Ken Hom 譚榮輝
The wok has been central to my life as a professional chef and food writer. But it was central to my childhood and youth as well. To grow up Chinese means enjoying wonderful foods prepared in the wok.
The wok has been central to my life as a professional chef and food writer. But it was central to my childhood and youth as well. To grow up Chinese means enjoying wonderful foods prepared in the wok. It also means learning how central the wok is in the Chinese idiom. Terms such as "stir-frying the real estate" -- to engage in land speculation -- and "breaking the wok" -- to divorce or to break up the home -- indicate how deeply the wok and its telling metaphors have penetrated the language. The wok and its applications dominates the Chinese kitchen and is as well imbedded in our expressive understanding of all other aspects of life. Only a devoted Jungian psychologist could exhaust the rich content of its symbolism.
My mother put together three- or four-course meals every night in a tiny kitchen, ill-equipped by modern Western European standards. In my eyes, she did this quickly and smoothly. I never heard her complain of any technical problems. Our dinner was on the table within an hour of her coming home from work.
Usually, the dishes were simple: a soup, which we consumed as a beverage; one or two stir-fried dishes, either pork, chicken or sea food with vegetables, a simple vegetable dish; and, of course, the rice. The tool at the centre of this culinary creativity was the richly blackened, perfectly seasoned family wok, expertly manipulated by my mother. It was and remains the indispensable tool in the making of such wonderful foods. There were also a few steamers and pots for soup and rice, but the wok was the rightful ruling monarch of the batterie de cuisine.
Today, the wok still commands pride of place in my own professional kitchen. And increasingly, it is becoming central in many Western kitchens. My mother never would have predicted such a development among the non-Chinese. But the wok remains what it has always been, an extremely versatile, reliable, and easily mastered implement. Its enduring and endearing qualities are such that it needed only to be discovered to be loved and adopted. With today's hectic lifestyle, in which time in the kitchen is limited and yet people are so mindful of health and nutrition, the wok is something of a wonder. With the wok, the harried cook can prepare nutritious, delectable, and satisfying meals in a very short time -- just as my mother did so many years ago.
Now, the wok did not just happen to be. Chinese cuisine has accurately been defined as a cookery of scarcity. In a geographic situation of limited arable land and even more limited forests, providing food and firewood for so many millions of people was an enormous challenge. Over the centuries, the Chinese learned how to extract from nature the maximum amount of edible ingredients and to prepare them tastefully with a minimum amount of cooking oil and fuel. Out of these necessities, the wok was conceived and fashioned.
Traditional Chinese kitchens are sparely furnished. The substantial kitchen stove is usually in the shape of a large rectangle, with two openings above the fire chamber. Large round-bottom cast iron woks fit tightly on these openings so that all heat is transferred to the wok and none is wasted. Bricks insulate the fire chamber so that heat is retained and the proper cooking temperatures are quickly attained. Every tool in the kitchen is versatile, every technique extracts the full nutrition and flavor from ingredients, the foods themselves are prepared so that they cook quickly in a bit of oil, and not a British Thermal Unit is spent beyond what is necessary. The wok evolved to its perfection in this environment, warm stove and versatile wok becoming synonymous with hearth and home, at the centre of Chinese family life.
WHENCE THE WOK?
Wok is a Cantonese word; originally it referred generically to all cast iron pots. In Mandarin or pinyin Chinese, the word is guo. While the wok is used throughout China, it is the Cantonese who are the great travelers among the Chinese and thus it is their pronunciation of the term that has won worldwide acceptance. Archeological evidence indicates that the wok came into use shortly before the Christian era, that is, about two thousand years ago. This is not too long ago, by Chinese standards. Why it took so long to appear is related to another development, namely, the late arrival of China's Iron Age.
