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Food guru J. Kenji López-Alt explains how to 'Wok' this way

Thai-Style Stir-Fried Ground Pork with Basil (Pad Bai Horapa or Pad Ka-Prao) (Courtesy of W. W. Norton & Company)
Thai-Style Stir-Fried Ground Pork with Basil (Pad Bai Horapa or Pad Ka-Prao) (Courtesy of W. W. Norton & Company)

Food guru J. Kenji López-Alt woks the wok.

“The Food Lab” cookbook author and Youtube star recently published a book called “The Wok: Recipes and Techniques” on what he says is a must-have pan in the kitchen.

López-Alt purchased his first wok in college and still uses the same one 20 years later. It’s started leaking a bit near the rivet that attaches the handle to the pan, he says, so he’ll either try to fix it or “finally” buy a new one. Every meal featured in “The Wok” cookbook is photographed in the original wok he bought two decades ago.

The versatile round-bottom pan goes well beyond stir-fries, although stir-fries are “one of the best things you can do in a wok,” he says. Home cooks can utilize woks to braise, simmer, steam, pan fry and deep fry, López-Alt notes.

“Having a wok and learning the proper techniques and how to use it I think really sort of opens up your repertoire of quick and easy and relatively healthy meals,” he says.

Scroll down for two recipes from “The Wok.”

Interview Highlights

On whether a wok can be used on an electric stove

“They can. I think there’s this false impression, particularly in the West and in the U.S. that in order to cook with a wok, you need these jet flame, high-powered restaurant-style burners that could do like 150,000 BTUs per hour. People think that and they think you can’t cook properly in a wok without those. But of course, there’s hundreds of millions of people cooking in a wok every day that don’t have restaurant ranges at home. Initially, when I was growing up, my impression of what was cooking with a wok was mainly colored by the fact that I ate Chinese food pretty much exclusively at restaurants. And it was mainly restaurants that come from the sort of southern Chinese or Cantonese or Hong Kong style cuisines that first penetrated into the U.S. A lot of a Chinese American food and a lot of the dishes we’re familiar with in the U.S. come from that style of cuisine. And that’s really the only part of China where you’re going to find this concept of blockade, the sort of smoky flavor that you get from using gas and letting the flame actually leap into the wok.

“So really, when you’re not cooking with gas, the only thing that you’re sort of cutting out of your repertoire are those very specific dishes from southern China that require this sort of wok flavor. But the vast majority of dishes that you cook and wok don’t require that heat, so you can do any, you know, most of the dishes you can do just fine on electric or induction.”

On his flavorful Thai basil pork recipe

“Thai basil pork is a dish that you will see all over Thailand, whether it’s a quick meal in the street or something that you buy in the train station. It’s really everywhere. It’s almost like [the] way I think about sort of like New York pizza in New York. It’s just like everywhere you go you can get it. But you know, the essence of that dish, it really sort of exemplifies the central Thai flavor combinations of salty and pungent and hot and sweet. There’s chili heat in it. There’s pungency and saltiness from the fish sauce, and then there’s palm sugar. You can use brown sugar, white sugar if you want, but typically [it’s] palm sugar in there. And that combination, you know, all the flavors are very intense, but they all kind of balance each other out.”

Watch on YouTube.

On the taste difference between making a dish in a wok versus a regular skillet

“So with this particular dish [Thai basil pork] is probably not a huge difference. There is a particular flavor that comes out of using well-seasoned carbon steel or cast iron, which if you take it side by side, I hesitate to say smokiness, but there’s a particular sort of deeper flavor that you get when you cook out of carbon steel that comes directly as a result of the chemical reactions between the food and the surface of the pan.”

On the advantages of using a wok for flavor and convenience

“In some dishes, you definitely are going to notice the difference in how the dishes cook, particularly stir-fries where you’re trying to, say, very rapidly cook a bunch of marinated chicken chunks. … A western skillet is designed to hold things sort of in a flat layer and to keep very evenly. Whereas a wok is designed for the food to constantly be moving in it. Because of the shape of a wok, it’s very conducive, of course, to stir-frying, which should really be called tossed frying. You’re essentially tossing the meat in through the air over and over and over. And the reason that’s advantageous is that it promotes better evaporation. So the surface of your meat is going to dry off much faster. … Instead of stewing in its own juices, it’s going to cook with a relatively dry heat, where if you put that much meat in one skillet, you’d have a hard time tossing it in the air and therefore you’d end up sort of stewing it. In a wok, you’re going to see the steam come off much more rapidly and so the food is able to cook faster, and it’s also able to sort of stay drier. And that’s an essential element of a good stir-fry.”

