A wok is something many of us have in our kitchen cupboards – and yet most people don’t really know how to use it, says Jeremy Pang.
The Chinese-British chef – who runs School Of Wok in London, and is a regular face on TV’s Saturday Kitchen and Ready Steady Cook – says: “The mass market mindset on Asian cuisine is definitely more educated today than it was 10 years ago, but the basic knowledge of what a wok is and how it should be used is still quite low level. [There’s] not enough in-depth education around this primary bit of equipment that over a billion people use in China.”
Born in the UK to Chinese parents, Pang spent two years living in Singapore as a child (“Where I really found my love of food,” he says) and later Hong Kong, but spent most of his childhood in the UK – while “ having the best of both worlds” by traveling extensively across Asia.
Growing up in a “foodie family” – he comes from three generations of Chinese chefs – it was his dad who encouraged him to pursue a career in food before he died in 2009. “He and I had a few arguments that year; I’d done a three-month stint at Le Cordon Bleu, then I went back into marketing for an electronics company. And he was like, ‘What’s the point? Why have you gone and done this course if you’re not going to go straight into the food world?’ I guess I didn’t have the confidence. But then, when he passed, I basically lost my job on the day of my dad’s burial.” A few weeks later he started teaching people how to cook Chinese food in their own homes – and in 2012 he opened the first permanent location for his London cookery school.
In his third cookbook, School Of Wok, Pang shares many of the recipes and practices he teaches at the school – weaving its way through Chinese, Korean, Japanese, Thai, Vietnamese, Singaporean, Malaysian and Filipino dishes. “It’s a nice nod to the wonders of Asian cuisine – and bringing that to the home table without too much stress,” explains Pang.
Crucially, every recipe needs a wok, and it turns out we might have been using it all wrong. Here are some of the mistakes you might be making…
The cardinal sin of stir-frying is throwing ingredients into a wok before you’ve prepared everything. That’s why Pang has come up with a concept he calls the ‘wok clock’: placing all of your pre-measured and ready-chopped ingredients onto a plate in the order you’re going to add them to the pan – at 12 o’ clock, 1 o’clock, 2 o’clock, etc – before you even think about starting to cook.
“It helps people separate it out and simplify the whole process, which in turn leads to cooking much quicker,” says Pang. “It’s like the School of Wok version of the mise en place [meaning to prepare and organise your ingredients] in French cooking.
“Once you prepare the ingredients, everything’s in one place on one plate, and you don’t have to look elsewhere – you don’t have to keep flicking back and looking for your page in your recipe book.
“Suddenly, cooking becomes a lot more enjoyable and a lot simpler – and should be a lot quicker.”
Thinking stir-fries are easy
A stir-fry may be a student meal of choice, but it’s gained an inaccurate reputation for being simple. Yes, stir-frying is quick (“One of the first rules of stir-frying is if it ever takes longer than five minutes in a wok, it’s not a stir fry,” says Pang) – but that’s a difficulty in itself.
“There are so many intricacies to making the perfect stir-fry,” he says. “The thing that’s hard is it happens so quickly, it’s very difficult to learn the intricacies of it in such a short space of time.”
Not using a high enough heat
“You need to get used to high heat!” says Pang.
“One of my catchphrases is never lose your sizzle – if you don’t hear something sizzling, especially stir-frying, then you’re not stir-frying – you’re stir-boiling.”
Cooling the wok down unknowingly
There are a handful of ways to cool the wok, according to Pang. “Number one is stirring, number two is folding your ingredients around the wok, the third one is a wok toss (essentially like flipping a pancake – push forward, and a quick flick back) and the fourth, which a lot of people laugh at , is what I call tongue in the head (basically like making an omelette, stirring with your spoon hand and shaking with your left hand).”
The third and fourth ways of cooling the wok down happen very quickly – “Within a matter of seconds”, he says – and many home cooks fall foul of accidentally decreasing the temperature of the wok, when they don’t mean to.
Adding new ingredients will cool the pan down too. “If you wait for 30 seconds between adding each ingredient, then each time, it’s more likely to have brought up the heat in the wok again,” he explains. “That 30-second wait makes a massive difference to the finish of the stir-fry.”
Understanding the ways a wok can cool down will help you instinctively control the heat. Pang says: “That is what we call in Chinese or Cantonese, ‘wok hei’ – the literal translation is ‘wok air’.
“If you understand your wok hei – how to make air circulate around the wok – then you are a good wok chef.”
Jeremy Pang’s School Of Wok: Delicious Asian food In Minutes is published by Hamlyn, priced £20. Photography by Kris Kirkham. Available now.
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