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Friday, July 22, 2011

Wok On, Buy in Chinatown

Posted By on Fri, Jul 22, 2011 at 11:15 AM

click to enlarge Yee Cheong's wok on campfire coals - BEN NARASIN
  • Ben Narasin
  • Yee Cheong's wok on campfire coals

I've always been a big fan of cast iron: skillets, griddles, butter melters that look like medieval castle defenses in miniature. They last forever, they're cheap, and they don't seem to have any "bad for you" issues as aluminum and Teflon are reputed to have. Even stainless steel leeches chromium into water.

For all the cast iron I have, it wasn't until my friend Carolyn mentioned her cast iron wok from Chinatown a few years ago that I considered this classic Swiss-army-knife of the Asian kitchen could ever be made of the metal. Too heavy, right?

It took me plenty of walking and searching vainly amongst gewgaws, spiky produce and dried miscellany before I found my cast iron wok. Last week, I retraced my steps so I could tell you where to buy one: Yee Cheong General Contractor (1319 Stockton at Broadway). The awning ads for Fuller O'Brien paint were my first clue this was the place. Not! Chinatown really needs subtitles.

As unconventional and hard to find as the location was, the price made the search worthwhile.

A cast iron wok at Yee Cheong is just $6.99 or $7.99 depending on size. Sur La Table's cheapest wok is $33; its most expensive is $250. Williams-Sonoma has plenty of expensive woks, but does have a $20 cast iron one.

But $8 seems better, so I splurged and added a stand for $2.59.

The cast iron in the wok is as thin as construction paper, so the wok is actually quite light. It's unseasoned so you need to do that yourself. Yee Cheong will give you instructions (in English!) or you can google it if you don't know how. Interestingly, Yee Cheong's method is the only one I've seen involving an onion.

Simplicity and durability are clear. It's iron - how are you going to screw that up? I use mine as you'd expect; stir-fries of leftover rice and dinner scraps, making or re-heating dumplings and, with the addition of a bamboo top, as a steamer.

Just try not to "wash" your cast iron: avoid soap. Your best cleanser is rock salt and a cloth. I've had mine for years and it's better than when I bought it and equally at ease on a stove top or the coals of a campfire. It just continues to wok on.

Read Ben's published works, follow him at @bnarasin, or e-mail him.

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Ben Narasin

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