Just before Chinese New Year (no, don’t panic, it’s not until 26 January), traditional housewives make offerings of a sticky round rice cake, cunningly designed to glue the lips of the Kitchen God on his annual visit, thus preventing him from making any negative reports to heaven on what’s been going on in the kitchen over the past year.
My Kitchen God is a little less celestial: it’s my heavy cast-iron wok, seasoned by at least 35 years of cooking and loving treatment. It doesn’t need to be tricked to make good reports back to heaven, only to be treated with care before and after each usage so that whatever is cooked inside will sing its praises.
How do you get a Well-Seasoned Wok, where you can cook a spice paste in a minimal amount of oil without it sticking? Well, you start by buying a heavy carbon steel or cast-iron wok — never be tempted to buy a non-stick wok. Your new wok will probably be covered by lots of nasty gunk designed to prevent it from rusting, so when you get it home, wash it several times with lots of hot soapy water to get rid of every trace of industrial oil.
The next stage is the heating and absorption of cooking oil to produce a glossy black patina and make the inside of the wok feel like silk when you stroke it (yes, I do have a rather intimate relationship with my utensils). You need to repeatedly heat the dry wok, which makes it “open its pores”, then coat the surface with oil and burn this in so that it does deep into the metal.
Here’s how you do it. Put your washed and dried wok (or an old rusty one you’ve had in to cupboard but not used for ages) over heat — preferably gas — and let it get really hot; this will take a few minutes. Use either a brush or a wodged-up piece of paper towel dipped in non-virgin olive oil or canola oil, and smear the oil generously over the entire inside surface of the wok. Cook over maximum heat, turning the wok slowly so that every part of the bottom is touched by the gas flame, and burn the oil for about 5 minutes. It’ll smoke, so be sure to open your kitchen windows first.
Now leave the wok to get completely cold. Wipe out any trace of remaining oil, and repeat the entire heating, oiling, burning and cooling process for as many times as your patience permits.
Each time you use your wok, heat it first, before adding any oil, to make it “open its pores” and permit the oil to penetrate slightly before you start cooking. (Think of it as moisturising your face before adding make-up.)
As soon as you’ve finished cooking, slosh lots of water into the empty, still-hot wok. Leave it standing while you eat, and when you’re reading to clean up, just wash it with hot soapy water and a cloth (never a scourer), dry with a cloth, then put it over heat to thoroughly dry it. Rub an oil-soaked bit of paper towel over the entire inside surface, heat it for about a minute, wipe with clean paper towel and when the wok is cool, store it. Don’t worry about cleaning the bottom of your wok. Any traces of dribbled oil or burned on food carbonise and add that “wok hei” or inimitable wok flavour to your food.