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Wok hei: The science behind ‘the breath of a wok’

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(CNN) — Chef Kwok Keung Tung tosses the wok with one hand, utilizing the opposite to stir with a steel spatula.

Each fingers occupied, he makes use of his knee to nudge the fuel range’s lever up and down to regulate the hearth fan, sporadically engulfing a 3rd of the wok in flames.

It takes solely three minutes for the lump of white rice to rework into the bowl of golden fried rice he locations on the serving counter.

“That is what you are on the lookout for — wok hei (the breath of wok),” Danny Yip, co-founder of Hong Kong restaurant The Chairman, tells CNN Journey.

“Wok is the essence of Chinese language cooking in South China. And Cantonese cooks are the grasp of fireside and wok.”

Wok hei: An invisible however important ingredient in Cantonese cooking.

Maggie Hiufu Wong/CNN

If anybody’s an authority with regards to wok hei, it is Yip.

For many who grew up in a Cantonese household, it is nearly unattainable to go to a Chinese language restaurant with out listening to somebody — often older — remark “gau wok hei” (sufficient wok hei) or “ng gau wok hei” (not sufficient wok hei) when establishing a benchmark of how genuine a Chinese language restaurant really is.

Hei (additionally Romanized as “hay”) is the Cantonese phrase for “chi,” that means power move. It was as soon as a hard-to-explain and largely ethereal idea largely widespread within the South China area. In different components of China or Asia, regardless that they used woks, they did not concentrate on wok hei.

It wasn’t till the legendary American Chinese language meals author Grace Younger coined it poetically as “the breath of a wok” in her guide “The Knowledge of the Chinese language Kitchen: Basic Household Recipes for Celebration and Therapeutic” within the Nineteen Nineties that the idea of wok hei was launched formally to worldwide audiences.

“Wok hei isn’t merely scorching meals; it is that elusive seared style that solely lasts for a minute or two,” Younger wrote.

In different phrases, it is a mixture of that steaming aroma you breathe in and the almost-burning sensation in your tongue that by some means enhances the flavors of the dish.

How a wok works

In recent times, an growing variety of meals writers and scientists have been modernizing Chinese language cooking whereas trying deeper into its origins, together with wok hei.

After realizing how little scientific analysis has been executed on Chinese language delicacies, Hung-tang Ko, doctoral pupil on the Georgia Institute of Expertise, co-published a analysis paper titled “The physics of tossing fried rice” with David Hu — a scientist most well-known for his research on hearth ants and an Ig Nobel Prize-winning investigation into why wombats have cube-shaped poop.

“Wok hei and the Maillard response require excessive warmth. The business Chinese language stoves have a mind-blowing quantity of warmth popping out of them,” explains Ko, who spent months learning how and why cooks toss fried rice with a wok, whereas additionally simulating rice trajectories.

The Maillard response is a chemical interplay that happens between amino acids and lowering sugars in meals positioned underneath excessive warmth. It causes meals to brown and releases aroma and flavors.

However why does it should be cooked in excessive warmth and in such a rush?

“That is extract the utmost wok hei within the shortest period of time. So the aroma you unlocked from the Maillard response will not escape,” explains The Chairman’s Yip.

Therefore, an essential part of wok hei — aside from the hearth and the precise wok — is the chef’s tossing talent.

The fitting technique to toss a wok

Tossing a wok is a talent that takes time to develop.

A younger chef at The Chairman spends greater than a yr practising on the wok by cooking workers meals earlier than she or he is allowed to stir fry a dish for patrons.

“Why do not different cooks use a wok? It is heavy and the hearth might be intimidating and arduous to regulate — now you realize why not one of the Chinese language cooks have any arm hair left,” says Yip, solely half-jokingly.

Why will not stirring suffice? Within the case of fried rice, each time it leaves the recent wok floor it cools down and avoids getting burnt, as demonstrated within the above video.

“Tossing the wok permits higher mixing, which is crucial when you might have tremendous excessive warmth. Stirring underneath excessive warmth will seemingly result in burning,” says Ko.

Throughout Ko’s analysis, he found that cooks usually pivot their woks utilizing the sting of the range — as an alternative of lifting your complete wok away from the range — to avoid wasting power and improve velocity.

Two motions occur concurrently with every toss: “Backwards and forwards pushing and pulling”, and “tilting and rotating the wok forwards and backwards” in a see-saw movement.

So what makes the round-bottomed and extremely conductive wok such a novel piece of cooking tools?

“Doubtlessly, different utensils would work, too. However you simply want to combine at superb speeds to be sure that the warmth goes into your elements uniformly,” explains Ko.

On common, the cooks within the research tossed their wok at a velocity of two.7 occasions per second.

That is additionally why many Chinese language cooks endure from muscle accidents.

One of many objectives of Ko’s research was to see if it is potential to create a robotic that might assist cooks toss their wok to cut back the bodily pressure on their limbs. Ko thinks his revealed analysis can probably be utilized in different components of life.

“Are you able to think about a laundry drying machine that makes use of the wok tossing mechanics to toss garments? My intestine feeling is that will probably be extra environment friendly — and funnier,” says Ko.

make good fried rice

Fried rice and wok hei the Chairman

Kwok Keung Tung has been a chef at The Chairman since its opening in 2009.

Maggie Hiufu Wong/CNN

Fried rice was introduced into the highlight in July, because of a viral YouTube video titled “Uncle Roger DISGUSTED by this Egg Fried Rice Video.”

Within the clip, “Uncle Roger,” a personality created by UK-based Malaysian slapstick comedian Nigel Ng, reacts to a BBC video on cook dinner egg fried rice.

He factors out every little thing executed incorrect within the unique egg fried rice video, a response that has gathered greater than 17 million views to date. Among the many main offenses within the unique video? Watery rice.

It is a problem that sits near the hearts of Hong Kong’s cooks.

“Fried rice and fried beef noodles are the 2 dishes usually used to evaluate the wok hei of a restaurant,” says Yip. “It’s troublesome to get every bit of rice or noodle barely toasted and blended evenly with the remainder of the elements with out burning it.”

Ko agrees.

“Fried rice is a really symbolic delicacies,” he says. “It’s surprisingly arduous to make good fried rice though it appears actually easy. The overall precept is to maintain it scorching — by avoiding placing in watery content material that cools the supplies down — and blend loads to forestall sticking and burning.”

Ko suggests utilizing rice that is been cooked the evening earlier than.

“It goes again to the excessive warmth argument. Whenever you put (dried leftover rice) within the wok, the moisture can be minimal … that forestalls cooling the wok down or the rice from sticking collectively,” explains the scientist.

The Chairman, nevertheless, does issues a bit otherwise.

“We all know most individuals use leftover rice because it’s drier. We do not as we need to maintain the within of the rice moist and retain essentially the most aroma. The trick is to make use of eggs,” says Yip.

Kwok, the chef, demonstrates.

He first rapidly fries the finely chopped elements within the wok, drying them earlier than setting them apart. Then he pours within the oil, egg combination and rice individually.

“Egg dries sooner than rice. The chef has to behave quick and blend all of the elements. See, you do not even see the egg anymore,” says Yip, hurrying this author to take a chew earlier than the aroma escapes.

It is true. The marginally toasted and steaming rice is dry on the floor and every grain is completely coated in golden yellow — you do not see the egg anymore. Every chew of the fried rice remains to be steaming and filled with flavors.

“Style that?” asks Yip. “That is wok hei.”

This story initially revealed in October 2020 and was up to date on March 30, 2021.

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