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(CHINESE) NEW YEAR’S RESOLUTION: START STIR-FRYING

I love my wok. I really love it. I’ve just never actually used it.

Until today, it resided, still in its box, in the hall closet. Sam and I would roll in, stuffed, happy, and inspired after a visit to Chinatown. “We really need to season that wok,” one of us would say. “Is it behind the suitcases? Let’s look tomorrow.”

Push came to shove when Stir-Frying to the Sky’s Edge landed on my desk. It’s the latest dazzler from Grace Young. (Watch her in action tomorrow, February 3, on The Martha Stewart Show.)

I paged through the book. It made me hungry. And determined. Grace, after all, had taught me how to stir-fry*. It was time to step up.

Ah, found it. Lifted out of the box, it was larger than I remembered, 14 inches in diameter. Made of carbon steel, it’s adapted for a Western kitchen, with a (removable) long wooden handle and a small helper handle. It’s about four inches deep, with a small, flat bottom.

I remember our conversation as if it were yesterday. “You don’t want a wide bottom,” deadpanned Grace. “Otherwise, why not use a skillet?” Flatness is key, too. A round-bottomed wok is unstable on a Western stove, and cradling it in a wok ring lifts it too far above the heat source.

And heat is the most important thing of all. Crank it up for a minute, then hold your hand about an inch above the bottom of the pan. It should feel like a hot radiator. If you sprinkle a few drops of water into the wok, they should vaporize immediately.

Grace sent me to The Wok Shop, a crowded, cozy San Francisco emporium presided over by Tane (as in “high octane”) Chan. She is, at heart, a wok therapist, a matchmaker, an expert at pairing the right person with the right wok. More interested in accessorizing a kitchen than cooking in it? No worries, and no moralizing. You’ll be happy with the one with a price tag to brag about. Lost a wok in a divorce settlement? “Woks last longer than marriages,” says Tane philosophically. “But you can start again.”

I sat on the living room floor and stared at my purchase. Solid, utilitarian, unbeatable at $24.95. And unseasoned. It looked immature, almost newly hatched, compared to the blackened, well-seasoned beauty that Grace uses.

There is something intimidating about patina.

I picked up the phone and called Tane. “I know it’s silly, but I just can’t seem to get started,” I said, trying not to whine. “Doesn’t seasoning take years? What if I ruin it?”

“Oh, if you have twenty minutes, you can season a wok,” Tane replied, in that calm yet energizing voice cultivated by all good therapists. “It’s really not a big deal. Have you seen my video?”

Tane’s method of seasoning a wok is a game changer. She’s dispensed with the multiple (and time-consuming) oiling-and-baking ritual that orthodoxy dictates. Instead, she oils and bakes the wok just once. Then she adds a bit more oil and stir-fries a generous handful of chives until they are well and truly charred—a sacrificial offering.

You will see in the video that the chives Tane uses aren’t the thin, tubular wisps we snip and add to an omelet or stir into cream cheese, but another species called garlic, or Chinese, chives. If you live near an Asian market, you’ve probably seen them—the long, narrow, flat leaves are sold in fat bunches. If you can’t put your hands on them, though, don’t let that stop you; Tane emphasizes that any pungent vegetable—scallions or onions, for instance—will do.

“Once you char the chives, you’re done,” said Tane. “The wok is ready to go. As you use it, it will continue to season itself.”

My wok is baking in the oven as I write this, and the kitchen smells of hot metal and, rather robustly, of the garlic chives waiting on the counter. I just peeked, and the pan is already starting to turn the palest bronze. I am reminded of Voltaire’s phoenix, and its thousand shades of gold.

Sam mentioned going out to kick-start the Year of the Bunny, but in for a penny, in for a pound. The fridge holds bits and pieces just made for stir-frying, including skinless chicken thighs, bok choy, and shiitake mushrooms. If I remember correctly, since they grow so quickly, mushrooms are a symbol of rising fortunes. Sold.

*Below are a few quick tips that make stir-frying a snap. They are by no means comprehensive! If you are new to stir-frying, Grace’s previous book, The Breath of a Wok, is a very nice place to start.

  • Avoid buying meat precut for stir-frying; you don’t know what you are getting. Instead, slice meat (flank steak is always nice) on the bias so that there will be more surface area to sear.
  • Be patient and let the meat get a good sear on before you start playing Iron Chef; otherwise, it will turn gray, stick to the pan, and be absolutely horrid.
  • Vegetables should be bone-dry before you add them to the wok—you want them to crackle in the hot oil, and their aroma to bloom.
  • Have a pot of rice cooked and ready to go, because a stir-fry is best when eaten immediately.

Comments

Comment from Jenny
Time February 3, 2011 at 1:44 pm

It took me about six months to get around to seasoning my wok. I wish I’d done it sooner. It works nicely for doing dry Indian vegetable curries too. (Totally random: My husband is college friends with Ms. Chan’s son. He gave us some beautiful knives and a very useful bamboo spatula as wedding presents several years ago. The bamboo spatula is the best spatula to use when stir frying, I’ve found. It’s a small world, I guess! I was excited to see you mentioning their store.)

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