Psst... We're working on the next generation of Chowhound! View >
HOME > Chowhound > Cookware >
Aug 24, 2007 11:03 AM

Indian wok vs. chinese wok?

Hello everyone,

I'm a recent college graduate without much kitchen space, but I've decided that a wok is one of those must-have cooking "extras."

What are the differences between Indian and Chinese woks? I cook both cuisines, but I'm unwilling to buy both. Ideally, I'd like to find one that works with most types of food...

Thank you!

  1. Click to Upload a photo (10 MB limit)
  1. I'm far from an expert but as no one else has replied - I'll try to help. I use a 14" Chinese wok that I bought at a Chinese restaurant supply at least 3 or 4 times a week. Thin carbon steel or thin Chinese cast iron (not the heavy Lodge type) both work well. Mine was less than $15 plus extra for cooking tools and bamboo scrubber, not very much for the best quality! For the best results with most Chinese stir fried dishes you must have a very high heat. My older Wolf Range with the older commercial burners does a pretty good job but one of these days I'm going to get one of the high btu wok burners that sound like a rocket, but I digress. I use my Chinese wok for Indian (and Thai) curries but simmering curries is a little hard on the seasoning on the wok. Check out The Wok Shop site for info on Chinese woks, good info from good people!

    I have not used an Indian Karahi but have looked at them at an Indian grocery store that I go to often and will buy one eventually. They are a bit more money than the Chinese woks but not expensive. They seem to be heavier and thicker than a Chinese wok and are probably better suited to simmering curries etc.

    2 Replies
    1. re: sel

      Thank you! Still can't decide, but that was very informative.

      1. re: sel

        I will add that I agree with the posters that state a wok doesn't work well on a typical home range because they don't produce enough BTU's (heat). A simple solution for some, and only some, is to buy a propane wok burner at a Chinese restaurant supply store or from an online supplier. They are best used outside as they need a commercial hood if used indoors but if you have an appropriate place for it than you can produce excellent results!

      2. I really feel like a wok improves the quality of stir-fries and Chinese dishes, but I happily cook Indian in a skillet or braiser without feeling like I'm missing our. So, I'd get a Chinese wok first.

        1 Reply
        1. re: Megiac

          Thank you, Megiac! Looks like I'm getting a Chinese wok.

        2. According to America's test Kitchens, woks do not work as intended on home (non-commercial) burners.

          They recommend a curve sided saute pan

          3 Replies
          1. re: FrankJBN

            I think a wok is useful if you are doing the "passing through" technique because you don't need as much oil to give your food the initial quicky fry.

            1. re: FrankJBN

              With a round bottom carbon steel wok on a gas stove w/ a wok ring, you can get it pretty hot. Maybe not hot "enough" to really impart good "wok hei", but pretty hot. Also, you have that center with pretty intense heat and you can still push stuff up on the side of the wok while you're cooking other stuff. For deep frying, the shape lets you use less volume of oil and still fit a bunch of stuff in the wok.

              It just /feels/ different to cook in a wok. Plus, carbon steel seasons quickly and heats quickly.

              I've got a cast iron skillet and an all-clad chef's pan that's vaguely wok shaped, but neither of these works as well for stir frying as a wok.

              Is a wok an essential kitchen tool - maybe not.... but if you have one, I don't see any reason not to use it, just because you don't have a commercial gas burner for it.

              1. re: FrankJBN

                I agree with FrankJBN & the folks at ATK. Woks just don't seem to do as well on home burners, particularly electric and induction burners.

                You can get by if you've got a gas hookup at home by using the wok ring w/a curved wok. As others have said, you won't get true wok hei, but it'll be decent. But if you've got an electric or induction setup, I would deter you away from woking if your primary goal is to do stir-fries. The heat never distributes properly, even if you use a Westernised flat bottom wok. I've had the misfortune of living in places with only electric and it is absolutely frustrating trying to turn out a presentable wok-stir fry on an electric burner. It just doesn't work.

              2. Neither is by any means essential to their native cuisines per se, and I've personally suffered through more than a few bad meals at other people's homes who insisted on deluding themselves that you can stir fry in one properly over an average home stove. It just ain't so. They are useful for steaming and deep-frying though; the wide-top shape lets you work with less oil or water relative to food quantity and they come up to heat more quickly even on an American stove since the flame hits more surface area. But a regular, average BTU burner just can't pump heat out fast enough to keep the whole thing hot enough to stir-fry properly. A large, good skillet works better on Western burners -- I use a copper bottomed saute pan, but cast iron works and is much cheaper albeit much heavier.

                I've eyed karhais/kadhais for years but have a small kitchen and always end up deciiding it's really not necessary. You can't/don't really simmer foods like curry in them - they don't cover tightly and have a very large surface area for that kind of cooking. And since they do tend to be deeper than woks (more bowl like than saucer-like), they don't have the lower-volume benefit of a wok. I tend to think most Indians outside out India probably just use local pots and pans, though in the absence of a wok, they might be more common for deep frying.

