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Wok Hay

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judge dee Nov 19, 2006 11:19 AM

Among Cantonese chowhounds, a term used to assess (usually) a stir-fried dish is whether it has "wok hay", or, does it have enough "wok hay".

Wok refers to the round bottomed cooking vessel that we are all familiar with. Hay is better known in its Mandarin transliteration, qi or ch'i (life energy). The term then alludes to whether a dish has wok energy, or, a lively quality.

I think of institutional food as having the opposite quality of "wok hay" whereas a pasta dish or a slice of pizza in a small Italian cafe, a freshly assembled taco from a taco truck may have "wok hay".

Is there another food term that describes this quality - "sizzle" comes to mind? Can someone better articulate "wok hay"?

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  1. BostonZest RE: judge dee Nov 19, 2006 01:46 PM

    I heard a slightly different take on this from the Australian/Chinese Chef, Kylie Kwong on one of her shows. She described it as the cook breathing their life into the stir fry. Something like "The cook was really into cooking it."

    With her emphasis on great ingredients and careful, loving preparation--this makes sense for her. I think it was on an episode of her "Cooking with Heart and Soul." She was making something simple like stir fried noodles.

    More traditionally, it has to do with the pan and there is a wonderful discussion of it on Grace Young's site. It is the theme of one of her books.

    http://www.graceyoung.com/excerptsBre...

    Here is a link to the book.

    http://tinyurl.com/uy5bp

    She also has a few pages on it in one of my favorite books on Chinese food, "The Wisdom of the Chinese Kitchen." Here's a link to that one.

    http://tinyurl.com/ukp9k

    As for other terms like it-- let's hope others can come up with some. We lack a vocabulary for expressing when the chef and his kitchen has really "scored a ten" or is "really smokin." We may have to borrow "wok hay" from Cantonese culture.

    A few times when a meal has had exceptional "wok hay," we have asked the wait staff to send our applause to the chef. Or, if we can catch the chef's eye, we actually applaud the effort.

    Perhaps we are so caught up in ratings, points and stars that we have not developed another shorthand for a single dish that has "wok hay" at this moment in time.

    1. r
      ricepad RE: judge dee Nov 19, 2006 04:55 PM

      "Wok hay" is sometimes translated as the 'breath of the wok'. I have always understood it to be the almost cosmic confluence of the chef's skill in using a well-seasoned wok carefully: first, getting it crazyhot, then adding ingredients in just the right amounts and at just the right times, taking care not to let the ingredients overload - and thereby cool - the wok, while at the same time making sure nothing overcooks or burns. It's almost a dance on the razor's edge to get it just right.

      1. a
        aelph RE: judge dee Nov 19, 2006 06:13 PM

        and I've understood wok hai(or wok hay) as not so much an acclimation of a chef's skill, but the physical seasoning of the wok---a well-seasoned and primed wok adds a certain je nais se quoi in and of itself

        1. FoodFuser RE: judge dee Nov 19, 2006 08:44 PM

          High heat; a proper rounded (not flat) seasoned wok; a rounded spatula; fast and noisy spatula work, with attention to different needs of each ingredient.

          If you're trying to get wok hay by cooking inside the house at less than 30,000 BTU's, there is a proportional relationship between the number of successful dishes and the number of times your smoke detector has gone off.

          Once you make the move to an outdoor "turkey fryer" ring, at 40,000 BTU's, it will change your life. You will look back on the earlier low-btu years as simply wasted time.

          There's some interesting stuff in some of these threads:
          http://www.chowhound.com/search/std?q...

          1. s
            smudgy RE: judge dee Nov 20, 2006 11:37 AM

            Indeed, as per the last post, wok hay is the effect of very high heat used properly; it imparts a specific, wonderful aroma. (And one may associate this aroma with poetics and metaphysics if you wish.) This aroma is lost as the food sits around waiting to be served. This brings me to my reply to the original post... the idea of wok hay may be translated/adopted to apply to all foods, whether they are prepared with a high heat wok process or not. Good pizza fresh from the oven, steaming and sizzling and bubbling, has it; reheated pizza does not for example. The main point of keeping the concept of wok hay in one's mind outside a Chinese restuarant is too care about eating freshly prepared food, not reheated food, as we usually get at all restaurants. Even osso buco (a low heat food) that I eat straight out of my oven has it (in a general sense); whereas the reheated kind I get in restaurants doesn't. (Just to be clear, stews and braises of course gain a certain depth the next day; but its wok hay is nevertheless lost.) Personally, preferring this freshly prepared quality makes me avoid braises in most restaurants;I prefer my food having some measure of wok hay.

