Wednesday, August 24, 2011

Achieving my "wok-hei"

Can you sense my "wok-hei"? Chef said I achieved some wok-hei but I cooked the rice too long and it's a bit too dry.

Anyone can do a Yangzhou Chao Fan (Chinese Fried Rice), right? Wrong. Not if you want to get it perfect anyway. Just like the omelette, this is one of those easy-to-make, hard-to-master dishes. 

A perfect Chao Fan must have the following:

1. Rice is moist but do not stick. 
2. Each grain is a whole grain, not broken, and not lumped together.
3. You can taste the white pepper.
4. It must have "wok-hei"!

Literally translated from Cantonese, it means "the wok's air", or as I personally like to express as - the breath of the wok. Hei in Hebrew means air or smell and in the bible, it means the breath of God. God breathed "Hei" into Abram and his name became Abraham. 

Wok-hei is the flavour, taste and essence imparted by a hot wok on food during stir-frying. It is particularly important for Chinese dishes requiring high heat for fragrances such as Char Kway Teow (fried rice sticks) and fried rice.

To impart wok hei, the food must be cooked in a wok over a high flame while being stirred and tossed quickly. For this reason it requires cooking over an open flame. In practical terms, the flavour imparted by chemical compounds results from caramelization and the partial combustion of oil that come from charring and searing of the food at very high heat in excess of 200 °C (392 °F). Aside from flavour, there is also the texture of the cooked items and smell involved that describes wok hei. (source: Wikipedia)

So the key words here are "high flame" and "toss quickly". Chef from Hunan gave us a demo and I tried to catch it on pictures here but she was too fast for me. See these for what they're worth.

This woman is incredibly strong, to lift and toss that giant of a wok, and with her weaker hand!
Her rice seemed to be in the air more than on the wok. Frequent flyer rice!
She even taught us how to fold the piece of cloth in her hand for maximum protection and leverage. 
It was such a treat to watch her. The ooos and aahhs stopped when she said, OK, now your turn. Gulp!
This is Chef's wok-hei fried rice. 

Loose grains each standing on its own.

To achieve wok-hei fried rice, here are the top tips from Chef:
1. Use overnight rice. Chill it. Cold rice is less sticky.
2. Boil rice in pot rather than use a rice cooker. Rice from rice cooker tends to be wet at the bottom and dry at the top.
3. Ensure rice is gently loosened before going into the wok. "Don't kill the rice" is what she kept yelling, meaning, don't use a sharp ladle to cut the grains. That will release the starch and make them sticky. Instead, use back of ladle to press gently.
4. Wok must be hot before the oil goes in, and oil must be hot before the rice goes in.
5. Toss quickly and fully. 

I want to run off to Chen Fu Ji to taste their $25 fried rice now!

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