reliable evidence we do have indicates that the wok was in wide use just about 2000 years ago.
The remarkable thing about China's late discovery of iron and its uses is the very rapid introduction of the technology of smelting and casting. By the 4th Century BC, China was already producing cast iron. Sometime during the Han Dynasty (206 BC-220 AD), cast iron pots, the woks ancestors, became standard cooking implements. In Europe, cast iron was not produced until late in the 14th century, and then only in very limited quantities: large-scale production did not occur until the 18th century. Cast Iron pots were among the first items that European iron masters produced but not until the 1700's did such pots appear generally in European kitchens.
Nor did the wok suddenly appear full-blown out of the head of some Chinese iron master. The first cast iron pots were on the order of cauldrons and large pans. Examples of such pots have been recovered from Han Dynasty tombs, among other places. No doubt the limitations of the then existing technology prescribed such sizes. The cauldrons (fu, in Chinese) were about 20 cm high with a rounded or flat bottom, and a curving globular body that narrowed toward the neck and lip. Some had two looped handles, one on either side just above the middle of the belly. Burn marks and soot remains indicate that the cauldrons were indeed functioning cooking tools. One such pot was discovered resting on a three-legged fire stand; another contained a clay pot (zetig) used for steaming.
These examples of the wok's predecessors are rare finds. Cast iron pots were expensive and only the wealthy could afford to have them (and the even more expensive bronze pots) In their kitchens. The common people still relied solely on earthenware cooking utensils.
However, over the next few centuries the iron master technology improved and the afford ability of the wok was greatly enhanced. The production of great numbers of cauldrons continued. In the Beijing (Peking) area, we have discovered six-handled pots with very wide rims. One example is 32 cm high, 51 cm across the rim, and 67 cm at the widest part of the body. These finds date from between the 10th and 14th centuries. A famous 14th century book, Work on Agriculture (Nong Shu), includes a line drawing of the six-handled pot. It gives us a very good idea of what these cauldrons looked like.
Another type of early wok came in various smaller sizes and was equipped with double handles, one on either side of the rim. Such examples, although quite large in size, resemble many of today's smaller implements. Burn marks and soot residues show that these pots were used for cooking. Given the size of most of them, it seems clear that they were used to cook noodles and other pastas to be consumed by large groups of people, perhaps in monasteries, noble houses, or village communal kitchens. Six handles would seem to demand at least three adult handlers. Incidentally, boiling and steaming are the two oldest and most used techniques in traditional Chinese cookery. The perfection of the modern wok allowed for the new technique of stir-frying, which elevated Chinese cookery to even higher levels of delectation.
Another type of pot from the period is the rather shallow, flat-bottomed, double-handled pan, with three legs to allow room for the cooking fuel underneath. The double-handed pots and three-legged pans were flat-bottomed and thus no doubt used for sauteing and frying.
These innovations in pot ware proceeded the rapid expansion of smaller cast iron woks that began to be common implements in Chinese kitchens by the 16th century. Together with improvements in farming and fishing techniques, and with the new types and greater amounts of foods and ingredients available to Chinese cooks, the wok was instrumental in bringing Chinese cookery to its classical status.
We know that as long ago as midway through the Chou Dynasty (12th century BC to 221 BC), rice was the principle food of south and central China, while millet served as the staple grain in the north. These grains were invariably cooked rather than being milled and turned into flour for pastas or baking. They accompanied or were added to soups and stews, the cooks using whatever other resources were available, such as meat, fish, vegetables, and seafood. Boiling and steaming were the common cookery techniques, with braising, frying, and roasting employed only occasionally. Stir-frying was noticeable by its absence.
Such simple foods, rather heavy but sustaining and nutritious, required simple utensils. Clay or ceramic pots, a rare bronze cauldron, these were the usual implements. There were three main types of pots in use for boiling and simmering (ting, li, hu) and three for steaming (hsien, tseng, fu). One type of pot would often sit upon another in the steaming “double boiler” process. The evidence indicates that these boiling and steaming designs have not changed very much over the past two thousand years.
