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woks, stove tops and elbow grease
singapore sunset
amw
Let's talk about cooking.

I love cooking, but i am under no illusion that i am a particularly knowledgeable cook. I know the theory of what things taste good together and i am not afraid to experiment with new ingredients or techniques, but i apply what i know within a very tight ruleset. Essentially i will rarely cook anything that 1) requires more than one pan, 2) takes longer than 30 minutes to prepare, or 3) necessitates taking precise measurements. So yeah, i never bake. But outside of a few breaks, i have cooked dinner more or less every night since i moved out 21 years ago. On normal (work) days it's pretty much the only thing i get to do that makes me feel relaxed and happy.

Most of what i cook is sautéed or stir-fried, mainly because that's something you can do in one pan when you are tired after work. Occasionally i put in something goopy and let it simmer for a bit, but most of what i cook is dry. I tend to favor bread over rice or noodles, because it saves a pan. Since i moved to China i also found lots of noodles where you just add boiling water and you're done, so that's handy.

Also since i moved to China i got a real wok. Not some pseudo-wok that's actually a frying pan, or some Teflon-coated abomination, but a real carbon steel thingy that you leave permanently sitting in its little indent on the stove.

My last apartment had a ferocious gas burner as its stove. As soon as you turned it on the kitchen heated up several degrees. I've had gas burners before and always preferred them to electric elements since they actually get properly hot and you can grill stuff by putting it straight on the exposed flame, but this wok burner was a whole nother thing. Cooking stuff in a wok on a real wok burner was a revelation. Everything cooked fast. Stupid fast. Like the dish is done 2 minutes after you prepped the mise en place. It's awesome.

It also kicks up a spectacular amount of smoke and oil. Every surface in my kitchen was constantly coated in a thin film of oil, which i found really weird because it still took me weeks to go through a liter bottle. It's almost like the process of cooking created oil out of thin air. When i went back to clean last weekend i scrubbed through a half dozen sponges and everything still felt greasy.

Every now and then i cooked grain in my wok, which made a crusty bottom that in Chinese is called 锅巴 (guō bā) and anyone who has eaten paella or a stone bowl bibimbap will recognize. Scraping that delicious layer off made me notice that other things i had cooked had left more hardy deposits. I know enough about carbon steel and cast iron cookware that you're not supposed to wash it, so i ignored them. Every now and then a bit would flake off and drop into my dish, like that burnt top of the hot cross bun you know you shouldn't be eating but do anyway.

My new house does not have a wok burner. I tried to find a place with a wok burner, but i was informed by a chatty real estate agent that the reason why wok burners do not exist in 公寓 - tower blocks - is because the building owner does not want to hook up gas due to government fees and (if i understood correctly) mandatory insurance. If you are desperate i guess you could smuggle in a gas bottle and set up a stove anyways, but most people in that class of building either use electric or just buy their 炒菜 (stir-fried food) on the street.

This, i presume, is one of the reasons why apartments in 小区 - gated communities - are significantly more expensive to rent than those "regular" buildings. According to the real estate guy i spoke to, they have gas hookups to go with their 24 hour security, reserved parking spots and bourgeois snobbery.

Anyway, my new house does not have gas, but it does have an induction stove top. I have never used one before and i was skeptical it could cook anything properly, but i was so taken by the view of the mountain that i moved in anyway. After failing to find a decent one-man pan anywhere in the village, i just tried to balance my existing wok on the induction stove and cook in that.

Oh, how i failed. I failed epically.

First i failed because induction stoves are fucking ridiculous. I thought the wok burner heated food up fast, but on an induction stove you just turn it on, and immediately you have burnt your stuff. I am not exaggerating. You turn it on and in the time it takes to put some oil, put some peanuts, then grab your chopsticks, the peanuts are already burnt. It's insane.

Then the second problem is that only the bottom of the pan gets hot. The entire rest of the pan stays cold, which is really fucking weird. Like, you can have food burning in the bottom of the pan and you can still touch the top of the pan with your bare hands. So i started cooking these bizarre dishes that tasted half burnt and half raw. It was driving me nuts.

