Wok Talk - Wok Chuan - Essential Gear
02/02/13 -06:59 Filed in: Stir-Frying | Gear
I’ve been woking for about 3 months now and loving it. I am constantly trying to find videos online for stir-fried recipes to both find new recipes and learn techniques. Many of these are posted by “regular” folks, some are folks with a food background and still others are professional chefs. Now many people in the first two categories use flat-bottomed woks on an an electric range. That is it’s own use case and you can use somewhat different tools because this style wok is more like a traditional western pan. But for the people in the “regular” folks and the folks with a food background categories, I am surprised how many of them use a wooden spoon, a wooden spatula or a metal spatula in a traditional bowl-shaped woks. This blog will discuss the Wok Chuan or Wok Spatula, a shovel shaped tool, and why I feel it is an essential tool that everyone using a bowl-shaped wok should use.
The wok has existed for many thousands of years in its current form and the Wok Chuan evolved along with it. At first they were made of wood and later metal and there is a good reason for this tool being around for so long. The Wok Chuan is a perfect case of a tool that is perfectly suited to its unique task. I could see this before I bought it, but after using it I can’t see using any other tool for stir-frying. It really makes all the different stir-frying tasks easier. Before I go into the use case for the Wok Chuan, let me first discuss the other kitchen tools that are used in it’s place and how they fall short.
I see many folks using a wooden spoon(s) to do a stir-fry and I’ve gotta believe it must be a somewhat frustrating experience for any of several reasons. First the wooden spoons are relatively small compared to the wok. This means it is going to be hot with your hands over the wok or near the edge. Using the wok at 550 degrees on the Egg I’ll often have flames curling up around the edge of the wok. Sure I could wear some long sleeved gloves, but cooking wearing gloves thick enough to protect you from the heat is awkward at best. The second problem is the shape of the spoon bears no relationship to the shape of the wok. This means some of the food is going to slip around the spoon since it isn’t in full contact with the wok. This is a critical issue when trying to move large batches of food around. The third problem is wood spoons don’t have steep turned up sides to help gather and hold food on the spoon. The sides are very shallow. Trying to make them taller serves to make the spoon thicker. The last problem is a wooden spoon is always going to be thicker than a metal tool. This makes it harder to collect the food quickly. You are always going to be failing to pick up some of the food due to the thickness of the wood. Trying to give the bowl of the spoon thicker sides to hold more only aggravates the thickness issue. There are some wooden spoons where they shoot for a thin spoon bowl. But it will never be as thin as a metal utensil.
The other tool I see used is a metal or wooden flat Western style spatula. The metal spatula does not conform to the shape of the wok in any way on any side. The bottom is flat which doesn’t conform to the curved bottom of the wok. The blade of a metal spatula does not usually have turned up sides. As for a wooden spatula, it has all of the problems I just described, plus the thickness issues I described for wooden spoons. While there are spatulas with long handles, most folks seem to be using 12” (30 cm) standard length kitchen spatulas.
Now there are wooden Wok Chuans and that was the original form of Wok Chuan. The wood used is often bamboo. They have many of the advantages of the metal Wok Chuan I will discuss below. But being made of wood they have the same thickness issues I discussed above. They also tend to be shorter than the metal Wok Chuans. The only use case I can see for a wooden Wok Chuan would be if you are using a non-stick wok. But you really shouldn’t be using a non-stick wok to begin with.
The business end of the Wok Chuan has unique features which make it iidealy suited to it’s task. .
Now lets discuss what makes a metal Wok Chuan (Wok Spatula) special. One look at the head shows you 4 key differences that make stir-frying easier. The first is the curved leading edge. During a stir-fry you are often moving the food quickly around the wok. You tilt the Wok Chuan into a nearly vertical position and push and pull it around the wok. The curved front edge keeps any food from sliding under the leading edge of the blade. The second feature is the curved shape of the bottom. When you are scooping up food to flip it or remove it from the wok, the curved bottom of the blade helps keep food from slipping under the blade. The third feature is the turned up sides which help hold the food on the blade when you are trying to pick it up to flip it or remove it from the wok. The last feature is the shape of the blade. The leading edge is wider than the typical western spatula and far wider than a wooden spoon. The blade tapers from wide at the front to narrower at the back which assist in gathering the food. As soon as you use a Wok Chuan the first time, the shape will immediately makes sense. It just works and seems natural.
The Wok Chuan has a couple other features worth mentioning. The metal blade make it easy to scoop up the food. The food all goes up and onto the blade and none of it gets pushed aside by a thick blade. The Wok Chuans I’ve seen come in lengths from 14” (35 cm) or 20” (51 cm) lengths. This is far longer than some of the wooden spoons and Western-styles spatulas I’ve seen folks trying to use. This is improtant if you are using high heat like I am with my Big Green Egg. The Egg can reach much higher temperatures that a regular Kitchen stove. I bought a 19” (48 cm) Wok Chuan for using with the 16” (41 cm) wok on my BGE and I am very glad I did. I often have flames climbing up the sides of the wok, but the 19” (48 cm) length helps keep my hands out beyond the flame and away from the heat of the wok. The business end of my Wok Chuan is stainless steel and this makes it easy to clean and maintain. Much of what passes for stainless steel today is a lower grade stainless steel which can rust when exposed to the harsh environment of a dishwasher. Knowing this, I hand wash my Wok Chuan and the leftover food usually come right off. For stuck on food I will place the head of the Wok Chuan in the hot water I’m often soaking my wok in. The last feature you want is an insulating handle. In the case of my Wok Chuan it is a wooden handle.
I got my Wok Chuan from the Wok Shop in San Francisco, but any decent sized city with a Chinatown should have these readily available. As kitchen utensils go it is short money, particularly for something that is so ideally suited for it’s task. The one I bought was called a commercial Wok Chuan and it cost $9.95. They also had models they called “Wok Chuans for home use” and were about half the cost of the commercial models for the same size. I bought the $9.95 version since I figured it would last longer. I bought my gear at the Wok Shop due to it’s excellent reputation, but it turns out they had about the best prices too.
Stir-Frying is all about keeping the food moving quickly and flipping it over. If you aren’t able to keep the small pieces of food constantly moving it will quickly burn. For the best results I suggest you look into getting a metal Wok Chuan for use with your wok. Don’t saddle yourself with the wrong tool for the right job by using a wooden spoon or a Western style spatula. Stir-frying has been around for thousands of years and the Wok Chuan has evolved along with it. It is a perfect example of form following function. Use it once and you will just “get it” and you will never want to use a spatula or wooden spoon again.
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