My mother was raised in Shanghai and my father in Guangzhou, but by the time they started their life together in America, in 1949, they no longer cooked with a wok. Round-bottomed woks, the only kind they could find, didn’t get hot enough for stir-frying on their all-American electric range. So they resorted to a stainless-steel skillet for Chinese cooking. My father lamented as he served his exquisite, fragrant dishes that the food hadn’t been “properly” stir-fried. It wasn’t until years later when I discovered the carbon-steel flat-bottomed wok and made my first successful stir-fry, a simple cashew chicken, that I understood my father’s concern.
I still remember it vividly. The moment I swirled the peanut oil into the preheated wok, it shimmered. With the minced ginger, the carbon steel hummed and crackled, releasing a gingery-lemony perfume. The marinated chicken lent the wok music a steady sizzle. After searing undisturbed for a minute, the chicken, to my amazement, yielded to the metal spatula without a hint of sticking and, after a quick stir-fry, achieved a perfect golden hue. Growing hungrier and happier, I added a touch more oil along with sugar snaps, carrots and roasted cashews. Within a few strokes of the spatula, the sugar snaps turned bright green. I added a couple spoonfuls of rich chicken broth, a splash of rice wine and soy sauce. Stir-frying the mixture until the vegetables were crisp and tender, I could feel myself bonding not only with my wok, but with the hundreds of years of tradition that had produced such a simple, healthy and elegant cooking technique. The chicken that evening possessed the concentrated caramelized flavor and seared aroma known as wok hei that the Chinese prize. The vegetables were exquisitely sweet and crunchy.