I love Chinese food, and for most of my life it was especially important to find the best Chinese restaurant wherever I lived. But then I got brave and started trying different Chinese recipes myself. I figured out that I’d need to use local Asian stores to find ingredients to help make the food more authentic (Mikyin’s Asian Market in Carrboro and Silver Wok in Chapel Hill are both good). Once I started getting the knack for finding ingredients and following directions on technique, I fell in love with cooking Chinese food. Never in a million years did I think I could make something so authentic and delicious at home!
At first I made the recipes in my dutch oven — a trick recommended to me by a friend whose mother is Chinese and does the same. But I knew I was cheating a little, and the desire for a wok gnawed at me. Finally I figured that it was time to give in and buy one.
It took a bit of research to decide just what I wanted in my wok. If you decide that you’d like one, there are a few things to take into consideration: Is your stove gas or electric? How many people do you normally cook for? This matters because it will help you decide on the size you want. A bonus is that woks are inexpensive compared to most cookware. They come in many different varieties – some are flat bottomed and some have a round bottom; the best woks are carbon steel or cast iron (they are also available with a nonstick surface). Once you have seasoned a wok, it becomes nonstick, although you need to be willing to hand wash it and keep it dry (this is not in any way a tough thing to do). It really helps to talk to someone who knows woks and understands how to cook with one.
I ended up getting my wok from the Wok Shop in San Francisco (www.wokshop.com, 415-989-3797). I called and talked to Mrs. Chan. She is very friendly, knowledgeable and helpful. If you have any questions, send her an email and she will usually reply back within a day or two. She helped me figure out which sort of wok would work best for my situation, answered all my questions clearly, and advised me on a few gadgets that might be helpful to go with my wok (you’ll probably want a special spatula, a lid and maybe a thing called a spider that helps take things out of the wok if you fry with it).
She also gave me advice on how to season my wok. If you’ve ever had a cast iron pan you know what I’m talking about. But I never had, and the whole seasoning process was new to me and a little daunting. It is actually really easy, and once the wok is seasoned it is very easy to clean. If you buy from the Wok Shop Mrs. Chan will go over the procedures with you, and then send them to you along with your wok. First thing you do when you get your wok is to wash it in hot water with soap (and this may be the last time soap touches your wok), then dry it thoroughly (I often dry mine by putting it over the flame on my stove for a few minutes). Then cover the inside and outside with cooking oil and put it upside down in a hot oven (covering the wooden handle with aluminum foil so that it doesn’t burn) for about 20 minutes. After this, put it on a hot stove, add cooking oil and stir fry a handful of chives or scallions, ginger, garlic, onions (whatever combination you happen to have – it should smell wonderful while cooking), pushing the vegetables up around the sides so that every bit of the inside is getting touched. The wok will start to darken, and from the bottom to about a third of the way up will turn black. This means you have seasoned your wok. A fun way to help season your wok is to make popcorn in it (of course this will require that you buy a lid too!). You can cook anything you’d use a nonstick pan for, and the more you use it the more seasoned it is and easier to clean.
When it comes to cleaning the most important thing is that you want to make sure it gets very dry afterwards — which is when putting the cleaned wok on the stove over heat for a few minutes really helps. You are not supposed to use soap (just wiping it with a damp cloth a few times should do the trick once it is well seasoned) but if you forget or feel that it really needs soap don’t get stressed; just don’t let it soak in soapy water.
Now that you’ve got your wok (if you don’t, you can always go with a large nonstick frying pan or my original method of using a dutch oven) you can make a delicious Kung Pao Chicken at home. As usual, play with this so it suits your tastes. Love more peanuts? Add more. If you like your food less spicy, cut back on the peppercorns and dried chilies. But this recipe is so easy and so good, I really hope you’ll try it as is.
Kung Pao Chicken
- 1/2 cup unsalted peanuts
- 2 chicken breasts, cut into bite size pieces
- 1 tablespoon corn or potato starch*
- 4 tablespoons soy sauce
- 2 tablespoons peanut oil
- 1 teaspoon toasted Szechuan peppercorns*
- 2 (or more, I like it spicy so usually use 4-5) dried red chilies, chopped
- 3 or 4 garlic cloves, thinly sliced
- 1 inch piece of ginger, peeled and thinly sliced
- 4-6 scallions, sliced
- Sesame oil (optional)
*(Potato starch and Szechuan peppercorns are available at the Silver Wok on Fordham Rd, in Mariakakis Plaza. Szechuan peppercorns give a lovely almost floral and spicy flavor that is so distinctive in Szechuan cooking.)
Heat your wok over medium heat and add the peanuts, shaking the pan to keep them from burning. Once they are golden, remove and let cook.
Put the cut up chicken in a bowl with the cornstarch and half the soy sauce and mix until coated. Let sit for 10 minutes.
Heat the wok over medium heat and add peanut oil. Once the oil is hot throw in the Szechuan peppercorns and dried red chilies and stir fry for about 30 seconds. Add the chicken and stir fry until it is starting to brown, then add the garlic, ginger, scallions and peanuts. Stir fry for about another minute or two, making sure the chicken is cooked.
Pour the remaining soy sauce in and mix. Serve over rice. I like to drizzle a little sesame oil over the top too.
And once you’ve plated you can give your wok a quick but thorough wipe with a paper towel if you think of it. If not, just give it a quick rinse and wipe it out (remember, try not to use soap) and then dry it on the hot stove, and you’re done!
Feature image by wasabicube via flickr