On how he got his start

“I started cooking professionally in college and basically started as a summer job that I just took to make a little money on the side, and I discovered I loved working in restaurants. After I worked, I worked part-time through college and then after college, I went full-time into restaurants. And then after working in restaurants for a number of years, I realized there’s a lot of these sort of questions about technique and food science that I had that while I was learning a lot of restaurants and particularly learning sort of the practical skills of cooking, I didn’t have much of an opportunity to really explore those types of questions. And so eventually I transitioned into the recipe development and testing side of the industry. I worked at ‘America’s Test Kitchen’ and ‘Cook’s Illustrated’ for a number of years and then eventually went on to work at Serious Eats. And that’s where I started writing, I call them ‘The Food Lab,’ which eventually turned into a book. …

“My initial manuscript for ‘The Food Lab’ was going to be a two-volume box set which we eventually decided to cut down into one large volume. But a bunch of material got cut from it, including a chapter of cooking in woks. But what actually ended up remaining in that first book was a two or three-page spread in the introduction, where I talk about how great woks are and how versatile they are and how they’re the most versatile and the most well used in my kitchen. And then, of course, because that chapter got cut, there’s no other mention of the wok in the rest of that book.

“So when I started writing the second volume of ‘The Food Lab,’ I started with the wok chapter because it was the easiest one for me to write because I’m just so intimately familiar with the types of things one can do and what I personally do in a wok. When I started writing that chapter, it got up to a couple hundred pages and I wasn’t even done with just the stir-fry section yet. So I called up my editor and I told her instead of doing a whole second volume of ‘The Food Lab’ and cutting all this stuff I have to say about the wok, let’s just make a book about the wok because, you know, I think it’s timely. It’s this one tool that costs maybe $40 to $50, so you don’t have to fully stock the kitchen with an expensive set of pots and pans. All you need, really, is this one $40 to $50 pan, maybe a steamer if you want to do steam stuff, a knife and a spatula, and you can cook virtually every dish in this book.”

On all the puns in the book

“I feel like the word wok has more puns than virtually any other word that I could think of. And every time I mention my books, I’m going to be like, ‘Well, what kind of puns? Are there going to be lots of puns in the book?’ And so I decided early on, you know what, because I’m kind of known for this kind of doofy, pun-based dad humor in my videos, I can appreciate it. So I decided early on, instead of trying to put wok puns throughout the book, I was just going to get them all out of the way right at the very beginning so I wouldn’t have to think about them again.”


Thai-Style Stir-Fried Ground Pork with Basil (Pad Bai Horapa or Pad Ka-Prao)

Yield: 
serves 4

Active time: 
15 minutes

Total time: 
15 minutes

NOTES


For best results, start with a whole piece of pork sirloin (or chicken breast, or firm tofu, or fish, or beef sirloin, or any lean meat really) and chop by hand. For easiest results, use ground meat from the supermarket.

Two Thai bird chiles will be quite hot. Eight chiles will be blazing hot (have that cool, sweet, milky Thai iced tea handy!). For milder heat, replace the Thai bird chiles with half of a jalapeño or serrano chile.

Beans are not a traditional addition to the stir-fry, but they can be delicious and are a nice way to break up the meatiness.

If you want a more traditional version of the dish, omit the dark soy sauce and oyster sauce and season with more fish sauce to taste. For the most authentic results, look for holy basil at an Asian supermarket (bai ka-prao). Thai purple basil or plain old sweet Italian basil can be used in its place.

A mortar and pestle will produce the most flavorful results, but you can easily make the dish without one.

