It won’t take much of a stretch of the imagination to know from the title that this is about that most wonderful of Chinese inventions, the wok. I’ve had one for years, or I should say, I’ve had two, I had to leave my first one in England because it wouldn’t go in the suitcase that carried my sole possessions when I upped-sticks to Spain. As it’s my most used cooking utensil other than a plate, I bought another as soon as I set up home here. Both were carbon steel with a rounded bottom. None of your flat-bottomed, non-stick – that’s like using a non-stick paella, and if you do, how are you going to get the socorat, the burnt stuff on the bottom that the Valencianos fight over?
I’m the bees-knees at cooking, but my washing up leaves a lot to be desired. I don’t quite get to the running out of plates stage, but the sink has to be pretty full before I roll my sleeves up. The wok usually got a swirl around and a quick wipe with a tea towel, and after a decade of constant use was beginning to look a bit iffy as far as health and safety goes. There were seared-in burnt patches and glowingly-clean shiny metal patches, which between them I thought might account for the uneven cooking that had been happening lately. Whenever I looked at cooking programmes their woks always seemed to be nice and sparkly.
Today I finally decided to get my wok back to its earlier glowing self, so I took a stiff wire brush to it. After fifteen minutes the underside was scratched and scoured, with some shine showing through, but with thick black patches of carbon that the wire brush simply skated over. So I got out a chisel.
Attacking the carbonised bits with the chisel did some good, and with a combination of tools I was beginning to see some sort of result. But it still wasn’t coming up as shiny as I thought it should. So I scoured it with metal cleaner.
Now, I can just sense your grimace, considering that those in the gastronomic know say you must never even use washing-up liquid, and here I was gouging the metal with all sorts of unspeakable chemicals, but nothing else was doing a great deal, and, to be honest, neither did the metal cleaner.
‘Whenever you are in trouble go to YouTube,” has become my motto, so that’s where I went to help me out with my wok problems. And there they were, all these nice shiny woks being cleaned out with a bit of salt and oil rubbed around the inside. Great for getting a bit of burned on ginger, but salt and oil wasn’t going to do a lot of good to my cleaning efforts except use a lot of salt and oil. So back to scrubbing.
When I got it as good as I thought it would go – shiny on the bottom and the inside, but still well encrusted – I gave it a thorough wash and tried seasoning it. I even fried a batch of potatoes, in the hope that if there was any residue of chemicals left over from the metal cleaner they and the oil would absorb it. I admit that by then I was beginning to realise the stupidity of that part of the cleaning process.
While it was seasoning, which is basically burning oil as you swirl it around the pan, it began to go dark again, but at least this was an all-over dark. I began to think that the supposed pros on the cooking programmes weren’t actually using carbon steel woks, the real McCoy.
Something occurred to me that really should have occurred to me earlier. Every morning I take my breakfast coffee at a small café around the corner from my flat. It’s run by Chinese, and contrary to the well-proven fact that most of the Chinese running bars and cafes in Spain are a surely lot, the family who run Café Loli are an absolute delight. Their kids are always running around and they always ask how you are keeping, how’s the family, and remember how you like your coffee. I’m usually the first to arrive as the café opens at eight, and if Chiu is running a bit late, I usually help him to put his table and chairs out. (And yes, I’m always tempted to call him and say ‘Ah Chiu’ – which will only mean anything to English speakers – but as yet I haven’t given in to the temptation.)
The café doesn’t serve Chinese food, but they cook it for themselves and the many friends and family that always seem to be around. In which case, it seemed to be the perfect place to find out how to clean my wok. And it was…but they don’t…clean it that is, other than a handful of salt swirled around over a high heat and a quick slosh under the tap. Chiu’s wok was a black as a coalminer’s elbow and as encrusted as the hull of Captain Ahab’s whaler. I’d spent over an hour removing the seasoning and savour of a decade, in the mistaken belief that shiny steel is better than the black of ages.
But my stir-fried chicken, ginger and broccoli this evening still tasted pretty good.