                On the whole, if you're going to get one or the other, I'd get a wok. But only for the steaming/deep-frying purposes if they apply enough to get a separate utensil at all.

                5 Replies
                1. re: MikeG

                  Forgive me; as a new cook I'm a bit confused. I will be moving soon, so I'm not sure if the new apartment will have electric or gas burners, but either way it'll be tiny. (I live in NYC.) Should a person like me even bother with a Chinese wok? I don't deep fry, *ever.*

                  Also, it sounds like I don't need anything special for Indian, but what about for Chinese? Anything?

                  Thanks again everyone.

                  1. re: Jessca

                    "it sounds like I don't need anything special for Indian, but what about for Chinese? Anything?"

                    Well, no but maybe. The point we're all trying to make one way or another is that the * process * is what's important, not the utensil per se. Stir frying is really a thing apart from even "sauteeing", which is strictly speaking not the same as "frying." Stir-frying is like "super sauteeing." The heat should be very, very high and the food should cook quite literally in a couple or few minutes. Chinese cuisine has a term for the specific flavor that develops over that high heat and while it's similar to the browning you get with proper sauteeing, it's a bit more so still. (It's an extreme form of what's loosely referred to as "caramelization" in a lot of American food writing.)

                    To oversimplify a bit, woks are shaped the way they are to accomodate the style of cooking - which requires moving the food around quickly and evenly so it doesn't burn or overcook and to efficiently absorb a lot of heat quickly -- historically from fires made from quick burning fuels. But that also means they *require* a source of high heat to work properly. If you've ever seen a wok burner in a restaurant, you get the idea - it produces a tower o' flame. Admittedly, a small home wok doesn't need that, but you do need a lot more heat than the average apartment stove could ever hope to generate. (People do all kinds of things to get them to get woks to work in homes, from buying specially designed stoves to modifying cheap stoves to increase heat output (the latter is generally illegal AFAIK.)

                    But that's obviously hardcore. For most of us with stoves like that, it makes more sense to use a different utensil and adjust the technique to achieve as similar a result as possible. What that means is either a large saute/frying pan with very heat conductive surface (copper or alpan, or one that will hold and retain enough to get the job done. And then you'll have to do things in smaller batches, but most cookbooks/recipes intended for non-Asian audiences take that into account already.

                    So in short, you might need something special if you don't have a large, heat-conductive frying or saute pan (something with a copper or aluminum disc or metal layer), or a large cast iron skillet, but you don't "need" a wok. Especially not to start as is true with a lot of kitchen equipment.

                    In addition to the frying you don't do, they do make great steaming utensils, but unless you're going to be steaming large things (whole fish, fowl, plates or bowls of food) there are other smaller devices for dealing with that, certainly before you know how often you might actually want to use it in the first place.

                    1. re: MikeG

                      Thanks for the detailed explanation, Mike. I've been cooking Chinese food for about a year, and one thing that frustrates me is that my big skillet doesn't allow me to move the food around with the fervor I would like. So maybe I will get a wok simply for its shape, even if I can't achieve the necessary heat...

                      1. re: Jessca

                        First, since the heat isn't as high, you don't want to be moving the food around too fast or it won't brown properly, like I said, stir-frying passably on an apartment stove definitely requires adjusting procedure. Like any other browning process over lower heat, you don't want to move it until it moves freely, or you end up with more brown on the pan bottom than on the food. Acceptable in the sense you can deglaze, but not the real idea behind the technique. Another adjustment is learning to shake/flip ingredients in the pan rather than using a spatula (except when really needed), which is a little different than a wok where if it's got a handle, you usually have one hand on it and another on the spatula - over the higher heat, you have to keep things moving much faster than even over a "high" flame on a regular stove. "Standard" Euro-based shaking/flipping of a saute pan or frying pan serves the same purpose as the more vigrous tossing you see in large restaurant woks, and even smaller ones, you tend to shake as well as flip, which keeps the food from "flying" around quite so much. It takes practice, but so does using a wok... (which you can't keep properly hot on apartment stoves except for small batches of food.)

                        But anyway, if you do get one, at least seriously consider getting a flat-bottomed wok, that'll at least give you a fighting chance... or maybe a heavy cast iron one, though I have no experience with them.

                    2. re: Jessca

                      Even if you don't deep fry, you may come across Chinese recipes that ask you to pass the protein (or a vegetable) through oil. For that you put an inch or two of oil in the bottom of your wok, bring it to a set temperature (you need a thermometer for this), and then literally just pass the pieces through the hot oil for a few seconds. It doesn't cook them through but gives them just enough of a crust that they better absorb the sauce when you later stir fry.