INGREDIENTS

  • 6 medium garlic cloves, peeled (about 2 tablespoons/16 g)
  • 1 medium shallot (about 1½ ounces/45 g), peeled
  • 2 to 8 Thai bird chiles, stems removed (⅛ to ½ ounce/4 to 15 g; see Notes)
  • 2 tablespoons (30 ml) peanut, rice bran, or other neutral oil
  • 1 pound (450 g) lean ground pork, chicken, or beef or crumbled firm tofu (see Notes)
  • ⅓ pound (150 g) green beans or long beans, cut into ½-inch pieces (optional; see Notes)
  • 2 tablespoons (30 ml) fish sauce, plus more to taste
  • 1 teaspoon (4 g) granulated sugar or palm sugar, more or less to taste
  • 1 tablespoon (15 ml) dark soy sauce (optional; see Notes)
  • 1 tablespoon (15 ml) oyster sauce (optional; see Notes)
  • 1½ ounces (45 g) fresh basil leaves (about 1½ cups packed; see Notes)


To Serve:

  • Steamed jasmine or short-grain rice
  • Nam Pla Prik (optional; see below)
  • Extra-Crispy Fried Eggs (optional; page 114)


DIRECTIONS

1. If Using a Mortar and Pestle: Roughly chop the garlic, shallots, and chiles and place in the mortar. Add a small pinch of kosher salt. Pound with the pestle until roughly mashed (no need to form a paste here).

If Not Using a Mortar and Pestle: Mince the garlic, shallots, and chiles by hand or in a minichopper.

2. Combine the oil and garlic/shallot/chile mixture in a wok or skillet and place over medium-high heat. Cook, stirring frequently, until the aromatics are lightly softened and the oil is fragrant, about 30 seconds after it starts sizzling.

3. Add the meat or tofu and cook, stirring and tossing while breaking it up with a spatula until no longer pink, about 2 minutes. Add the fish sauce, sugar, soy sauce (if using), and oyster sauce (if using). Continue to cook until most of the liquid is evaporated but the mixture is still nice and moist, about 1 minute.

4. Remove the wok or skillet from the heat. Add the basil and toss to combine until wilted. Serve immediately with rice, nam pla prik, and extra-crispy fried eggs.


My Mom’s Japanese-Style Mapo Tofu

Yield 
serves 4

Active time: 
15 minutes

Total time: 
15 minutes

INGREDIENTS

  • 1 teaspoon (3 g) cornstarch
  • 1 tablespoon (15 ml) cold water
  • 2 tablespoons (30 ml) peanut, rice bran, or other neutral oil
  • 4 ounces (120 g) ground beef
  • 2 teaspoons (5 g) minced garlic (about 2 medium cloves)
  • 2 teaspoons (5 g) minced fresh ginger (about ½-inch segment)
  • 2 scallions, chopped into ¼-inch pieces, dark greens reserved for garnish
  • 2 tablespoons (30 ml) sake
  • 2 tablespoons (30 ml) mirin
  • 1 tablespoon (15 ml) shoyu or light soy sauce
  • ¼ cup (60 ml) low-sodium chicken stock, dashi, or water
  • 1½ pounds medium to firm silken tofu, cut into ½-inch cubes
  • Steamed rice and chile oil, for serving


This version of mapo tofu is similar to what we ate growing up, though instead of plain ground beef my mom would use the dish as an opportunity to use up leftover dumpling filling. You could do the same if you have leftovers from a batch of My Mom’s Beef and Vegetable Filling for Dumplings (page 417). Unlike the numbing-hot Sichuan version, this one is savory and sweet, with the classic Japanese flavors of soy, sake, and mirin, and comes together even faster, if you can believe it. It’s one of my go-to meals for the family when Alicia or Adri is not in the mood for spicy foods and I’m craving saucy soft tofu.

DIRECTIONS

Combine the cornstarch and cold water in a small bowl and mix with a fork until homogenous. Set aside.

Heat the oil in a wok over high heat until smoking. Add the beef and cook, stirring constantly for 1 minute. Add the garlic, ginger, and scallion whites and pale greens and cook, stirring, until fragrant, about 15 seconds. Add the sake, mirin, soy sauce, and chicken stock and bring to a boil. Pour in the cornstarch mixture and cook for 30 seconds, until thickened. Add the tofu and carefully fold it in, being careful not to break it up too much. Transfer immediately to a serving bowl and sprinkle with the scallion greens. Serve immediately with rice and chile oil.


Excerpted from “The Wok” by J. Kenji López-Alt. Copyright © 2022 by J. Kenji López-Alt. Republished with permission of W. W. Norton & Company.


Emiko Tamagawa produced and edited this interview for broadcast with Todd Mundt. Serena McMahon adapted it for the web.

This article was originally published on WBUR.org.

Copyright 2022 NPR. To see more, visit https://www.npr.org.