            2 Replies
            1. re: smudgy
              frenetica RE: smudgy Nov 20, 2006 02:30 PM

              I agree with you up to a point. I'm a native Cantonese speaker, by the way, so I grew up using this term instinctively.

              "the effect of very high heat used properly" - exactly. It's the difference between pushing pieces of chicken around a nonstick sautee pan over a crappy electric stove, vs. the same pieces of chicken being rapidly tossed in a red hot wok over a huge flame. If you've ever seen footage of a good Chinese kitchen you'll notice that practically everything is set alight at some stage - the oil almost always bursts into flame for a brief time and it's not because there is alcohol present in the dish. That intense searing means (I believe) that flavour is not given the time to seep out of the ingredients - it's flash-fried and sealed in.

              I marginally, marginally agree with you re: pizza, as there are obviously very different ways of imparting heat to a pizza, but your fresh-out-of-the-oven osso buco, however delicious, cannot really be said to have wok hay... clearly long-cooking in an oven is going to give a more even heat than microwave heating, but wok hay doesn't simply refer to even heating throughout. The searing is important, that slightly charred, caramelised flavour is important, and the brevity of cooking time is paramount.

              1. re: frenetica
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                surfereddie RE: frenetica Jan 1, 2012 08:29 AM

                I'm with frenetica and Foodfuser they are on the right. "The breath of the wok" not the breath of the "Clay Pot", "Bamboo steamer" or "Pizza Oven". It can only be found in the Wok and at high heat. As you said the intense searing where flavor is locked into the food and has no time to escape. Small flames dance in the breath of the wok as things are charred, caramelized, vaporized with the correct amount of high heat for the ingredients. The aroma is orgasmic! So you can have an osso buco to DIE for but it aint "the breath of the wok" nor "Wok Hay".

            2. sweetie RE: judge dee Nov 20, 2006 06:09 PM

              I agree with frenetica, I also speak cantonese BTW. There is a certain taste and texture that is imparted to food when the wok is hot enough and the cooking is done skillfully. A prime example I can think of is green beans. There is a green bean dish that is beans stir fried with ground pork and other seasonings, it is usually spicy. When I eat it in a good restaurant the beans have a tender crisp texture that I can never reproduce at home. Some lazy restaurants try to deep fry the beans to replicate the right texture, but it does not taste the same. There is no substitue for Wok Hay

              1 Reply
              1. re: sweetie
                Pei RE: sweetie Nov 20, 2006 08:01 PM

                Yes! Green beans always have a weird squeaky texture when made at home.

                The closest I've come is using a seasoned wok, putting it in a flaming hot oven for a few minutes, then immediately taking it out and placing over a hot flame to cook room temperature vegetables. Still not quite the same, but the more you can maintain heat the better.

              2. p
                Procrastibaker RE: judge dee Nov 20, 2006 06:28 PM

                Doesn't the wok need, first and foremost, to be well-seasoned? It was my impression that, much like a well-seasoned iron skillet, the heat imparts the history, the palimpsest of flavors, that the wok has accrued over many uses to the food being prepared. So maybe wok hay is most analogous to the good, flavorful sear you get on a steak made in a well-seasoned cast iron pan.

                2 Replies
                1. re: Procrastibaker
                  frenetica RE: Procrastibaker Nov 20, 2006 07:23 PM

                  The seasoning is important in and of itself, but I don't believe it's what's referred to by the term. A well-seasoned wok with a weak flame is not going to impart any kind of a sear.

                  1. re: frenetica
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                    aelph RE: frenetica Nov 20, 2006 11:41 PM

                    Yes, but what is in my mind a misapprehension is being cultivated within this thread; that wok hai is some quasi-umami magical chef ability...that some further apply across incompatible culinary techniques(i.e. braising). The classic example of wok hai is restaurant-produced fried rice---the dish takes on the jouissance of high heat *and* the seasoning of the wok. Wok hai isn't umami(itself the cod-religious scientific quantification of free glutamates and "savoriness").

                    Mine is the classic definition of wok hai. There appears to be some "pop" cross fertilization miscommunication occurring.

                2. b
                  Blueicus RE: judge dee Nov 21, 2006 01:15 AM

                  I think I'll choose to beat the crippled horse now as opposed to beating the mushy-maggot-ridden horse that it may evolve to into the future.

                  I disagree with the principle of trying to apply that term to any freshly or well-prepared food. If a really good piece of char siu doesn't have "wok hay", then neither does a pizza fresh out of a wood-fired oven nor does a hot bowl of bouillabaise.

                  Reminds me of the whole feng shui craze and I bet those Indians are having a laugh over our interpretation of yoga.