The European (ancient Greece) Iron Age began ca. 1200 B.C. but not until 500-600 B.C. do we find clear indications of Its beginning in China. Of course, iron and iron woks might have been in use earlier. Iron does rust away without leaving a trace. And literature and the arts usually pay no attention to prosaic utilitarian kitchen implements; nor were rulers likely to feel honored if upon their deaths woks were included among the burial artifacts. What reliable evidence we do have indicates that the wok was in wide use just about 2000 years ago.
The remarkable thing about China's late discovery of iron and its uses is the very rapid introduction of the technology of smelting and casting. By the 4th Century BC, China was already producing cast iron. Sometime during the Han Dynasty (206 BC-220 AD), cast iron pots, the woks ancestors, became standard cooking implements. In Europe, cast iron was not produced until late in the 14th century, and then only in very limited quantities: large-scale production did not occur until the 18th century. Cast Iron pots were among the first items that European iron masters produced but not until the 1700's did such pots appear generally in European kitchens.
Nor did the wok suddenly appear full-blown out of the head of some Chinese iron master. The first cast iron pots were on the order of cauldrons and large pans. Examples of such pots have been recovered from Han Dynasty tombs, among other places. No doubt the limitations of the then existing technology prescribed such sizes. The cauldrons (fu, in Chinese) were about 20 cm high with a rounded or flat bottom, and a curving globular body that narrowed toward the neck and lip. Some had two looped handles, one on either side just above the middle of the belly. Burn marks and soot remains indicate that the cauldrons were indeed functioning cooking tools. One such pot was discovered resting on a three-legged fire stand; another contained a clay pot (zetig) used for steaming.
These examples of the wok's predecessors are rare finds. Cast iron pots were expensive and only the wealthy could afford to have them (and the even more expensive bronze pots) In their kitchens. The common people still relied solely on earthenware cooking utensils.
However, over the next few centuries the iron master technology improved and the afford ability of the wok was greatly enhanced. The production of great numbers of cauldrons continued. In the Beijing (Peking) area, we have discovered six-handled pots with very wide rims. One example is 32 cm high, 51 cm across the rim, and 67 cm at the widest part of the body. These finds date from between the 10th and 14th centuries. A famous 14th century book, Work on Agriculture (Nong Shu), includes a line drawing of the six-handled pot. It gives us a very good idea of what these cauldrons looked like.
Another type of early wok came in various smaller sizes and was equipped with double handles, one on either side of the rim. Such examples, although quite large in size, resemble many of today's smaller implements. Burn marks and soot residues show that these pots were used for cooking. Given the size of most of them, it seems clear that they were used to cook noodles and other pastas to be consumed by large groups of people, perhaps in monasteries, noble houses, or village communal kitchens. Six handles would seem to demand at least three adult handlers. Incidentally, boiling and steaming are the two oldest and most used techniques in traditional Chinese cookery. The perfection of the modern wok allowed for the new technique of stir-frying, which elevated Chinese cookery to even higher levels of delectation.
Another type of pot from the period is the rather shallow, flat-bottomed, double-handled pan, with three legs to allow room for the cooking fuel underneath. The double-handed pots and three-legged pans were flat-bottomed and thus no doubt used for sauteing and frying.
These innovations in pot ware proceeded the rapid expansion of smaller cast iron woks that began to be common implements in Chinese kitchens by the 16th century. Together with improvements in farming and fishing techniques, and with the new types and greater amounts of foods and ingredients available to Chinese cooks, the wok was instrumental in bringing Chinese cookery to its classical status.
We know that as long ago as midway through the Chou Dynasty (12th century BC to 221 BC), rice was the principle food of south and central China, while millet served as the staple grain in the north. These grains were invariably cooked rather than being milled and turned into flour for pastas or baking. They accompanied or were added to soups and stews, the cooks using whatever other resources were available, such as meat, fish, vegetables, and seafood. Boiling and steaming were the common cookery techniques, with braising, frying, and roasting employed only occasionally. Stir-frying was noticeable by its absence.
