The Gallivanting Gourmand
Greg Duncan
Greg Duncan
is a freelance writer based in the Montreal region. He is particularly keen about good food. In his day job, Greg is the executive director of the Quebec Community Newspapers Association.

His previous columns are archived HERE.

Posted 02.17.05


So, you want to make hay with your wok?

Before you suspect that I am promoting kink in this column let me remind you that the year of the rooster has begun and that the Chinese New Year has been celebrated for days New York Times. The article reported on a culinary curiosity that I have suspected existed all my life.

Your wok is central to the theme and, if you wok the talk, then you will benefit from some ancient Chinese secrets revealed here. It is kind of a sixth sense thing…

If you have ever wondered just why your stir-fry does not have that same oomph that you get at the restaurant you can be sure of one thing. Your wok is out of energy and breath or "out of hay" as the Cantonese refer to it.

Wok hay is as essential to a stir-fry as the ingredients and the spattering of garlic, ginger, and chives hitting a super smoking iron is what makes it happen.

The thing is, North American home stoves just do not provide the requisite amount of heat to truly breath fire into the kitchen and the hotter the wok the better the hay it seems.

With credit to the NY Times…

"On a typical Chinese stove the wok rests inside the heat source, so that its entire base is bathed in flames. Recreating that embrace of heat through a series of subtle changes to traditional Chinese methods is the key to stir-fry success.

Residential stoves here produce about 100,000 BTUs but restaurant stoves in Hong Kong, where the chefs use compressed gas to create a more intense heat, can produce as much as 200,000. At that level of heat, and with the intense activity of a restaurant kitchen, even top-quality woks warp instantly and have to be hammered back into shape after each night's cooking. While a home wok can last a lifetime, the legendary wok warriors of top Hong Kong restaurants must buy new woks every 7 to 10 days."

Other tricks of the trade that result in imparting good wok energy and releasing wok breath or "hay" include the golden rules of never overcrowding the wok or adding oil before the wok is heated through.

Those wok rings don't help either. The rings raise the level of the wok too high on domestic stoves and move the wok further from the heat. A flat -bottomed wok is a good solution to this and in particular for electric stoves. <> The Chinese New Year signals and opportunity to get out and breathe some new life into your stir -fry. Why not make hay in this year of the rooster? My wok is heating up as we speak and the kitchen gods are smiling.

Wok Hay Cashew Shrimp

1/2 pound sliced mushrooms
1 pound large shrimp, shelled, de-veined
3 tablespoons dry Sherry or chicken broth
1 1/4 teaspoons peeled and minced gingerroot
3 tablespoons vegetable oil
1 clove garlic chopped
1/2 cup sliced water chestnuts
1/2 cup sliced bamboo shoots
1/3 cup unsalted roasted cashew nuts
2 tablespoons soy sauce
1-teaspoon cornstarch
1/4-teaspoon sugar
1/4 cup chopped scallion
1/2-teaspoon sesame oil

In a bowl combine shrimp, 1 tablespoon Sherry or broth, garlic and gingerroot. Let the mixture marinate 30 minutes.

Heat your wok over high heat until very hot. Add oil and stir-fry cashews for 20 seconds. Remove cashews from hot oil and drain on paper towels.

Add mushrooms to wok and stir-fry briefly.

Add water chestnuts, bamboo shoots and shrimp mixture, and stir-fry 1 minute. In small bowl combine remaining 2 tablespoons Sherry or broth, soy sauce, cornstarch and sugar. Add to wok, stirring, and stir-fry until sauce is thickened. Remove wok from heat and stir in scallion, sesame oil and cashews.

Serve over hot rice. Serves 2.