To this day I marvel at the natural nonstick quality of a seasoned carbon-steel wok, which is what makes it indispensable for stir-frying. For over 2,000 years, the wok has been the essential tool in the Chinese kitchen—it is the original natural nonstick pan. Once seasoned, just as with a cast-iron skillet, its surface acquires a nonstick patina. The more it is used, the better the patina and the less oil the carbon-steel wok requires. Nutritionally, a carbon-steel wok imparts some dietary iron into food and cooking quickly at high heat preserves such delicate nutrients as vitamin C and folate. But what home cooks praise the most is that it imparts the coveted wok hei to stir-fries.
Despite all those benefits, the carbon-steel wok is becoming increasingly difficult to find. On a recent visit to Philadelphia’s Chinatown I went searching for a carbon-steel wok, but could only find nonstick cookware. In fact, the only place that had one was a cookware store in the Italian section of town. And in China, too, in urban centers, I’ve observed that “modern” nonstick cookware has usurped carbon-steel and cast-iron woks. But nonstick is just not the same; it’s not safe to use traditional Teflon-coated nonstick pans over high heat because it may cause the coating to break down and release potentially toxic fumes. And most nonstick pans don’t last. Food stir-fried in a nonstick pan is devoid of the coveted browning and seared fragrance a carbon-steel wok imparts.