Having grown up in Canada but having Chinese parents, I feel like I’ve received the best of both worlds in many respects. Cuisine is one of those things. I am just as comfortable enjoying a nicely prepared roast as I am eating chicken feet (and there are a lucky few who’ve seen me do both).
Living in Vancouver, many of “Western” friends have tried many Chinese dishes as well. I applaud them for their experimentation but there’s a lot more to Chinese cuisine than just egg rolls and sweet ‘n sour pork. Like many other ethnic cuisines, there are some fascinating peculiarities associated with Chinese food. I will describe one of them here in this post.
As a child, my mother explained to my sister and I the concept of wok hei. Roughly translated into English, it means the “breath/air of the wok”. Most of you have probably seen a wok before, it being the rounded cooking implement used for centuries in China. While not everything in Chinese cuisine is stir-fried in a wok, a significant portion of dishes are prepared in such a manner.
There is a considerable amount of skill in properly preparing food in a wok. First and foremost, is the ability to enfuse wok hei into any dish. What is it exactly? It’s a bit abstract, but the wikipedia article does a fairly good job of describing it. In short, it’s the ability of the cook or chef to sear and impart the flavours into the food using the wok at extremely high temperatures.
If you think this is some product of hokey mumbo jumbo, I can assure you wok hei does exist. You can taste the difference in dishes prepared by chefs of varying skills. You can take the exact same ingredients, put them in the exact same type of wok, and on the exact same burner. The only thing that differs is the ability of the chef. One might impart wok hei into the food while the other fails.
How does this manifest itself in taste? It’s really hard to describe in words. The best I can do is that there’s a certain zing or pop to the food. I don’t mean spicy or anything like that but the food is almost alive with flavour. It’s isn’t bland, the flavour jumps out at you.
I suggest you try it yourself. Chinese restaurants are known for their quality of food and if the word around town that the chef knows his wok hei, that could easily mean extra business. In my experience, the stir-fried noodle dishes are the easiest ways to discover if the chef has brought his or her “A” game. In particular, try the beef chow fun or the Shanghai thick noodle.
If you like to know more about the wok hei, I encourage you to read a book that especially been written on the subject.