Food

The Smoky Taste of Wok Hei, Without a Wok

My youngest child recently said to me, “I wish I was more Chinese.” We were eating mooncakes, trying to catch the bits of salted preserved egg yolk crumbling from the sticky-sweet lotus-seed filling. When I asked whether that sentiment applied to how we eat at home, I already knew the answer.

We have carbonara as often as we do dumplings, cereal for breakfast and P.B. and J. for lunch. In only a generation and a half, it feels as though our ties to our heritage are slipping. I was born in California to parents who had immigrated from Hong Kong and who fed us Cantonese food most nights. When I began cooking for myself, I started with the dishes I grew up eating.

But then I had three kids in three years while juggling multiple jobs and struggling to build a career. The demands of real life dictated mealtime, and roasting ingredients on a sheet pan felt easier than stir-frying and steaming. Part of what kept me from reflexively cooking Chinese each night was the belief that I had to stick to the way it had been done, to be “authentic.” In short, to use a wok.

It’s arguably the most versatile tool in a kitchen, its steel-drum shape suited to boiling, steaming, deep-frying, dry-toasting and, of course, stir-frying. With that technique, a wok imparts wok hei, which translates to “the breath of a wok” and tastes like a thrill. It gives the dish a singed smokiness that makes it feel like it’s still cooking, even as it’s entering your mouth.

Achieving wok hei requires a well-seasoned wok that can be heated with furnace-level flames, ideally on a specialty stovetop that cradles its rounded base. With a regular stove, I experimented with stir-frying vegetables until I settled on using a only standard skillet. A normal burner is designed to heat flat-bottomed cookware, so I was able to get a plain pan hotter than a wok. But then I couldn’t stir-fry in the same way given the skillet’s low sides. In a wok, vegetables are continuously stirred and tossed with shimmering oil and a few splashes of water to steam them just past crunchy. The fire surrounding the wok instantly evaporates the liquid into swirls of steam that tenderize vegetables and catches oil to lick them with flames.

Sang An for The New York Times. Food Stylist: Simon Andrews. Prop Stylist: Paige Hicks.CreditCredit…Sang An for The New York Times. Food Stylist: Simon Andrews. Prop Stylist: Paige Hicks.

To mimic that effect, I had to stretch the process into two steps. The pan is first heated until it’s so hot a drop of water skitters and sizzles away. The oil is added and swirled with aromatics like garlic to create a fragrant smokiness before the vegetables are spread on the pan’s wide base to char. Water then goes in, and the pan is immediately covered to trap the heat (and prevent oil splatters). A fierce stream of steam escapes out the sides, then slows as the water evaporates. At the same time, the hot oil clashing with the remaining liquid will begin to pop. When the clattering slows, the vegetables are nearly done. Seasonings like soy sauce and sugar are stirred in at the end for a quick caramelization that doesn’t lead to burning. This all happens in a matter of minutes.

And this works with any vegetable. When I don’t have time to get to the Asian market for bok choy, choy sum and other Chinese greens, I use broccoli, spinach and, in the fall, brussels sprouts. The results don’t match those at the best Cantonese restaurants, but they are more than fine for dinner on a busy weeknight. Most days, I’m comfortable with my kitchen shortcuts — or too exhausted to think about them. But sometimes, I worry: Am I a bad mom for not passing on wok cooking? A bad Chinese person? A bad cook?

When I began “stir-frying” like this, I knew I was straying from tradition. But I also knew it was the way I could keep Chinese cooking alive at home. My method doesn’t attempt to be the same as the original, but an extension, just as my experience as an American-born Chinese evolved from my immigrant parents’ lives.

One of my older children asked me to teach her how to make vegetables the way we always have them. She didn’t know how to describe that smoky flavor, and I said that it was sort-of wok hei. When she asked whether this dish was really Chinese, I told her that it absolutely was.

Recipe: Stir-Fried Brussels Sprouts

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