My woks have become the most reliable of old acquaintances, friends who are willing and able to go where my whim takes me. While I have had a wok for four decades, my last few years have been where our relationship has finally achieved the patina of the familiar.
There were many years, often moving household, where the reliable and modest wok travelled along with my life. There were times when I placed the ring on a wonky electric burner and dreamt of a gas stovetop, my round-bottom wok hovering a bit above the heat and the ring turning all sorts of interesting metal colours. But the graceful curve of the simple carbon steel always made the actual act of cooking a comforting ritual. This wise elder of the kitchen tools traveling my entire adult life still is with me, tho the modern flat bottom lightweight cast iron woks get quite a bit more use most weeks. I cannot quite let go of the Cantonese style wok with simple metal handles that stayed with me all this time. An artist friend offered it a home, but I am not ready for it to become a sculpture element, the patina too well loved to let it leave the mission of cookery it is so well suited to.
I began to notice beautiful stir fry dishes photographed by other members of a cooking community I had joined, and following their stories, I found Wok Wednesdays, and Grace Young’s books. On alternating Wednesdays, there is a schedule of dishes as the WW group cooks their way thru Stir Frying to the Sky’s Edge. I have found answers to questions I didn’t know to ask, techniques, and flavour combinations from tradition as well as the adaptations made to cope with new homes in foreign lands. And, I have discovered how to cook foods I never had dared prepare at home (note: squid isn’t scary, especially if you buy it already cleaned!).
If you are also the owner of a wok that needs to reacquaint itself with a purpose, or are looking for a weeknight trick to help you get more vegetables on your plate, or even feel inspired during the Chinese New Year’s celebrations, you can find a schedule and introduction here. And perhaps, you will also learn the wok is very useful for all sorts of cooking, from kizzening bacon, or Padrón or shishito peppers, or frying with a built-in splatter-zone.
What cooking actual stir-fry recipes has helped most with, however, is reinforcing the discipline of preparation, the zen of fine chopping, organizing your ingredients, and the understanding of the order of your work, which may all happen in moments at the hot wok. The prep work, being my own sous chef, has probably contributed greatly to my own improvement as a home cook, one without culinary training or work experience. It gives me a calm focus, so that when I heat up the wok, the dance is all about being totally present and in the moment. For this gift to my less orderly life, I am grateful.
The cauliflower dish pictured above is one of my favourites – one that is a perfect example of how the simplest ingredient list can produce the more satisfying results. It can be found on page 214 of SFTTSE, and is a perfect dish for a Meatless Monday (or any other day).