This is my Wok…
There are many like it in the shop where I brought it – the one next to Lee Ho Fook in Soho China Town, London – but this one is mine.
So there I was one Saturday afternoon as a second year law undergraduate with a new cook book – Ken Hom’s Chinese Cooking, acquired following watching the show on the BBC – and deciding that I wanted to do that and and it was kind of the thing you did when you were young and when you could not yet afford a futon – the great eastern aspirational product of the time.
I had read the chapter on Wok acquisition and Wok seasoning with some care and committed various parts of it to memory. In any event this was to be the Saturday afternoon’s entertainment and it needed to last a reasonable amount of time as I had little money. I has skipped the bit on the need for a 20 Kw gas burner as all I had in my student accommodation was a couple of electric rings which never got very hot.
The Chinese Supermarket was a distinctly authentic place, large and piled with ingredients and implements to cook them with, that were exotic and in 1984 little understood. Weird bags of things resided in huge freezers with ingredients such as abalone and parts of animals that I was not sure were entirely edible. The smell was indefinable, and not entirely pleasant: undertones of dead things and five spice and that odd bleachy chemically smell that could be cleaning product or the decaying intestines of some particularly sought after delicacy that was buried for a couple of years but was delicious with spring onions and garlic and good for male pattern baldness.
In any event Ken had told me what to look for so I would not look like a complete gaijin – or was that from Japan (?) and in particular my obsessive reading of Shogun. – in any case I was on the look out for something in steel with a round bottom. Flat bottomed woks – which were advised for electric hobs – were very much modern thinking and would not concentrate the heat properly, so I was going to have to try and make this Wok work balanced on my electric hob. I was not going to sell out for some minor technical difficulty with my heat source.
The pile of Woks towards the back of the store and the low price spoke to huge factories turning out thousands every day; and, that they would be used and disposed of when even slightly non-functional. This was somewhat at odds with Ken’s assertion that they were a heritage item that would build a patina and age gracefully.
So after careful examination of 10 identical and mass mass mass produced Woks this is my Wok. I went home. I seasoned it. I hot wired the thermostat on the electric cooker. I set off the smoke detectors. I cooked chicken in black bean sauce. I set off the smoke detectors…
And 30 years later my Wok is my most constant companion. It is part of my story. I must master it as I must master my life, but my Wok without me is useless – it would be thrown away without remorse by a house clearer should I die – and without my Wok I am just one of the useless saucepan wielding masses.
My Wok is now black, lustrous as ebony, the cooking surface a tribute to years of student meals, batchelor meals, late night suppers and numerous attempts to impress girls with my seared beef, the introduction of my children to a more exotic world.
My Wok and I know what counts in Chinese cooking it is not the meals that we cook, the sizzle or our meat nor the smoke we make. We know that is it the hit that counts and the hit of garlic, ginger and chilli is great, particularly with sesame oil and soy sauce.
My Wok is my best friend, because it is my life. There is nothing that I have not cooked in my Wok; and, once it was my only cooking pan. Thus, I have learned it as a brother. I have learned its weaknesses, its strengths, its parts, what goes and what does not – lemon juice for one. I have deep fried, shallow fried, steamed, baked and smoked. I have cooked for friends, for enemies and on gas and electric but never induction…
I keep my Wok clean and ready with only water and a scrubbing brush and even as I am clean and ready we have become part of each other and I will not ruin the patina because there is somewhere in there - the memory of the first meal I ever cooked, some thirty years ago and every meal since and that is not a thing to be easily scoured away.
Before God, I swear, My Wok and I are the defenders of the family stove (although not the AGA – which is a bit of a sore point). We are the masters of stir fry and the saviours of chow mein. So be it until victory is cooked and there is nothing left to stir fry but peace although more likely my wife will bury it with me.
And, when my son was 18 I took him to Soho to the same supermarket; and, it was closed down…but we found another and the baton was passed…
With apologies to just about everyone I know, have read, or seen…but particularly all the Riflemen.