At their Boston hot spot Myers+Chang, Beard Award winner Joanne Chang and executive chef (and newly minted 2018 James Beard Award nominee for Best Chef: Northeast) Karen Akunowicz offer up creative interpretation of Chinese, Taiwanese, Thai, and Vietnamese specialties. An essential tool for preparing these cuisines at home? The wok.
For tips on how to buy, clean, and use a wok properly, we went straight to the source—below, Joanne and Karen share their tips for proper wokking, a lesson on achieving the coveted wok hei, and one of the Asian noodle mecca's most popular dishes: wok-charred udon with tender chicken, crisp bok choy, and spicy sauce to bind it all together. Read on to arm yourself with everything you need to become a wok warrior!
A wok is the perfect all-purpose cooking pot, and its characteristic concave shape has not changed for years. The steel conducts heat almost instantaneously, and you can use it for stir-frying, deep-frying, braising, blanching, steaming, smoking, and sauce making. It really is an all-in-one essential piece of equipment for cooking Asian food.
What is so special about a wok? You cook with a wok to add wok hei, which translates to “breath of the wok” or “wok air.” You simply can’t achieve it without a wok. It is the magical char and fire-kissed flavor we crave. When you toss food in the wok, the air and the heat on all sides of the pan transform the food. Guests ask how dishes like our Wok-Charred Udon Noodles get so delicious and smoky, and we tell them, “It’s the wok and lots of love.” They don’t believe that there isn’t a secret smoky ingredient. There is! It’s called wok hei.
Buy a wok in any Asian market or well-stocked kitchen equipment store. For home use, we recommend a 14-inch stainless-steel wok, and if you want to go all out and you have a gas stove, get a corresponding wok ring.
To clean and season your wok, submerge it in extremely hot, soapy water, and rub the inside all over with a sponge. Next scrub the outside with a steel wool, and rinse the wok well. Place it over high heat, and dry with a few paper towels (be careful not to burn yourself). Place 1 tablespoon vegetable oil on a paper towel, and rub the entire inside of wok off the heat. Repeat this process until there is no trace of black residue. The wok is now ready for cooking!
To maintain the wok, make sure you never, ever use detergent in the bowl. That will eat away at the patina that you are trying to build in the wok. Instead, clean the wok with extremely hot water and a stiff-bristled brush. Rinse it and dry it quickly with paper towels to prevent rusting.
Here are a few key tips to successful wokking:
- The oil needs to get so hot it shimmers and smokes. This will be the hottest stove cooking you have ever done. When you think you have waited long enough for the oil to heat up, count to fifteen. Very slowly.
- Cut all your meat and vegetables in roughly equal sizes so they cook evenly.
- Have all your ingredients ready to go before you start cooking. All of them. Once you start wokking, you can’t stop. You want to cook quickly and sear in all the flavor and capture all the wok hei essence in your food.
- Don’t crowd the wok! If you have a small wok or large recipe, split the ingredients in two to ensure that everything gets ample space in the wok. Overcrowding will lead to slow cooking and steaming, the enemy of wok hei.
- Have fun! It’s breathtaking to see how fast and amazingly delicious your cooking can be with a wok. If you have fun, you will do it more, and the more you do it, the better you’ll get.
Ready to wok? Make Chang's recipe for Wok-Charred Udon Noodles with Chicken and Bok Choy (pictured above) at home.
Excerpted from MYERS+CHANG AT HOME © 2017 by Joanne Chang with Karen Akunowicz. Reproduced by permission of Houghton Mifflin Harcourt. All rights reserved.