Work that Wok

Work that Wok

Singapore, Chinese Food –

It takes a chef a long time to master the art of ‘WOK HEI’ IN CHINESE COOKING. Can you achieve it at home?

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A domestic home stove is only about 20,000 British thermal units (btu). To achieve wok hei, we need a stove of at least 100,000btu
Wok heaven at 5B Kitchen Supply store in Joo Chiat
Chef Eric Low of Lush Epicurean works his wok magic as he tosses the noodles so that the intense heat will ignite the fat and natural sugars of the food to impart wok hei flavours

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‘THE BREATH OF THE WOK’ or ‘wok hei’ in Cantonese refers to the smoky char nuances in both aroma and flavour that envelops a just-cooked stirfried dish. Hor fun (flat rice noodles with meat and gravy), fried rice, sambal kang kong, and many stirfried dishes MUST have wok hei if it to have a stamp of approval with foodies.

Walk past any zichar homestyle Chinese eatery or Chinese gourmet kitchen and you’ll hear the roar of jet flames. This is how searing hot, huge and powerful the fire has to be for the cook to work his wok, and to cloak his ‘dancing’ food with wok hei. It takes seconds to achieve but it takes years and years of learning and practise.

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Wok tips from top professional Chinese food chefs in Singapore

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Chef Eric Low 

LUSH Epicurean Culinary Consultancy

Culinary Arts &Science Specialist, Brand Ambassador, Corporate Projects Consultant, Founder, LUSH Epicurean Culinary Consultancy

With a string of culinary awards and medals to his name, Chef Eric Low has cooked for royalty and Hollywood stars. The graduate from the Culinary Institute of America in Napa Valley and SHATEC with extensive culinary experience is boardmember of the Singapore Chefs Association, chef-owner of Lush Epicurean, cookbook author and instructor with local culinary institutions
Black beef hor fun
eric low scallops
Wok fried scallops with bamboo shoots and sugar peas

The smoky aromas from food that are captured with wok hei evoke sensations to the mind that the food is done by a highly skilled chef who is able to balance the high heat with the nice caramelising of natural sugars as the ingredients get cooked in the intense high temperatures.  

HOW TO ACHIEVE WOK HEI IN COOKING?

First a high powered gas stove is needed before anything else can help. The strength of a stove is measured in British Thermal Units (btu). A domestic home stove is only about 20,000btu. To achieve wok hei, we need at least a 100,000btu stove. This is not allowed in domestic kitchens in apartments and public housing flats because of the danger, heat and smoke it generates from cooking at such high temperatures. Wok hei is achieved when moisture released from food or sauce ingredients tossed in the wok over high fire, splatters with droplets of rendered or added fat in the wok. The splattering of minute oil droplets in air together with the tossing action at high temperatures ignites the fat to burn up when the combustible temperature is reached. The resulting flames from fat burning droplets produces smoke which is captured or infused into the food ingredients in the constant tossing action. The resulting smoky aroma and top notes found on the surface of the food ingredients that we bite into is known as wok hei.

WHAT DOES WOK HEI DO TO FOOD?

Wok hei is a complex spectrum of smoke produced from burning fat and caramelising natural sugars from meat, vegetables and seafood in the high temperatures of cooking. It adds a smoky dimension to the dish. While complex, it is pleasantly subtle to both nasal and palate sensations of the diner. It is not the same as aromas produced from food that is too charred or burnt with intensive unpleasant bitter smoky aromas and taste.

WHAT TYPE OF WOK DO YOU PREFER TO USE? 

I prefer carbon steel. It is light weight, non reactive to acidic ingredients and sauces. It is also easier to manage when it comes to wok tossing the ingredients to produce flames.

YOUR FAVOURITE WOK HEI DISH TO EAT.

A simple Teochew style chye por  kway teow fried with lard, preserved radish (chye por), kailan and seasoned with fish sauce. The simple ingredients based dish relies heavily on wok hei to lift it up to an appetising aroma.

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Masterchef Goh Chee Kong

Min Jiang at Dempsey

Ipoh-born masterchef Goh has been working with the Min Jiang brand since 2001. He was awarded ‘One of the Top Five Most Promising Chefs in Asian cuisine’ at the Hospitality Asia Platinum Awards in 2007. His interpretation of contemporary Chinese cuisine at Min Jiang at Dempsey, such as the stewed noodles with lobster, takes his culinary art to impressive levels. Wok hei is a key element in a majority of his creations
Stewed noodles with lobster
Min Jiang turbot fish served in two styles

The food has to be tossed about non-stop and moved about vigorously in the wok over the strong flame during those few seconds. 

WHAT DOES WOK HEI DO TO FOOD?

Wok hei is particularly important in Chinese cuisine for the robust flavour, texture and fragrance of the food.

HOW TO ACHIEVE WOK HEI IN COOKING?

