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Articles & Essays

"Hot times with my fickle wok"

Published 07/07/13
The News & Observer (Raleigh, NC)

Woks have come in and out of my life.

My relationship with them has been like one of those dysfunctional high-school things, where a tacky boyfriend breaks up remotely (phone, email, text) and the anger lasts long enough to throw out everything he ever so much as touched. Then he dangles the slightest possibility that things will be different, that the heavens will open and rain down new delights, and he’s back. And it starts all over again.

Cast-iron frying pans, I understand. Southern women are practically given them as baby rattles. I’m in a long-term relationship with mine, and we’re so close that we don’t really need to discuss much. We know each other’s needs. I want fluffy cornbread with a crispy exterior, and crunchy fried fish and chicken; and it requires only a wipe with a bit of kosher salt afterwards.

A guy I dated in college threw out a cast-iron frying pan his mother had given him when he found out that he couldn’t put it in the dishwasher. He proclaimed it “nasty” because there was no way to “really get it clean.” I should’ve run from that doomed relationship right then.

My encounters with woks began in the early 1980s, when a friend in San Francisco sent me a Chinese cookbook. At that point, I had rarely even eaten Chinese food, unless you counted Chun King from the box. And this book had seriously traditional recipes, including one for Peking Duck that involved using a bicycle pump to inflate the duck. Obviously, my friend had considerably overestimated my skills at the time.

The book constantly mentioned woks. It appeared to me that the only thing standing between me and beautiful Chinese food was a wok (leaving the bicycle pump out of matters).

It wasn’t easy to find a wok where I lived back then, but I did.  It was big and deep, made from carbon steel, and had no explanation on how to use it or the metal ring that came with it. When I perched it on the ring - which was what I assumed I should do - over my electric burner, it wouldn’t get hot. Food just sat in it. After a few tries, I put away the wok, where it became the first in a series to rust in my care.

Over the years, other woks have come and gone. There was even a brief fling with a shallow, nonstick wok that seemed, to me, no better than my frying pans.

Now, stir-frying has become one of my favorite forms of cooking, especially for greens. The key for good stir-frying is cooking in a really hot pan, which brought me hesitantly back to the wok.

I was wary. I’d been burned so many times. I needed a support group to help me see what had gone wrong in my previous relationships.

I found one on the Internet: A group called Wok Wednesdays. It started as a bunch of people who wanted to cook their way through “Stir-Frying to the Sky’s Edge: The Ultimate Guide to Mastery, with Authentic Recipes and Stories” by Grace Young (Simon & Schuster, 2010). Now it’s a home for off-the-book cooking and help when things go wrong.

Between the detailed instructions in the book on seasoning the pan and Young’s willingness to calmly answer, via Facebook or Twitter, the most idiotic questions, things are going much better between me and my wok.

But the road to true wokking ne’er did run smooth. There was the day I pulled out the wok after ignoring it for about two weeks. I was convinced it had rusted, just like the others. Young asked me to send her a photo, and she said it looked like discoloration due to excellent seasoning. I’d never had a wok long enough to know what that looked like.

Since then, my wok and I have begun to understand each other pretty well. I want meats and tofu with crispy exteriors, vegetables that are crisp-tender, and greens quick-cooked and not drowning in liquid. It just wants to be used - or I thought so until the day it caught on fire.

I heated the wok as usual, and poured in two tablespoons of vegetable oil which instantly flamed. I calmly realized that I had a fire extinguisher – in the back of the locked garden shed dozens of feet away.

But the fire quickly died down, with no harm done to the kitchen or the wok. Perhaps it was the wok’s message that this relationship was really getting hot.

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