Shake it, Baby!

Stir frying is such a great way of cooking; it’s healthy, quick and easy, and offers so much variety. It’s a really fun way to cook too; chopping the vegetables, throwing ingredients into the wok, making the food jump around – child’s play! But as easy as it is, as with anything, there are some things it pays to do to make sure you get really good results. I’m no expert but I’ve picked up a few tips over time:

• Stir frying is all about keeping the food moving all the time
• The wok needs to be very hot – hotter than you may think
• Have all your ingredients prepared, chopped and to hand so you can just throw them into the wok when you need to

As I say, I’m no expert, so I thought I’d ask the lovely Nilmandra from ‘Soy and Pepper’ for some advice. She kindly agreed to an interview so that we could all find out a little bit more about her at the same time. I’m sure you’ll enjoy reading it and afterwards pop over to her fantastic blog for some really great recipes.

1) Tell us about yourself and your cooking.

I am an ethnic-Chinese Singaporean currently living in the UK. Like many expatriates and students living abroad (especially from Asian countries), I miss the delicious, cheap and huge variety of food from home. Since I could not get most of those dishes in restaurants here (at least not easily or cheaply), I started to cook them myself to satisfy my cravings. I enjoy playing with different ingredients, recipes, techniques and presentation, and experiment with food and recipes ranging from Chinese, Southeast Asian and Japanese, to British and Mediterranean.

2) What is your favourite dish to cook in a wok?

So many dishes could be cooked in a wok since it is such a versatile tool, it’s really hard to choose one! Fried bee hoon (rice vermicelli) is always a winner especially when entertaining. It’s a one dish meal so everything could be cooked very quickly in one go, which leaves me plenty of time with my guests and minimal time in the kitchen. The husband loves beef with ginger and spring onions, which is another quick wok dish. A simple vegetable stir fry of leafy greens, such as spinach, bak choy, choy sum or Chinese leaf/cabbage really make full use of the shape and size of a wok as it helps keep all the food in without having spillage over the sizes (always a problem with skillets!) while providing plenty of room for the leafy vegetables to cook through.

3) What tips can you give us for cooking with a wok?

Always start by heating a wok before adding anything to it. Wait until the surface starts to smoke very slightly, add oil to coat the surface and then wait to allow the oil to heat up before adding your ingredients. Pre-heating before adding oil will prevent food from sticking.

Spread the food around the sides of the wok instead of having them in a lump in the centres. The food should be tossed and stirred around to spread the heat and flavours evenly. Most stir frying should be done on medium-high heat. For this reason, gas tends to outperform electric stoves as the latter often has problems producing the high and constant heat that wok cooking requires.

Do not cook too much in a wok at one time. Either cook in two batches or buy a bigger wok. Overcrowding the wok means the food cannot move around the wok easily and will not cook evenly.

4) What should you look out for when choosing a wok?

Food needs to move around in a wok quickly in order to cook evenly and take advantage of the high heat cooking. So make sure you choose one that is sufficiently wide and deep for the amount you plan to cook. Also check that your cooker will accommodate the size that you want to buy. An 8-portions wok will not fit on a tiny cooker (especially if it is a gas stove with small grate fittings on top).

You want a wok that is heavy enough to stay on the stove top without toppling over with all that stir frying action, but still light enough not to be unwieldy if you want to grab and flick the handle to toss the food around. Try to find a nice medium. A wok that is too heavy or thick will take too long to heat up, which is not useful for high heat stir frying. A light or medium-weight carbon steel wok is relatively in expensive and is often the most popular amongst the Chinese and Southeast Asians. But more people are also opting for those with non-stick surfaces for easy cleaning and maintenance. Most traditional carbon steel woks are round at the bottom which requires a wok burner fitting on stove tops or a wok ring (a round band of metal that the wok sits on). If you don’t have a wok burner on your stove (which is not common outside of Asia), get a wok that has a flat bottom otherwise it will not sit properly on your stove.

Most woks come with a long handle (useful for holding on to for stability or tossing) or two round handles on the sides. Look for wooden handles or other material that will remain cool and safe to touch while the wok is hot.

If you have access to a Chinatown or oriental food store/supermarket nearby, that should be your first stop in wok shopping. They are cheaper and often better than the woks that you find in major department stores. There are still good woks available at major shops, as long as you keep an eye out for the weight and material.

5) And how should you care for it once you’ve bought it?

When new, wash with warm soapy water. It is important to season your wok before first use, even if it has a non-stick coating. Open the kitchen windows, make sure the room is well ventilated. Heat the wok on high heat until excess water has evaporated and the surface is shimmering with heat. Remove from heat, apply some vegetable oil (peanut or corn oil is good; olive oil has a low smoking point and will smoke your kitchen out) and spread all a thin film of oil all over the inside with a paper towel (held with tongs if you want to be safe). Be careful not to burn yourself as the wok will be very hot. Turn the heat up again for a few minutes until the surface is smoking slightly. Then remove from heat and allow the wok to cool completely to room temperature. Heat up the wok again and repeat the above steps, applying oil and allow to cool down again, another 1-3 times (more if it doesn’t have a commercial non-stick coating, in order for the wok to develop its own protective layer). Once completely cool, clean the surface lightly with a paper towel to absorb excess oil and it is ready for use.

After cooking, wash the wok with warm water and use a spatula, or non abrasive sponge to scrape off any bits that are stuck (they should come off with little force). Use little or no soap as it will remove the protection oil coating. Dry the wok with a cloth or by heating on the stove (to evaporate moisture) before storing. Your wok will require more attention when new but will developed a good coating over time through repeated use. Re-season your wok from time to time, especially with frequent use, to maintain its shiny and protective coating and you will have a versatile pan that should last for years.


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