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Nov 19, 2006 11:19 AM

Wok Hay

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. 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.

    Here is a link to the book.

    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.

    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. "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. 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. 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:

          1. 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

              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

                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".