The owner of the Wok Shop in San Francisco’s Chinatown stopped me on the way to the register.
“That’s a round bottom wok,” she said. “Are you sure your house has the right burner for that?”
“Well,” I answered, “It’s like this.... We’re not so much buying the right wok for the house. It’s more like getting the right house for the wok.”
“Oh?!” Grinning and pointing a finger at the ceiling... “I like where you have your priorities!”
Yep. Me too.
|THE MYTH, THE LEGEND, THE WOK SHOP ON GRANT AVE|
It’s a bit of an exaggeration, this statement about the wok. But not much of one. After five years of visiting the small pueblo of Sayulita, Nayarit, on Mexico’s Pacific Coast, we finally found the huevos to buy our own home here. Like a lot of gringos (and non-gringos), we found ourselves talking about the possibility of a home here during the very first visit. After that, it was a process of one thing or another conspiring to inch us closer and closer to the commitment.
The wok was one of these things.
At home, I make do with a 14“, carbon steel, flat bottomed Helen Chen wok on a regular, flat gas burner. And hey, that wok gets 5 stars. It’s faithful and well-seasoned and cranks out at least three great meals a week in our standard American kitchen. But I dream of fire. Of standing over an enormous, blazing BTU inferno, brandishing a shining sliver spatula like the sword of Camelot, flipping screaming hot garlic, chives and chicken, cackling maniacally under a pair of singed eyebrows. Which is, in my kitchen, impossible, without filling the entire house with splattered oil and billowing smoke.
All over Thailand those glorious, standalone outdoor propane burners made me drool with envy. That seemed like the answer, if it weren't for the post-5PM fog that descends on our backyard year-round, making it a totally inhospitable outdoor kitchen environment.
In Sayulita, on the other hand, the weather’s warm all day and night, often with a nice breeze in the evening. Here, we don’t spend much time inside. It’s the perfect place to get a proper wok fire going. Also, even more important, having a kitchen and wok setup meant the ability to bring our favorite foods to our favorite place. As of now, there’s no place for Pad Thai or Hunan Chicken in town. Ah, the cravings for noodles! It burns, it burns! So whatever we need to build to build a REAL wok-ready kitchen here, we’re gonna do it.
After we closed on the house, it was straight to Chinatown for me. First, to the Wok Shop, to upgrade to a 16“ round bottom carbon steel wok and purchase a 32,000 BTU burner that should probably be illegal for civilians (haven’t been that excited since opening a 64-bit Sega Genesis system - WITH Altered Beast - on Christmas 1989), then a bunch of essential ingredients that I was skeptical about being able to purchase even in nearby Puerto Vallarta. Lastly, a gigantic tacky suitcase from one of the tourist shops, to stuff it all in. Talk about one stop shopping.
After packing, weighing, reassessing, and re-weighing, we got two suitcases to come in under the 75 pound limit. Tough choices were made. Oyster sauce and fermented black beans were non-negotiables. The thin and black soy sauces we had to leave behind, to follow on another trip. No Pad See Ew for now. *sniff*
The TSA website was a little murky about which things may or may not be allowed through customs. When the customs officer searched our bags they filched the whole dried chiles, but were cool with the crushed ones. Seems kinda arbitrary. They fortunately overlooked the pickled whole chiles in a jar - haha! So we’ve got those and everything else we brought, safe and sound in the casa.
|TOOTHBRUSH, CHECK. EXTRA UNDERWEAR, CHECK.|
The built-in propane burner setup will come later. It’ll require a lot of debate and engineering and Spanglish and trips to small funky hardware stores, and I’m in no hurry because the journey on all that should be as fun as the destination. In the meantime we'll just stick the burner up on the countertop.
And now, this baby has to get seasoned, because the salt air is already attacking it.
The Wok Shop’s been testing oils for wok seasoning, and flaxseed oil came out on top, so use that if you can get it for seasoning, and follow these steps:
Scrub the wok - hard! don't nancy around! - with a sponge and soapy water to remove as much of the yucky protective coating as possible.
Put the wok on the stove and crank up the heat to get it completely dry.
Once it’s cooled, use a paper towel to coat the inside and outside with a thin layer of flaxseed or other neutral tasting oil. Approximately 1 tsp per side or so.
Bake the wok at 400-425 degrees fahrenheit for 40 minutes. Make sure to wrap any wooden handles in a wet rag with foil wrapped around it, so that they don’t get scorched. Also make sure to put the wok into the oven upside down. Fail to do that, like I did the first time, and the oil will pool in the bottom of the wok, making the coating uneven.
