I’ve read all manner of reviews about one of the epic cast iron pieces in my collection, the fourteen inch wok, and it turns out the idea of a big and heavy iron wok is divisive and controversial.
A traditional wok (which I do not own) is an agile tool. It is light. It’s meant to be brought up to screeching hot temperatures in which food is moved, flipped, agitated, swirled and stirred with motion of both a scoop in the hand and by tossing and lifting the wok itself. Wok cooking is truly an art form.
It does turn out however that a residential gas stovetop with modest ventilation is not an ideal place to cook in a traditional wok. On the other hand, a wok-shaped bowl of cast iron is pretty darn good enough to replicate some of the properties of a wok. In fact, having spent the last two years learning how to cook well in my cast iron wok has been a remarkably rewarding experience.
And a tasty one.
Our challenge in the wok has been learning to cook dishes that have a curious cultural legacy here in North America. Not everything cooks well in a wok. Woks have a very narrow purpose even in experimenting across cultural recipes. Again, this may be a sensitive topic for some, but as a result of colonial history and inequalities among those who settled here over the generations, in the twenty-first century we have what I understand is a unique form of cuisine: North American Style Asian food. Or as one of my running pals who hails from Hong Kong reminds me frequently “not real Chinese food.”
What I’ve read is that cooking styles and spices mingled with availability of ingredients and limited by tastes linked back to various European ancestries meant that traditional cooking was almost impossible. Immigrants who crossed the Pacific rather than the Altantic set up restaurants as a means to make a living and a life here. They found that they needed to invent dishes that brought the knowledge and experience from their homelands but would be palatable to western tastes (so people would buy and eat it) so dishes like General Tao’s Chicken, Chop Suey, or Ginger Beef became locally known as “Chinese food” but were never dishes that one would actually find in China.
Fast forward to my kitchen, and decades of savouring those shopping mall food court noodle and rice clamshells of spicy goodness. A cast iron wok in my kitchen and a very Canadian-style of recipe that brings together a mish-mash of cultural and regional styles, ingredients, and flavours that results in many various stir-fry-style dishes something like Savoury Avacado Chicken:
First, mix up the following as a deglazing sauce and then set aside.
125 ml water
15 ml of cornstarch
small packet of chicken bouillon powder
15 ml of lemon juice
As you heat up the wok to get it screaming hot, mise en place your main ingredients, frying in succession the chicken, then the peppers and mushrooms, then adding the spices and diced avacados until it all comes together into a lovely stir fried jumble.
vegetable oil and/or sesame oil for pan
450 grams chicken breast meat (cubed)
handful red bell pepper (diced)
handful white mushrooms (sliced)
10 ml curry powder
salt and pepper to taste
1 large avacado (diced)
toasted sesame seeds to garnish
Deglaze the whole thing with the boullion/lemon juice mix from earlier, and serve over rice garnished with a sprinkle of toasted sesame seeds.
Thus, the controversy of the cast iron wok: not an authentic wok, sure, but I’m not cooking authentic recipes. It all evens out, right?