To achieve wok hei, the two key things to note are – high fire and quick, repeated toss of the food in the wok. Approximately 20 seconds before the food is done cooking, you have to raise the flame temperature to extraordinarily high levels.

Then, the food has to be tossed about non-stop and moved about vigorously in the wok over the strong flame during those few seconds. Sometimes, this is done in combination with tossing the food in the air by flicking the wok.

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Executive chef Nicky Ng

Mitzo

During his days as Deputy Executive Chef at Club Chinois, Chef Ng elevated modern Chinese fine dining in Singapore to meritorious levels. His culinary style sees him adding various cultural nuances to the traditional such as truffle or lemongrass to Cantonese classics. His signature dishes include Mitzo special barbecued pork, crispy pork belly, black truffle crispy roast duck, oven-baked chilean seabass with lemongrass, chilli and spices
XO fried rice with lobster meat, vegetables and mushroom
Braised black pepper vermicelli with roasted pork

The regular use of the wok develops a layer of hardened oil that prevents the food from sticking to the wok. 

HOW TO ACHIEVE WOK HEI IN COOKING?

Wok hei is the intense smoky flavour of food that can only be achieved under extreme heat. The food is tossed about in the wok, and the wok should be heated up gradually to extreme temperatures, after which the oil and gravy are added into the wok. The oil ensures that the gravy does not burn as the other ingredients are added to the wok. It is more than just heating up the food – you have to make sure that the smoky fragrance permeates the food in its entirety to achieve wok hei.  

WHAT DOES WOK HEI DO TO FOOD?

Wok Hei gives food that smoky fragrance that is considered the mark/skillset of many Cantonese chef’s cooking. The intense flavour is achieved through special control – an art which takes chefs years to perfect.

HOW DO YOU TAKE CARE OF YOUR WOK?

Like all tools of the trade, woks also have a certain lifespan. In order to maintain the curvature of the wok, as it will eventually go out of shape due to the heavy usage, one needs to heat the wok at an intense heat to invoke the malleability of the metal. This is seen when the wok turns red with the heat of the fire. The chef will then hit the wok with a special wooden “hammer” of sorts to bend it back to its original shape. This is something that I do to ensure that my wok is taken care of.

YOUR FAVOURITE WOK HEI DISH.

My favourite wok hei dish at Mitzo is Sanpei chicken with onion, mushroom and Thai sweet basil, and my personal favourite wok hei dish is beef hor fun.

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Masterchef Chung Lap Fai

Hua Ting, Orchard Hotel Singapore

He is indeed the Master. Beginning his career at 17 in Hong Kong, masterchef Chung Lap Fai’s impressive culinary journey has spanned more than 30 years. His Singapore stint at Hua Ting Cantonese restaurant began in 1997, and he has since taken both his signature Cantonese dishes and the restaurant to outstanding standards, winning numerous awards and accolades. Masterchef Chung won the ‘Asian Cuisine Chef of The Year’ award at the prestigious World Gourmet Summit – Awards of Excellence
Handrolled sauteed lamb fillet, Chinese leek, aged vinegar
Hua ting crab
Fresh crab claw, egg white, spring onion and ginger puree

Get all your ingredients ready by the stove.

HOW TO ACHIEVE WOK HEI IN COOKING?

The fire must be strong and you must be quick in your cooking. If not, the dish will be overly smoky.

WHAT DOES WOK HEI DO TO FOOD?

It makes the dish aromatic and taste better.

HOW TO TAKE CARE OF YOUR WOK?

You must clean it after every use and protect it with a thin film of oil.

YOUR FAVOURITE WOK HEI DISH.

That would be then dried beef hor fun.

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Resident Executive Chef Chai Jih Nan 

Blue Lotus

Wearing a professional chef’s hat of 20 years, Chef Chai has developed award-winning experience and technique in Chinese cuisine. He is not one to shy away from learning new technologies and methods, which he incorporates into his traditional repertoire to add a touch of modernism and the unexpected. This exciting interpretation of Chinese food is evident at Blue Lotus Chinese Eating House, Blue Lotus Chinese Grill House and Blue Lotus Kitchen + Bar. His vast knowledge and expertise has seen him catering to high end events such as Formula One and World Gourmet Summit
Wok fried KL style Hokkien noodles with crispy pork lard
Wok fried Angus beef cubes with black peppercorn sauce

In addition to the chef’s technique, the material of the wok matters too.

HOW TO ACHIEVE WOK HEI IN COOKING?

The temperature of the wok has to be perfect. However, this also depends on the chef’s experience to control the fire with just the right amount of temperature and heat to spread evenly through the wok. In addition to the chef’s technique, the material of the wok matters too. 

WHAT DOES WOK HEI DO TO FOOD?

Flavour, taste and fragrance of the breath of the wok. 

HOW TO TAKE CARE OF YOUR WOK?

Season the wok with oil. Traditionally, chefs will always burn the bottom of the wok to maintain it and also achieve a better effect of wok hei. These steps will usually make the wok thinner, such that the wok heats up fast enough to quick fry and create the wok hei. 