The kicker is that everything i cooked also smoked like a motherfucker and tasted like rust. Plus the induction stove kept tripping into "error" mode and at one point i swear i saw the pan glow red around the ring where it made contact with the plate.

This weekend i resolved to buy a new pan with a flat bottom. Clearly the round(ish) bottom of the other wok was not going to work well for an induction stove. Once i had made the decision to buy a new pan, i figured i should also try figure out what the fuck was wrong with the old one.

And now, friends, we get back to the story of how to clean a wok. Because prior to leaving the old house i decided to give that pan a decent wash with soap so that it wouldn't blacken my bag when i stuffed it in. I hung it out the window to dry. After i finished cleaning the house, i grabbed the wok and hoofed it to the new place. What i hadn't noticed is that in those few hours, the wok had rusted in all of the steel spots that were exposed between the caked-on carbon.

Now, after a bit of reading, it turns out that you are supposed to scrape off any deposits straight after you cook. You definitely shouldn't let them harden into carbon. But one thing the carbon layer had done for me is protect the wok from rust. So when i scrubbed off bits of the black and then left it outside to air dry, rust formed in the gaps. And since i was so desperate to cook something again when i got home, i didn't bother to check. Then i went on to eat several mediocre meals, blaming the stove instead of the pan.

Most likely all the smoke was just carbon evaporating. And the metallic taste was rust. Good times.

Yesterday i pulled out the steel wool and bought salt for what might be the first time in my entire life, all so that i could fix the pan. I came out black to my elbows with bleeding fingertips, like a character out of Dickens. The pan still has a few stubborn patches of soot, but most of it is shiny and oiled now.

Not that it matters, of course, because i also bought a brand new flat-bottomed wok. Last night i cooked ong choy in soy and garlic, and dry tofu with peanuts in doubanjiang. I steamed some fragrant buns as well to soak up the juice. It was fucking glorious.

But, you know, the experience showed me i still got shit to learn in the kitchen. I am slowly figuring out the induction cooker. You cannot lift the pan up. Ever. So you twizzle everything with chopsticks the whole time. Can't walk away till you put the steam basket in. Also. Don't be a lazy ass. Just wipe the fucking pan when you are done.

Or perhaps the lazy cook's option is to use greens to sop up whatever got stuck to the sides. I suspect the bulk of the carbon deposits of my old wok are from my weekend breakfasts where i toss a can of baked beans with tofu scramble. You can take the Brit out of Britain but you can't take Britain out of the Brit, am i right? Usually i "clean" the goop by preparing a serve of napa cabbage, but some weekends i don't have any fresh veg so it sticks.

One year later i get to spend my hangover sitting on a plastic stool with busted knuckles and a wok between my knees singing chim chimney.


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That's rather interesting about the different stove tops. Sounds like such a pain to deal with.

Yeah, this induction thing is very different from anything I used before. I think cooking on gas is hardwired into our DNA - it's just a fire. And regular electric makes sense too, it's like... there is a coil and it gets hot, so you put stuff on it. But this induction top is really freaky - it's just a cold flat thing that magically makes the pain hot when you put the pan on it, but does nothing by itself. Always something new to learn...

Those instant rice vermicelli noodles are great.

Chinese cooking on an induction hob? I'm very surprised. I wouldn't have thought it possible. How on earth do the locals deal with it? I can't think of Chinese cooking without images of glistening men working like Vulcan over volcanoes of gas flame.

I am not sure it's possible to get exactly the same effect that you do on a wok burner, but the induction stove does have a button for 炒 so it must be more than just me who attempts it. That said, almost every person I have talked to here has told me that they never cook in their apartment, period. They either order in or eat out, and cooking is more of a special occasion thing they do with family at home. Presumably that's why only the pricier communities have a gas connection - since that's where people are starting their urban family home.

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