DO IT AGAIN:
Let it cool off, and then, like Aimee Interrupter says... Do it again, Do it again... For maybe three times total.
Now the wok is looking gorgeous, dahling, and you’ve started building up the naturally non-stick surface that will last a lifetime, IF you take care of it. *(see warning note below) But it always seems like, no matter how hard you scrub before oiling, there’s some of that metallic factory covering lingering, so use some green onions like a natural scrub brush to furthers the seasoning process AND make 100% sure that the first meal you cook in the wok won’t taste like you're licking a penny. Heat the wok until smoking, pour in 1-2 tablespoons of oil, and add a handful of long pieces of green onion. Rub the onions up and down the sides of the wok with a spatula. Discard them and repeat.
No need to rush the seasoning process. Chill out, make a day of it. Hell, talk to the wok if you want to. If you’re like me, you’ll want to start communing with this little beastie that will be the cornerstone of your kitchen. Remember, you’ll be spending a lot of hours together.
While the oven’s doing it’s thing, maybe you kick up your feet and enjoy the happy little playlist I’ve put together for you (below). Maybe you use the time to update your will to instruct your surviving family members to bury you with your wok spatula. Maybe then you take a few minutes to go upstairs and make love to your spouse and maybe you accidentally scream out “Dan! Dan!” at an inopportune time, and then maybe you have to decide which explanation is worse: that you were thinking about dan dan noodles or that you were thinking about a dude whose name is Dan. Hey, it’s your time. Life is full of possibilities. I’m not here to judge.
THE BIG NO-NO: LEARN FROM MY FATAL ERROR
To paraphrase Bradley, this wok's only gonna die from our own arrogance, so we might as well take our time. After completing the seasoning I did not take my time, stupidly ignored sage advice, and this was the ugly result:
|AAAAARGH, THE HORROR!!!|
How could this happen!?! Whelp, until you've built up a bulletproof surface via lots and lots of frying, your wok has a tender spot; a vulnerability; a natural enemy. That enemy is vinegar. "I've seasoned it enough," I said. "There's only a tablespoon of vinegar in this sauce," I said. "The wok can handle it," I said. Dead wrong, sister. After following the long, loving, careful process above for an entire day, it was time for baby wok's first dinner party. With our family plus four guests hungrily waiting for chow, I cranked up the flame, threw in some oil, a few aromatics, some veg, then the chicken. The rice was already hot and fluffy on the stove, drinks were poured, everyone was ready to eat. Only one remaining step: pour in the sauce, thicken it up, and then grub down.
That sauce may as well have been paint stripper. When it hit, all that glorious, fresh brown seasoning dissolved like one-ply toilet paper. Now a bunch of burned-looking flakes were doing the backstroke in the dish, and everywhere that the sauce touched, the wok surface became shiny, useless silver again. Ruined food, ruined wok, total dinner party meltdown.
I'd like to claim ignorance about the potential destructive force that vinegar could have on a newly-seasoned wok; to say that this situation caught me entirely off-guard. Unfortunately, that's not the case. I had been forewarned. This disaster just rode in on the hubris horse. Surely my seasoning skills were so advanced that they would overcome the basic chemistry of the situation. Right?
In cooking parlance, the opposite of vinegar would have to be oil. And oil is the solution to this vinegar problem. Just like humans, woks need fat and oil-heavy cooking in order to mature. Deep frying is ideal, if possible (GREAT excuse to deep fry), or cooking bacon (GREAT excuse for gobs and gobs of bacon). Non-vinegar based sauces are also fine. Over time, with the help of fat and more fat, the seasoning in my new wok has started to come back to life. Ok, ok, and I've also learned a lesson (hmph, stupid lessons) in patience from this humbling smack-down.
|JUST KEEP SWIMMING, JUST KEEP SWIMMING.....|
SUGGESTED COOKING PLAYLIST:
I Try To Think About Elvis - Patty Loveless
Sold - John Michael Montgomery
Some Girls Do - Sawyer Brown
C'Mon Everybody - Eddie Cochran
Cut Across Shorty - Eddie Cochran
Honey Don't - Carl Perkins
Lucille - Little Richard
Come On, Let's Go - Ritchie Valens
Rave On - Buddy Holly
Burning Love - Elvis Presley
Good Hearted Woman - Waylon Jennings
Born to Boogie - Hank Williams, Jr.
Once More - The Buckaroos
Rip It Up - Elvis Presley
Get Rhythm - Johnny Cash
Say Mama - Gene Vincent and His Blue Caps
I've Got a Tiger By the Tail - Buck Owens
God Blessed Texas - Little Texas