Capturing Wok Hay

March 22, 2013
By Holly Jennings

Sweet and Sour Cabbage


Perhaps you’ve noticed. The last couple of postings haven’t included food photography. I’m faced with a dilemma: either photograph the stir-fries, and forgo experiencing their momentary wok hay; or forgo the photos and eat them as soon as they’re made. Here’s how Grace Young, author of The Breath of a Wok, explains it: “A stir-fry’s wok hay must be relished the moment it is cooked, before the elusive vital essence dissipates (similar in a way to a soufflé).”


This is all the encouragement I need. The concept of food being stir-fried lightening quick in a hellishly hot wok and immediately sent to the table with at-the-ready eaters following directly on its heels, digging in without ceremony, works for me. I like people and cultures that take their food seriously.


Grace Young explains wok hay in the first pages of The Breath of a Wok. Hay, more familiar to non-Chinese readers as chi or qi from the Mandarin pronunciation of the character, means breath, thus the title of the book. To the Chinese, breath signifies the concept of vital energy.


The ingredients necessary to achieve wok hay are a very hot, well-seasoned cast-iron or carbon-steel wok; fresh, seasonal foods; and proper stir-frying technique. The latter includes such sound practices as not over crowding the wok so as not to reduce its super hot temperature, drying rinsed vegetables very well before adding them to the wok, cutting food the same size so that it cooks evenly, and so on. There is also a poetic, dancelike aspect to the technique of stir-frying, as described in the book by Vivien Cheung, a friend of the author: “I imagine the wok to be like a volcano. Stir-frying on high heat incorporates hot air and motion, releasing a prized essence into the food.”


According to Grace Young, purists believe that wok hay can only be had with charcoal and a cast-iron wok. She doesn’t believe this is so: She believes it can be achieved on a typical American stove with a well-seasoned, flat-bottomed, carbon-steel wok.


I get the purists’ point, though. It seems as though the closer a source of energy is to its original life form, the greater is its strength. What else could explain why in a cold Vermont winter, wood heat is far more warming than an oil furnace, no matter how high you set the thermometer?


Leafing through The Breath of a Wok, I found there is a solution to my dilemma after all: recipes that can be served warm/room temperature or chilled. Sweet and Sour Cabbage, shown at the top of this posting, is one of them. We ate it at room temperature, or rather at a cold pantry temperature, which in my house is about 50 degrees. With its limp bits and slightly crunchy bits of Napa cabbage, flavored with a lightly sweetened vinegar-y sauce, this stir-fry made me think of one of my favorite foods: old-fashioned American wilted lettuce salad.


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