Such simple foods, rather heavy but sustaining and nutritious, required simple utensils. Clay or ceramic pots, a rare bronze cauldron, these were the usual implements. There were three main types of pots in use for boiling and simmering (ting, li, hu) and three for steaming (hsien, tseng, fu). One type of pot would often sit upon another in the steaming “double boiler” process. The evidence indicates that these boiling and steaming designs have not changed very much over the past two thousand years.
Grains, vegetables, meat broths and stews remained the most common dishes during the Han period (206 50-220 AD). However, we know that the variety and amounts of available foodstuffs had increased significantly by the end of that dynasty. There is also much evidence to indicate a more sophisticated and discriminating taste, at least among the wealthier classes. Tombs of the Han period include paintings and sculptures of cooking pots, an indication that how one ate had become an important social distinction. Most of the cooking implements depicted are of cauldron size. Some stand on their own "fire legs;" others are made to rest on trivets or to fit into the openings of primitive stoves called “fire benches.” Many have handles, some have lips as well, and all appear to have tight-fitting lids.
The widespread locations of these tombs suggests that at least among the upper classes such implements were to be found as standard items in kitchens throughout China. There is some evidence that similar, if smaller and cheaper, cast iron implements were beginning to filter down the social scale even then. But it was a slow process.
The Han Dynasty witnessed much innovation in the culinary arts. People started milling wheat flour and thus were introduced such new delights as boiled noodles, steamed buns, and baked cakes. Chinese writings at the end of the Han period note that these foods were mainly the invention of the common people and, significantly, that other foods were brought into China from other lands. We do not know whether foreign ideas influenced the design of China's cooking pots.
During the few hundred years between the Han Dynasty and the Tang Dynasty (which lasted from 618 to 907), the most common cooking techniques remained boiling, simmering, spit-roasting, and baking. But there is a significant innovation noted at the beginning of the Tang period: stir-roasting.
We are now one step away from the stir-frying technique so closely linked to our woks. And sure enough, around 700 AD a wide pan, called the kuo, made its appearance in Chinese kitchens. The wok had arrived.
The wok may be seen as a logical/technological development out of the much larger cast iron pots that had been around for so many centuries. But there is more to it than logic and technology. China's forests had been suffering drastic reductions, an ecological disaster whose pace accelerated after the tenth century AD. Firewood and charcoal for fuel became enormously expensive. What was needed were cooking techniques and implements that used very little fuel, or to put it another way, that would heat up efficiently and cook foods very quickly, using a minimum of fuel. At the same time, the ironmasters, whose growing need for charcoal was helping to devastate China's forests, had developed their skill in casting different, smaller, and less expensive pots and pans. Hence the wok and the stir-fry technique.
It seems that the wok and its special techniques arose throughout China about the same time: similar needs and conditions generated common solutions. During the Sung Dynasty (960-1279), woks, long-handled pans, vegetable pots and steaming baskets became well known kitchen implements. Bamboo steamers are standard items at this time and the whole range of now familiar spoons, ladles, chopsticks, bowls and cups are in place. The essential tools of the classic Chinese kitchen were now established.
It was during the Sung Dynasty that the basic necessities of the peasants' cookery were defined: rice, salt, soybean sauce, vinegar, tea, and firewood. And with firewood so expensive, the wok moved to the centre of the kitchen. Because of its quick heating and excellent heat retention qualities; because of its shape, which focuses heat as the cook determines; because of its durability and relative cheapness; because of its versatility; because it required little fuel, little space, and so little cooking oil, the wok was an immediate success.
From 1280 onward, there are no major changes in the techniques and tools of Chinese cuisine. New foodstuffs are introduced -- the Chinese have always been open to new ingredients and techniques -- but the batterie de cuisine is thereafter essentially unchanged, except for one notable exception.
