In every Asian household, beholds a rounded, beaten and battered wok which is possibly in most instances, been handed down from one generation to another. Nothing quite compares to a well season wok to stir-up a quick and easy meal for the family. Traditional homes in China can still bear the original cast iron wok, built-in and on top of a bricked wood fired stove.
Travelling back to China in 2013 and visiting our great grandfather's house tucked away and nestled among tight alleyways in Foshan, Guangdong and as I walked through and under the gates of my heritage, lay in the corner of the first room a large cauldron set into the brickwork. Dusty with oily residue, I brushed my finger tips along the curvature, feeling each dent and ripple with a slight course grain of more than 100 years of seasoned cooking. Wishing I could recover this ancient cook top and bring it back to South Africa.
Today, I still use and cherish the wok my mum handed down to me from her restaurant in Pretoria and although not seasoned with 100 years of flavour, 30 odd years of woking out those meals have left layers of patina to be formed along its carbon-steel body. To this day, I still follow the ritual taught by our grandfather on how to season a wok properly; heat the wok until smoke appears from the carbon build up, swoosh around a good quantity of vegetable oil until smoking point, then add pork lard to the mixture till that smokes, then a large colander full of garlic chives are tossed in and cooked out in the oil. Towards the end as the chives begins to brown, tip the wok slightly to ignite the oil and when the flames die out, discard the chives and reserve the oil for other meals. Allow the wok to cool naturally with all those flavours settling between the atomic scale nooks and cracks, wash with soapy water and allow to air dry in the shade.
I have always been blessed to have a lineage of knowledge to teach and guide me, as without this support, mastering the wok would have been a tough road to walk. Essentially, it's all in a well season wok with the knowledge to control the fear factor behind a gas jet burner, louder than an annual air-defense show at Waterkloof Airbase. In Cantonese, the "Wok-Hei" is used to describe the transfer of heat to amalgamate the flavours together and scientifically it simply means to disperse intense radiating heat across the entire surface area, but for a more magical experience, it means "Breathe of the Wok!"
Caramelizing of sugars, mallard effect and smoking oil, are all key to the balance of wok-hei as ingredients are continuously tossed in an inferno to blast out the excess water content, leaving maximum flavour in each dish. The whole experience is hallmarked by charred aromas and flavours, tickling each of our senses, leaving us with a mystery of interplay of part science, part art and food magic.
Executive Chef & Co-Founder of Obento