YOUR FAVOURITE WOK HEI DISH.

Wok fried beef kway teow, dry version. It looks simple, but if the wok hei is not executed well, this dish will not be fantastic.

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My beloved wok

Cast iron – heavy but takes 8 seconds to heat to terrifying temperatures, and 10 seconds to wok fry vegetables

I bought this cast iron wok for about S$14, and I can see it lasting me a life time. It’s heavy to toss and flip food around in but cast iron develops its own barbecue flavours after a while. Before using it for the first time, I had to get rid of the ash-like black film it naturally has, and make it safe for food. A Chinese chef recommended this method:

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To season a cast iron wok

Wash your wok thoroughly with soap and water. Dry. Dry fry a handful of Chinese tea leaves, moving it all over the surface of the wok. Add water to the tea leaves, to totally fill the wok, and bring to gentle boil. Switch off the heat, and leave the wok with the tea water in it for one day. The next day discard the tea water, wipe dry and repeat the process. Test by cooking some rice or vegetable discards with a little oil to see if there is any black residue on the food. If clear, you’re good to go. Do not use detergent to wash your wok after cooking but brush gently with a coconut husk brush and water. Dry it, drizzle a little cooking oil in it and coat the oil all over the wok to prevent rusting. After cooking with your cast iron wok for some time, it becomes non-stick and develops its own natural delicious barbecue char flavours.

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Other materials

Woks come in all types of material from cast iron to stainless steel to aluminium

Woks come in other material such as stainless steel, aluminium, carbon steel, non-stick coated carbon steel and expensive Le Creuset-like cast iron. Many professional Chinese cuisine chefs prefer carbon steel because it is relatively light in weight, a good heat conductor, and durable.

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How to achieve wok hei at home

As chef Eric Low mentioned, it is illegal in most homes to have a powerful stove that blasts frightening flames needed for successful Chinese wok cooking. With a little creativity, you can cheat by adding smoky flavours with these techniques and items.

Sambal kang kong – vegetables literally take seconds to cook, and capture wok hei well
Flambe with alcohol for a wok hei taste

1 Flambe – If you do not want the liquor to affect the flavours of the food, vodka is the most neutral of spirits that leaves no flavour. The initial flame may be huge but don’t fret, it vanishes in no time.

2 Mezcal – This Mexican agave spirit has a unique, distinctive smoky flavour. This is because the harvested agave fruit is smoked in pits before extraction and distillation. Add a teaspoonful to your stirfry or flambe with it. It is expensive like tequila but a little goes a long way (unless you knock back shots every night).

3 Smoked salt – Sea salt is smoked with aromatic woods for a delicious hint of char. The best way to use smoked salt is to sprinkle a little during cooking and after you’ve cooked your food. This way, the smoky flavour will not be lost in the other seasonings and ingredients.

4 Liquid smoke – Available in little bottles at many supermarkets, liquid smoke is a water-soluble liquid that imparts a woody smoky aroma and fragrance to food especially meat. It is generally made by condensing the smoke from burning wood. Just a dash will do (1/4 teaspoon) as it is highly concentrated. You can dilute it in stock or water before stirfrying.

5 Charcoal – Light a piece of charcoal on your gas burner till it smokes and put it into a small heat proof bowl. Make a small well in the stirfried food you have just cooked in the wok. Place this bowl into the well around your food and cover the whole wok with foil for a few minutes.

6 Lapsang Souchong tea leaves – This Chinese tea is dried using pinewood fire, and has a wonderful smoky essence. In a separate pan, dry fry a handful of these tea leaves till it smokes, wrap in tin foil and poke holes. Place this little packet into the well around your food in your wok and cover the whole thing for a few minutes. You can also brew the tea and use it as stock.

Hit the food with a blast of flames from a chef’s blow torch

7 Chef’s blow torch – Invest in one of these handy kitchen gadgets that throws flame onto foods for searing char and wok hei aromas. I’ve seen chefs blacken salmon, melt butter and direct blow torch flames into a wok if the stove is not that powerful.

8 Dark roast coffee – The darker the roast the more delicious the char flavour you will get. Dark roast coffee includes espresso, Italian, Sumatra Mandheling, French and Columbian. Just a pinch of ground coffee will give you a shot of smoke. Or turn it into a popular wok dish: coffee pork ribs.

Dark roast coffee imparts smoky aromas
Wok fried coffee pork ribs is one of many zichar favourites

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Story by Carol Kraal. Respective photographs: chef Eric Low and his food courtesy of Lush Epicurean; masterchef Goh Chee Kong of Min Jiang at Dempsey and his food courtesy of Goodwood Park Hotel; executive chef Nicky Ng and his food courtesy of Mitzo; masterchef Chung Lap Fai and his food courtesy of Hua Ting, Orchard Hotel Singapore; resident executive chef Chai Jih Nan and his food courtesy of Blue Lotus.