From 1279 until 1368, China lived under the domination of the Mongols, the so-called Yuan Dynasty. The Mongols were a non-Chinese nation and they did not become assimilated into Chinese ways. Rather, they retained their own customs, laws, and cookery preferences and techniques. They loved boiled mutton, which to this day most Chinese find unpalatable. Reflecting their nomadic culture, the Mongols loved mare's milk (kumys) and other dairy products, again, something that most Chinese prefer to do without.
There is one Mongol treat, however, that stayed on after the Mongols gave up their Chinese empire: Mongolian Fire or Hot Pot. (In Japan it is called “Ghengis Khan Hot Pot.”) These wafer thin slices of meat, boiled over on the special fire pot placed on a grill placed over an open fire or grilled on skewers, represent the most significant culinary treat and cookery technique imparted to Chinese cuisine by the Mongol influence.. The rest is silence.
With that period over, the Chinese culinary canon has remained essentially intact. The fire bench, the gas or electric cooker, the portable stove, the pots and sand pots, the sturdy wok, the Mongolian Fire pot, and the other simple bowls and implements have not changed. Refinements, yes; fundamental changes, no. Perhaps that is the universal Chinese way.
“鑊”是粵語用字（普通話念 huò），最初泛指所有用鑄鐵做的盆和鍋，在普通話裡稱作“鍋”（念 guō）。儘管中國各地都在使用這一工具，但由於廣東人在中國人裏最善遷徙，“鑊”的發音贏得全世界接納。考古證據顯示，鑊的使用始於基督紀元前不久，即約兩千年前。依照中國人的標準來看，這段歷史並不很長。鑊為何經歷如此漫長的歲月方才成型，此事關乎另一項發展，亦即姍姍來遲的中國鐵器時代。
“镬”是粤语用字（普通话念 huò），最初泛指所有用铸铁做的盆和锅，在普通话里称作“锅”（念 guō）。尽管中国各地都在使用这一工具，但由于广东人在中国人里最善迁徙，“镬”的发音赢得全世界接纳。考古证据显示，镬的使用始于基督纪元前不久，即约两千年前。依照中国人的标准来看，这段历史并不很长。镬为何经历如此漫长的岁月方才成型，此事关乎另一项发展，亦即姗姗来迟的中国铁器时代。
At 62, Ken Hom, who resides in France and in Thailand but travels tirelessly all over the world, continues to appear regularly as celebrity chef, write new books and keep an involvement with restaurants worldwide. In June 2009 he was awarded with an honorary OBE for ‘services to culinary arts’, recognising his achievements and the impressive social and historical impact he has made on the way the UK has ‘adopted’ Chinese cuisine, which has now become one of the nation’s favourites. In September 2007, he was awarded with an honorary doctorate from Oxford Brookes University for his ‘outstanding success within the international food world’ and to recognise him as one of the world’s most notable chefs with a highly successful career in the media, as an entrepreneur and as a supporter of charity and education. He was then appointed as Founding Patron of Oxford Gastronomica, the Centre for Food, Drink and Culture at Oxford Brookes University.
Since September 2008, he has become an ambassador for Action Against Hunger, the humanitarian charity which works in over 40 countries helping families to feed their children and build a sustainable life. www.aahuk.org
Widely regarded as one the world’s greatest authorities on oriental cooking, he is also the presenter of a documentary on the origins of noodles, ‘The Noodle Road’. This new five part documentary series for KBS (Korean Broadcasting Service) was a huge success when broadcasted in early 2009 and the series has now been sold to over 25 countries around the world. In addition, he is involved in developing a number of food and drink concepts in Thailand with the Bandara Hotel Group. His first restaurant, Maison Chin in Bangkok’s Bandara Hotel, opened in October 2008, has already been called ‘the best new modern Asian cuisine’ and has been awarded by Thailand Tatler as ‘one of Thailand’s Best Restaurants 2009.’
In November 2009, he launched his own range of Chinese Meals exclusively in Tesco. Of very high quality and with no additives, the initial range comprises 30 dishes.
