Kylie Kwong ran her much-loved modern-Chinese restaurant Billy Kwong in Sydney for 19 years before closing it to pursue new projects (a new restaurant is in the works). Kwong has become a passionate advocate of sustainable food and ethical eating, and uses locally grown organic and biodynamic produce, with a major focus on Australian native bush foods. Here she shares her tips on her favourite kitchen item.
There are variously shaped woks, fashioned out of different materials and designed for different heat sources. The traditional round-bottomed wok is for cooking over an open flame, such as a gas stove – the round sides are hugged by the flames and act as the perfect heat conductor.
Flat-bottomed woks are for electric stoves. Although the experience doesn’t really compare with the excitement of cooking over a flame, the rounded sides are still sympathetic to the motions of stir-frying. Moreover, a flat-bottomed wok never topples over.
For home you should have . . .
I have one round-bottomed wok for my gas stove and one electric-powered wok for when I do my Chinese steamboat meal, but generally speaking one wok is sufficient for the home kitchen. If you don’t have a wok, then a frypan will do the trick, so long as you cook on high heat.
What to look for when buying a wok
You can buy steel woks in most Asian supermarkets. They’re inexpensive and last a very long time.
Firstly, look for a wok that fits your gas ring or electric coil. Secondly, consider the handle. I prefer wooden-handled woks as they are much easier to manage; the steel-handled woks become too hot.
Wok lids are bought separately. I love the bright red ones you find in Chinatown, or you can use an ordinary saucepan lid, as long as it fits snugly within the top half of the wok.
Preparing your wok
To prepare or season a new carbon-steel wok, no matter the size or shape, use warm soapy water and a non-stainless-steel scourer to scrub off the greasy film that coats it. Dry thoroughly, then pour some oil onto a paper towel and give the wok a good once over.
This should be done each time you use the wok to ensure rust prevention. Obviously this is crucial so the rust does not taint your food. Over time as you use the wok, it will turn black, eventually taking on a dense black colour to become a well-seasoned wok.
If treated with care you can have a wok for years. A well-seasoned wok is a source of great pride among the Chinese, infused with lots of beautiful food memories and stories that have become ingrained in its patina.
Stir-frying utensils include chopsticks, wooden or metal spoons, spatulas and tongs. If you have an electric wok with a Teflon surface, only use wooden or plastic implements.
Whether cooking with gas or electricity, the most important thing to ensure when stir-frying is that as much of the wok’s surface area is in contact with the heat source as possible, so you get the necessary intense heat. Keep the wok absolutely on the heat source – don’t feel the need to pick it up and flip the food around. Instead, use tongs or a spatula to move the food. Each time you flip the wok, you are removing it from the heat. You must have the temperature on the highest setting so you can sear the ingredients.
Always finely slice your ingredients so they cook quickly – this is what stir-frying is all about.
Make sure you heat the oil up properly to begin with. When you see a ripple across the surface of the oil, then add in the raw ingredients. This way you’ll achieve a lovely searing effect. Be sure not to overload your wok with too many ingredients at once, because the heat will immediately lower and you’ll end up with a stew-like result rather than a seared, caramelised look and flavour. If necessary, cook your recipe in two smaller batches, rather than in one big batch.