I'm torn. I love rummaging through all kinds of kitchen equipment in just about any setting: restaurant supply stores, flea markets, antique stores, ethnic markets and up market foodie shops-all of which fill me with the lust to acquire. On the other hand, my kitchen is not so big, I need some room to keep the food, and I am, as they say, not made of money. I am also drawn to the ideal of the pared down sort of kitchen, where all tools work properly and most serve multiple purposes. So I try to be selective, up to a point.
There is nothing so satisfying as a tool that works really well, and when it is broken in, sturdy and familiar, so much the better. I am particularly fond of my old cast iron Lodge frying pan, nominally a "chicken fryer" , 12" across. I bought it new in the seventies, and seasoned it myself. It is black and slick and virtually nonstick, and has seen alot of fancier pans come and go. There is nothing like it for searing, browning, making pancakes, grilling cheese sandwiches, or frying chicken (which I don't do often, I must say).
Because I like to attempt some Chinese, Southeast Asian and Indian things from time to time, I have aspired to a trusty, seasoned wok of the same ilk as my fryer. I've tried to break one in on more than one occasion, aiming for that well-worn slickness. I've been stymied though, by the steel surfaces. The steel woks I've tried have gone weirdly sticky on me, and after a few months, just seemed kind of insanitary and smelly.
I knew a wok has to be thin, so that it can heat up fast and super-hot. I also knew I needed a flat bottomed one, because on my stove, a wok ring sets the bottom too high. Without a ring, a round bottomed wok wiggles wildly; my reflexes are not good enough to deal with that kind of action. I had seen a Chinese restaurant chef using what looked like a beautiful, very thin, hammered iron wok, but it was round bottomed and also immense, and not for the likes of me. Hand hammered iron woks are the loveliest of all, and are available in smaller sizes, but did not seem to exist with flat bottoms.
I discovered my thin, iron, flat bottomed Chinese wok in SF's Chinatown last year at the Wok Shop. It is practically ideal, and cost only $15. You can see what it looked like, when new, in the picture above, which I pilfered from the shop's website. I've been trying to take a picture of my own semi-seasoned pet pot, but it's not looking like it's sweet self- guess it just isn't photogenic.
It doesn't have the primal appeal of the plain hammered ones, but the only functional flaw is the dopey plastic covering on the handles. I can't imagine that bare metal could burn your hands any more effectively than these do. Otherwise: the wok is very thin and light, but sturdy. It has a plain iron cooking surface and a thin, black enamel exterior, similar to what you find on old fashioned enameled double-boilers and decorated picnicware, rather than the fancy, heavy kind of enamel on Le Creuset- type casseroles. This exterior can be washed with soap, unlike the interior, which must be seasoned, and cleaned only with water.
Because I dithered over carrying a bulky package on the airplane back, and was already walking around with a newly purchased cast iron teapot (small in size, yet surprisingly burdensome), I wound up ordering the wok from the website after I got home. This shop has sold woks in Chinatown for 30 years, is very welcoming, and sent along helpful information on wok seasoning. They also sent a nice brass wire strainer ladle thing and a bamboo whisk "to help make up for the cost of shipping." The wok came in a plastic bag which was labeled "Iron Cauldron" (eye of newt ?)
I seasoned my wok using a combination of recommended techniques from the Wok Shop and from Grace Young's The Breath of a Wok. This book is enticing on the subject of "wok hay"- that hard to pinpoint something extra which comes steaming from the stir fries of the best wok handlers. I'm not sure I know what it is, but I'm sure I want some. Her approach to her family and culture and food
is so respectful that it is not always easy to tell what her own viewpoint may be on any given topic. This is actually part of the charm of the thing, but it did leave me a little confused on the practicalities. Many of her alternate seasoning suggestions for cast iron invoved the use of Chinese chives. I decided to use some, even though I am still not sure of their purpose. In fact, I walked over to the Chinese grocery in the Strip District during my lunch hour to get them.
This is what I did: First I washed the wok very thoroughly with soap and water, scrubbing it with a copperwire scrubber, and rinsed it over and over again. I dried it thoroughly and rubbed the surface all over with half a bunch of chinese chives. I then wiped it clean with some paper towels, heated it till smoking, removed it from the heat, and rubbed it all over with a paper towel dipped in vegetable oil. Back on the flame until smoking again, dried it again with a paper towel, etc. I repeated the addition of oil, reheating, and wiping a bunch of times over, after disabling the smoke alarm. Then I stir fried the rest of the chives (chopped), wiped out the wok, and hung it up. It's been coming along nicely since then. I carefully wash it with plain hot water and a gentle vegetable brush, and dry it right way. Still longing for one of those plain, hand hammered iron ones, but feel disloyal to my serviceable little wok when I do. All the best woks are cheap, which is very nice.