Ken was born in Tucson, Arizona where his Cantonese parents lived after emigrating to American in the 1920's. Moving to Chicago, as he grew up he found American food unpalatable compared to his mother's cooking so she used to send him to school with a flask of hot rice and stir-fried vegetables.
Aged 11, he went to work in his uncle's restaurant, where he earned the equivalent of 30 pence per day. At 20 he headed off for California to study art history and French history. To pay for his university fees he started to give cookery lessons and quickly realised that this was where his heart really lay - especially with his native Chinese cuisine. He soon started teaching first in his home, and then at the California Culinary Academy (a school for professional chefs in San Francisco). He also travelled to France and Italy to explore gastronomy further.
His first book on Chinese cookery techniques was published in 1981 to much acclaim and then the New York Times published a major profile on him. Ken still regards the book and the NY Times article as one of the turning points in his career. From there, he landed his first television series in 1984 – Ken Hom’s Chinese Cookery which bore the same title as the book that many still regard as the ‘bible’. The show was an instant hit and was transmitted throughout the world. Foolproof Chinese Cookery, published in 1984, had a first printing of a then record breaking 350,000 copies. In 2009, the BBC celebrated the 25th anniversary of the book, which continues to sell after more than two decades in print. Since that first success, Ken Hom he has written 23 books, many translated in more than 12 languages, and has presented a further four television series – Hot Chefs, Ken Hom’s Hot Wok, Ken Hom’s Foolproof Chinese Cookery, and Travels with a Hot Wok, which attracted millions of viewers. A new book, Ken Hom’s Complete Chinese Cookbook, was published in January 2011, along with Ken Hom 10-0 Quick Stir Fry Recipes for www.mykitchentable.co.uk and there is another book in the pipeline. By December 2011, sales of the Ken Hom Wok reached 7 million nits in over 62 countires. www.kenhom.com
His interests include travel, wine, cycling, swimming, British TV, reading and football events (he is a Manchester United supporter).
AWARDS AND HONOURS
• Honorary OBE by HM The Queen for services to the culinary arts 2009
• Honorary doctorate from Oxford Brookes University 2007
• Appointed Founding Patron of Oxford Gastronomica: the Centre for Food, Drink and Culture 2007
• Honorary Chairperson of The Institute for the Advancement of the Science & Art of Chinese Cuisine 1993
• Inducted in the prestigious Who’s Who of Food and Beverage in America as recognition of significant and lasting achievement in the culinary industry, 1990
譚榮輝先生出生於美國，自十一歲起在中餐業工作，二十歲出頭即開始教授烹飪課程。其後成為烹飪書作家、電視節目主持人及顧問，並研發自己的炊具、麵條、醬 汁等系列產品。除講授烹飪技術，也研究、推廣中國烹飪的歷史與文化，例如撰寫本文。2009 年獲英女王頒授大英帝國勳章，以表彰其對烹飪藝術的貢獻。譚先生同時也是多家慈善機構的代表，從慈善工作中獲得許多樂趣。
谭荣辉先生出生于美国，自十一岁起在中餐业工作，二十岁出头即开始教授烹饪课程。其后成为烹饪书作家、电视节目主持人及顾问，并研发自己的炊具、面条、酱 汁等系列产品。除讲授烹饪技术，也研究、推广中国烹饪的历史与文化，例如撰写本文。2009 年获英女王颁授大英帝国勋章，以表彰其对烹饪艺术的贡献。谭先生同时也是多家慈善机构的代表，从慈善工作中获得许多乐趣。
Project Coordinator. Majored in Chinese Language and Literature, Writing, Folk Literature, and Anthropological Research Methods. With a particular interest in folk culture, she has participated in research projects of Lingnan area (i.e. the south of the Five Ridges), and wrote papers about Cantonese food culture, custom and etiquette, etc.