We did not wander far. I found one right under my nose – in China town, San Francisco. This has to be my fourth visit to THE WOK SHOP. I always hang around and eves drop on the conversations. “…. no teflon … no no …. carbon steel ….. cast iron …. gas or electric stove …. if you want to bargain, please leave …. “. It is fascinating to learn from the elder Asians on what they look for in their wok via eves dropping. The seller tries to make a sale by comparing the quality to his woks to his grandfather’s wares in China. This visit was special since The husband came along. And he is one meticulous calculated person. He has been wanting a wok for a while now. He always complains about how hard it is to toss food in the cast iron skillet that we own. He walks into THE WOK STORE, falls in love with a wok, walks out with one in the next 20 minutes. No obsessive internet research, chats with best friend over seas, reading online reviews, …. We trusted the shop keeper when he offered to help. And we did learn a lot in the 20 minutes.
China town is one fascinating place. Some days, it feels authentic and foreign. On somedays, it feels like a theme park for white people. My first visit had me transfixed on all the details. The more I visit, the more it feels fake / put together. Its too touristy with the lanterns and souvenir shops. But the pleasures of what it has to offer is not lost on me. The lanterns do look beautiful. And the cast iron pots make me drool. All the bamboo cutlery is echo friendly enough sans the plastic wrapping. The antiques smell and look rustic. The food – fantastic. The people – busy. The plastic souvenirs – cheap enough. Maybe Harsha and me if we can find an apmt to live out here in the future. All the red brick buildings look gorgeous. Live in SFO and interact with another culture … Sounds good, no ?
This is the Wok Shop, a 40 year old family run imports store. They have all kinds of cookware. And the accessories. The people have always been nice to me – letting me eavesdrop on their conversations while I linger around and answer my inane questions. “Why are all woks carbon steel?”. They burst out laughing. “No, they are not. This is teflon. This is cast iron. This is steel. We have all kinds for all needs.” Fair enough. He goes on to educate me on how to choose one. And tells me some cool stories. Let me share what I learnt.
1. The term “Wok Hay” means the prized elusive seared taste that comes only from stir-frying in a wok. There are stories about restaurant talk in China town SFO where the customers walk up to the chef and ask for the ‘best wok hay’ he can make for the day. Wok hay lingers only for the first few minutes and needs to be savoured immediately.
2. Pow – the verb for tossing food.
3. Think high heat and short cooking time.
4. Hot wok – cold oil principle : If oil is added to a wok that is not heated, food with stick. The wok must be hot to its smoking point. Follow the cues of smell, taste, touch and hearing.
5. A wok can be used for steaming, frying, braising, boiling, poaching and smoking. But learn the proper technique.
3. Dear cast iron skillet, you are not perfect. Some recipes should not have you chase the ingredients and drag them around. Some ingredients need to be cooked on high heat and flipped. In a skillet, everything is spread out. A spatula can only do so much for moving the ingredients. Woks shape makes stirring easier. More oil is necessary to coat a skillet than the bottom of a wok. No spilling – if that can be counted an advantage.
4. Materials available : Chinese cast iron, enamel lined Chinese cast iron, American cast iron, carbon steel, stainless steel with aluminium core, anodized aluminium, … I picked the carbon steel.
4. Flat bottomed woks do better on electric stove. The rounded woks do great with open flame stoves. There is carbon steel and cast iron woks. The thickness of the wok is what makes it special. The storekeeper boasted about how the thin woks are mastered by the Chinese. And the American and French woks are too fat in comparison to pow.
5. A wok is humble. Price wise. There is no reason to spend a fortune on woks. Or buy the non sticks coated with nasty chemicals.
5. Seasoning the wok : Wash the wok with soapy water to remove the factory grease. Dry it. Heat some oil and fry some chopped chives in it. It can be any vegetable with high sulphur content – most of onion family fits the bill. After this, the wok acquires a beautiful patina. Without this step, food may taste metallic.
6. First time cooking : Deep frying is good for a new wok. Make bacon / fry potato skins. Avoid cooking tomatoes or using vinegar till the seasoning is set.
7. Washing the wok : Place the wok under running water and use the bamboo brush to scrub any particles stuck to the surface. Once done, place it back on the stove to let the water dry.
8. Hard work shows ! The really non stick deep dark woks are so because of years of cooking.
The day ended with us walking home with a plastic bag containing a wok, a bamboo brush and a steel spatula. And a pamphlet with instructions on how to season it and wash it. We are excited to do something with it all. Master of stir-fry – is a real title. I am hoping to confer it on my husband one day soon. I bought us a book to help us out. Indian and Chinese traditional food has a lot of dishes that we can try to learn. I used to think India has the most diverse food choices. That was until I started travelling. Last week, I stumbled upon a 800 page Chinese cookbook on how to cook mushrooms. Turkish-Persian food is quite diverse. So is French-Italian cusine. The more I learn about a culture, more my myths seem to shatter. But cheers to that thought.