The wok is a versatile round-bottomed pan which originates in China. In the country of it’s origin, it is considered to be one of the most common cooking utensils, and is even used in East Asia and Southeast Asia. Since being invented around 2,000 years ago (although some will disagree, saying no more than 500 to 1,000 years ago), this versatile piece of cookware has become a very popular niche cooking tool throughout a large part of the industrialized world.
When you hear the word ‘versatile’ you think of something that does a lot of different tasks, at least in reference to cooking ware. You may not fully grasp just how much you can do with your wok. You can use them for stir frying, steaming, pan frying, deep frying, poaching, boiling, braising, searing, stewing, making soup, smoking, and even roasting nuts. Actually, the word ‘wok’ literally translates to “cooking pot” in Cantonese. The same pot is called a Kuo in Mandarin, and a Kuali in multiple Asian languages.
The wok is made out of two primary materials: either carbon steel, or cast iron. Traditionally, cast iron has always been favored, but in recent years, both materials have become increasingly popular. You may also find woks which are created with non-stick coatings, such as PFA or Teflon, and also aluminum. Now that we know what a wok is, and its most basic facts, let’s delve further into it’s history.
The very first known woks were thought to be recreated from little pottery models on the pottery stove modes in the Han Dynasty tombs. The Han Dynasty lasted from roughly 200 BC until 200 AD. Historians and metallurgists are still unsure, however, if this versatile cooking pot was an original Chinese invention, or if the idea was borrowed from some other culture. Many agree that it was most certainly the second- that is, that it was borrowed from elsewhere. The reason behind this is that the same sort of pan is used throughout India, and Southeast Asia (such as Thailand, Laos, Khmer, or the Malay Peninsula), and so many scholars assume it was borrowed from one of those places, where it is almost universally called a Kuali. This route of thinking continues, thinking that the word ‘kuo’ must have developed from the word ‘kuali.’
The big fact here is that Central Asian nomads were notorious for adopting the technologies of the surrounding sedentary cultures in order to use them for their own benefit. One of the most famous amongst these were the Mongols, who unified all of these disparate tribes in the thirteenth century. These Mongols carried woks, since they were portable, and as such, very well suited for the nomadic lifestyle. Other big bonuses which made them perfect for the constant traveler were the fact that they required very little fuel, and even less maintenance. The popular consensus is that this was the era during which the wok gained such a high level of popularity. As these nomads carried the wok along with them, many cultures were introduced to the easy, versatile cooking pot, and then adopted it into their own kitchens and cultures.
What actually prompted the invention of the wok though? While no one is entirely certain, most people believe that a driving need to preserve the limited amounts of fuel in these early regions is what first prompted the wok to be invented. Others believe it had something to do with a lack of food, and the fact that the wok made it possible to easily create wide varieties of dishes out of a limited number of food ingredients. Yet others believe the wok was invented due to the simplicity and ease of cooking an entire meal in one singular pan. It could have been a combination of two, or all three, of these needs, but whatever the reason behind it’s invention, the wok has continued to be an integral part of cooking. It promises to continue it’s rise in popularity, and we are sure to continue seeing this uniquely versatile cooking pot in the years to come.