The wok has always had mystical attributes for many cooks and chefs. It is the basis for most Asian cooking, an all-purpose pan with sloped sides that allows ingredients to sear effectively and liquid sauces to evaporate into flavorful glazes. Some chefs believe you need years of cooking practice before you are worthy to wield a wok, but it’s really an easy tool to master. With a few basic ingredients, you can work your wok like a pro. Stock your pantry with the products listed here and get cooking.
OIL The first ingredient is one of the most important. Most cooks have been brainwashed by TV food shows to use extra virgin olive oil in everything. Put the EVOO down. The key to cooking in the wok is a high-temperature, low-flavor oil like peanut, canola, sunflower or soybean. You need oil that can get as hot as possible before breaking and burning. Quick-cooking food is best to maintain texture and flavor, so remember to let the oil reach its smoke point before cooking anything. If you want to take a wok on a non-trendy trip, try soybean oil.
OYSTER SAUCE Most Asian chefs season food to balance four basic flavors—hot, sour, salty and sweet. The Thais call this balance “yum.” (Think Tom Yum soup.) Oyster sauce is like culinary duct tape; you can use it for anything. It has three of the four yum flavors (sans spicy). When your local takeout Chinese place serves vegetables, they are cooked in oyster sauce. Chow mein? Oyster Sauce. Basic fried rice? Oyster sauce. It’s really the one sauce every Chinese restaurant on Earth has to have. I use Lee Kum Kee brand. This is the original oyster sauce, created in 1888. Legend has it Mr. Lee was making his famous oyster stew with soy sauce, sugar, oysters and secret ingredients when he fell asleep. He woke up to the over-reduced soup, and ... BAM! Oyster sauce was born.
GINGER & GARLIC You can’t have one of these without the other, so in my book, these two ingredients are one. If oyster sauce is duct tape, ginger and garlic are the screws. You can’t build anything in the wok without these two. More than flavors, ginger and garlic are aromatics. They add depth, but they have to be controlled and expressed correctly. Never finely mince garlic for the wok or it will burn away in an instant. Take a few cloves, give them a good smash with the flat side of a knife and throw them into the hot oil in uneven chunks about two seconds before your protein to give the oil and the rest of the dish that amazing dark, pungent quality.
CHILI GARLIC SAUCE The whole world raves about Sriracha, but I say phooey. The stuff with the green cap isn’t actually authentic chili sauce. It’s good for making spicy tuna, adding to pho and as a condiment, but try adding it to a wok and you’ve got a spicy, acidic, bitter mess. If you want heat in a wok, use Chinese chili garlic sauce instead. I stay with Lee Kum Kee for this, and together, the chili garlic sauce and oyster sauce make a great Szechuan or kung pao flavor.
A Tila recipe: Kung pao shrimp
- 2 tbsp. cooking oil
- 1/3 cup roasted cashew nuts or peanuts
- 1/4 cup dried chilies
- 3 garlic cloves, smashed
- 1 red bell pepper, large dice
- 1 medium onion, large dice
- 1 pound medium shrimp, cleaned and deveined
- 1-1.5 tbsp. chili garlic sauce (Lee Kum Kee brand)
- 1-1.5 tbsp. oyster sauce
- 2 green onions, dice
- 1/2 tsp. white pepper
Total prep time: 30 minutes
Active time: 15 minutes
Method: Combine chili garlic sauce and oyster sauce, then set aside. Heat oil to medium high in a wok and sauté garlic until light brown. Add shrimp, stirring occasionally until they turn pink. Stir in the nuts and all vegetables (except green onions) and cook until onions start to turn translucent. Add sauce and pepper and incorporate well. Cook for about two more minutes until shrimp is cooked through. (Try not to overcook shrimp; they get chewy.) Garnish with chopped green onions, and serve with white rice.