                  1. s
                    smudgy RE: judge dee Nov 21, 2006 02:46 AM

                    Firstly, all those paring away at the soft-focus, inaccurate definitions and flights of fancy regarding wok hay are right. It does not mean savory and it does not mean well done. And, of course, it does not mean freshly prepared. It is after all important to be precise.

                    But once we know what it is, what's the matter with a little cross-fertilization? (My family is from Guangzhou, so I have cred....) While wok hay is a very specific and a deeply culturally defined thing, I believe its essence (hay) can live outside narrowly constructed tradition.

                    Beyond the worship of vaporized oil, maybe we could use a little poetry to better address the whole of our culinary experience and carry the wisdom and insight from one part of our knowledge into another. You may call it the corruption or debasing of tradition, but I call it intelligence; I call it surviving. No one is telling you to melt down your woks or forget how to cook, only entertain the notion that the "breath" of cooking can apply to many things.

                    So, maybe I was stretching it with the osso buco, but hot pizza does indeed have it.

                    1 Reply
                    1. re: smudgy
                      d
                      dmreed RE: smudgy Mar 16, 2010 10:17 AM

                      I would suggest that "hot pizza" would only have wok hay if it were baked quickly in a very hot oven on an appropriate surface...I agreed with the earlier poster that wok hay is the result of slight charring...a frozen pizza heated in a microwave would be hot pizza but no wok hay!

                    2. monku RE: judge dee Nov 21, 2006 02:56 AM

                      Here's a wok hay story for you. My brother in law was opening a Chinese restaurant with old time Chinese cooks. One day he walks into the kitchen and sees a cook spitting into the wok and he asks what he was doing...cook said thats how you test how hot the wok is.

                      3 Replies
                      1. re: monku
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                        smudgy RE: monku Nov 21, 2006 03:15 AM

                        that's probably how you get the special taste

                        1. re: smudgy
                          monku RE: smudgy Nov 21, 2006 03:18 AM

                          Nothing surprises me...back in the old days I have memories of Chinese cooks slaving over a hot wok with a cigarette in their mouth.

                          1. re: monku
                            s
                            smudgy RE: monku Nov 21, 2006 03:22 AM

                            I have heard that shredded chicken is best, most quickly, shredded with one's teeth. It kind of makes sense.

                      2. j
                        judge dee RE: judge dee Nov 21, 2006 06:54 PM

                        To summarize what’s been discussed, I’d like to first focus on Cantonese cooking that produces dishes with “wok hay”:

                        Prerequisites. A well-seasoned wok, high heat, fresh ingredients.

                        Skill/Techniques. Understanding of using different ingredients in high heat. This involves knowing the amount, cooking time, combination and sequence of ingredients.

                        Characteristics. Sealed in flavor. Slightly charred, caramelized flavor. Freshly prepared, not reheated food.

                        Once there is some agreement on dishes that have “wok hay”, based on the characteristics of a dish, we can then entertain the notion of other foods that have these traits.

                        1. r
                          robertandrewbain RE: judge dee Mar 22, 2008 04:08 PM

                          Having just gotten into Wok cooking with my recently seasoned carbon steel wok, for me, the first level of Wok Hay that I am looking for, is the ability to empart that slightly smokey flavour on my food.

                          1. c
                            cheongi RE: judge dee Aug 17, 2008 04:59 AM

                            Interestingly to me, watching this video and similar of chinese chefs by same poster, one can hear the wok "breathing".
                            http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=y8FDKL...
                            Time on heat counted 10-50 seconds depending on dish.

                            1. Chocolatesa RE: judge dee Apr 23, 2009 10:56 AM

                              I got a good taste of Wok Hay for the first time the other day when I ordered some Chow Mein at a chinese restaurant, it was an amazing smoky flavour produced by the seasoning of the wok. It made me want to buy a wok just to see if I could try to reproduce that myself. What I found amusing though is that on the menu their Chow Mein came in either "regular" style or "cantonese", and they charged $1.50 more for the Cantonese, just for the simple fact that it went into a wok instead of on a plaque(or frying counter, not too sure what the english term is, I'm assuming that's what the difference was), although I'm sure that the "reg." style was nowhere near as good as what I had. Unsurprisingly, they didn't ask me which style I wanted when I didn't specify, just brought me the Cantonese style, and I'm glad they did!

                              1. o
                                onetufguy RE: judge dee Jun 13, 2014 01:29 PM

                                Cooking is about killing germs. My theory of wok hay is that the bits and pieces being fried are quickly and uniformly cooked on the outside without mushing the inside. It isn't stewing.

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