Grains, vegetables, meat broths and stews remained the most common dishes during the Han period (206 50-220 AD). However, we know that the variety and amounts of available foodstuffs had increased significantly by the end of that dynasty. There is also much evidence to indicate a more sophisticated and discriminating taste, at least among the wealthier classes. Tombs of the Han period include paintings and sculptures of cooking pots, an indication that how one ate had become an important social distinction. Most of the cooking implements depicted are of cauldron size. Some stand on their own "fire legs;" others are made to rest on trivets or to fit into the openings of primitive stoves called “fire benches.” Many have handles, some have lips as well, and all appear to have tight-fitting lids.
The widespread locations of these tombs suggests that at least among the upper classes such implements were to be found as standard items in kitchens throughout China. There is some evidence that similar, if smaller and cheaper, cast iron implements were beginning to filter down the social scale even then. But it was a slow process.
The Han Dynasty witnessed much innovation in the culinary arts. People started milling wheat flour and thus were introduced such new delights as boiled noodles, steamed buns, and baked cakes. Chinese writings at the end of the Han period note that these foods were mainly the invention of the common people and, significantly, that other foods were brought into China from other lands. We do not know whether foreign ideas influenced the design of China's cooking pots.
During the few hundred years between the Han Dynasty and the Tang Dynasty (which lasted from 618 to 907), the most common cooking techniques remained boiling, simmering, spit-roasting, and baking. But there is a significant innovation noted at the beginning of the Tang period: stir-roasting.
We are now one step away from the stir-frying technique so closely linked to our woks. And sure enough, around 700 AD a wide pan, called the kuo, made its appearance in Chinese kitchens. The wok had arrived.
The wok may be seen as a logical/technological development out of the much larger cast iron pots that had been around for so many centuries. But there is more to it than logic and technology. China's forests had been suffering drastic reductions, an ecological disaster whose pace accelerated after the tenth century AD. Firewood and charcoal for fuel became enormously expensive. What was needed were cooking techniques and implements that used very little fuel, or to put it another way, that would heat up efficiently and cook foods very quickly, using a minimum of fuel. At the same time, the ironmasters, whose growing need for charcoal was helping to devastate China's forests, had developed their skill in casting different, smaller, and less expensive pots and pans. Hence the wok and the stir-fry technique.
It seems that the wok and its special techniques arose throughout China about the same time: similar needs and conditions generated common solutions. During the Sung Dynasty (960-1279), woks, long-handled pans, vegetable pots and steaming baskets became well known kitchen implements. Bamboo steamers are standard items at this time and the whole range of now familiar spoons, ladles, chopsticks, bowls and cups are in place. The essential tools of the classic Chinese kitchen were now established.
It was during the Sung Dynasty that the basic necessities of the peasants' cookery were defined: rice, salt, soybean sauce, vinegar, tea, and firewood. And with firewood so expensive, the wok moved to the centre of the kitchen. Because of its quick heating and excellent heat retention qualities; because of its shape, which focuses heat as the cook determines; because of its durability and relative cheapness; because of its versatility; because it required little fuel, little space, and so little cooking oil, the wok was an immediate success.
From 1280 onward, there are no major changes in the techniques and tools of Chinese cuisine. New foodstuffs are introduced -- the Chinese have always been open to new ingredients and techniques -- but the batterie de cuisine is thereafter essentially unchanged, except for one notable exception.
From 1279 until 1368, China lived under the domination of the Mongols, the so-called Yuan Dynasty. The Mongols were a non-Chinese nation and they did not become assimilated into Chinese ways. Rather, they retained their own customs, laws, and cookery preferences and techniques. They loved boiled mutton, which to this day most Chinese find unpalatable. Reflecting their nomadic culture, the Mongols loved mare's milk (kumys) and other dairy products, again, something that most Chinese prefer to do without.
There is one Mongol treat, however, that stayed on after the Mongols gave up their Chinese empire: Mongolian Fire or Hot Pot. (In Japan it is called “Ghengis Khan Hot Pot.”) These wafer thin slices of meat, boiled over on the special fire pot placed on a grill placed over an open fire or grilled on skewers, represent the most significant culinary treat and cookery technique imparted to Chinese cuisine by the Mongol influence.. The rest is silence.
With that period over, the Chinese culinary canon has remained essentially intact. The fire bench, the gas or electric cooker, the portable stove, the pots and sand pots, the sturdy wok, the Mongolian Fire pot, and the other simple bowls and implements have not changed. Refinements, yes; fundamental changes, no. Perhaps that is the universal Chinese way.