Long time readers will be familiar with my general annoyance at a lot of Western writing about how to cook Chinese food. With relatively few exceptions I tend to think that people make this food out to be more complicated than it really is. I also tend to think that people, even Chinese, or Chinese-American people tend to attribute an almost mystical aspect to the technique needed to cook good Chinese food in a home kitchen.
Nothing sums up both of these annoyances as well as the almost ubiquitous obsession with wok hei (Cantonese) or guo qi (Mandarin) which literally translates as “pan gas” but which has been more poetically rendered as “wok breath” or “breath of the wok” in the West. The idea is that when you cook food in a really hot wok, over a really high flame, the resulting food will have a particular smokey/grilled/singed flavor profile generated by the heat and the flame acting on the oil in the pan. This is especially strong when the food is straight out of the pan and on to a plate in your favorite Chinese takeout joint.
This is all fine. I have no doubt that the food tastes this way, and that some combination of the pan and the technique of the chef makes it taste this way. While before you would have just had to take some writer’s word for it, these days you can just go to youtube and watch Chef Wang set his food on fire over that jet engine wok burner and you know what’s up. His commentary will even explicitly mention getting the “锅气” out of the food. More recently his English subtitles have started translating this as “wok hei”, since whoever is writing them knows that’s a phrase people know. But earlier videos that are more automatically subtitled say “pan gas”, which amuses me.
So what is my problem? My problem is that people (or at least cookbook publishers) seem to think that achieving this flavor profile is the be all and end all of cooking Chinese Food at home. Find almost any Western, and especially English language writing on Chinese cooking and some mention of this technique will show up early and often and questions of high heat burners and hot pans tend to sit front and center in any discussion about Chinese cooking.
This attitude always confused me, and I have come to realize (from Kenji’s comments at the end of in this video) that this might be because I grew up eating Chinese food at home. My mom cooked everything in a cast iron skillet on a coiled electric stove. It was better than the food in the restaurants. But, most of the food writing that annoys me is from people chasing restaurant style Chinese food and trying to figure out how to do that at home.
Now, I don’t want to begrudge people their irrational obsessions. God knows this web site is nothing if not a catalog of mine. But there is so much more to Chinese food than just stir fry technique.
Chinese cooking encompasses every possible technique in the kitchen. There is stir fry (which is really just saute, don’t @ me), roasting, braising, deep frying, smoking, bread making, pancakes, dumplings (the best dumplings), noodles, soups, hot pot, pickles, and anything else you can think of. Yet over and over again people just go on and on about stir fry. Scroll around in Chef Wang’s videos, see how many of them involve setting the wok on fire. The number is actually pretty small. If you go to many of the other huge number of Chinese language cooking channels on youtube you see the same thing, even when the cooks used to work in restaurants.
I guess it’s no coincidence that almost none of my favorite Chinese food is restaurant style high heat stir fry. Steamed fish is steamed. Congee is over-boiled rice. Dumplings are boiled or steamed. Ma-po tofu is a medium to low heat stew. Three cup chicken is almost stir fried, but it’s really a braise. Good hot pan technique is probably most critical with the green vegetables … but to me getting that right is not that different from getting the same thing right at a saute station in France.
On the other hand, my annoyance is not completely fair. Even the book that I usually credit with starting the whole wok hei obsession, Grace Young’s The Breath of the Wok, covers the many other aspects of Chinese food that I have mentioned, though that coverage is later in the book after all of the semi-mystical wok material. So maybe this whole thing just circles back to my irrational obsession with my own probably unfair perceptions. Still, by far the most extensive recent piece about Chinese food in the newspaper of record is Kenji’s fifteen hundred words about wok hei at home, so maybe not.
In either case, I am here to say my piece about wok hei and then shut up, and my piece has two parts:
Just stop it. Go learn to make other things. It’s just not that important. You can make Chinese food on any stove you have and almost any pan you have. Stop overthinking it.
I take no credit for thought number 1, except that it lived in my annoyed brain for years. All the credit for expressing the thought goes to the heroes at Chinese Cooking Demystified for making all that great food on a little hot plate and sharing my confusion over the wok hei obsession. Take their advice about wok technique and listen to their truth about what you need in a wok.
Now I’m going to go back to my kitchen, and my favorite 12 inch non-stick aluminum wok shaped pan, and make dinner. This pan, by the way, is great for everything. It’s not too small. It’s not too big and heavy. The coating can take a beating and it still works fine. And the flat bottom lets it double as a small frying pan for things like French omelettes and frying hot dogs. I keep a 14 inch steel wok around for deep frying but it’s just too big and unwieldy for day to day, and because I don’t use it enough the surface is never any good. Maybe I’ll try to find a nice iron one to set on fire over the grill.