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Inside Job: wok tosser

Frank Hersey is trying every job in Beijing. This month: wok chef

Whoever created the phrase ‘stir-fry’ in English was a liar. Chinese food is tossed in the wok, which, I’m warned, is such a skill that my endeavour might be ill-fated. I approach with a ‘yeah, yeah, I can flip pancakes’ attitude. Let’s see who was right.

Once suitably kitted out in my whites I’m taken by Chef Dong Siqing to the wok range. First thing I notice is that I’ve seen smaller baths than the wok I’m about to handle.

The range has a built-in sink filled with water. Below are three levers and a button. Little gas, big gas, water, wind. That’s right – Chinese hobs cover most of the elements.

Chef Siqing shows me the sequence for lighting the hob and hands me a wet cloth to hold the handle as the wok begins to smoke. We’re cooking pipixia, half-prawn-half-crayfish ‘mantis shrimps’. All of a sudden he’s pouring in about a gallon of liquid – ‘All oil!’ – and I flashback to school safety sessions on chip pan fires.

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Adding them to the boiling oil is the most dramatic part of the process, ‘Because the prawns contain water,’ explains my mentor as I encounter my first boiling oil vs contact lens standoff.

Thankfully, he handles this most turbulent bit as I’m there to concentrate on the subsequent fanshao (翻勺), or wok-tossing. He scoops the crustaceans out into a colander and pours the entire wok of oil over them one more time.

The next bit is pure TV cooking show. Someone else preps the ingredients as we specialise in their tossing. Peppers, garlic, ginger and onions are soon followed by the pipixia. He then shows me how, with a deft toss of the wok and coordinated shove of the ladle, the prawns leap over in mid air.

My turn. I slam the wok against the range, which the prawns fail to notice. After a few more shuffles, he shows me again. ‘It’s like this,’ he demonstrates with a push, a tug and a shove.

I spill some veg over the side with my vigorous ladling, but there’s definitely no tossing. An audience of kitchen staff gathers in disappointment. Seeing my rate of progress, the chef turns off the flame.

Louder slamming. Now our photographer puts down his camera to show me. The shrimps obediently roll over. (Only later do I learn – to great relief – that he used to be a chef.)

I spill a few more things, but Chef Siqing has some consolation – he studied wok-tossing for months. Starting with an empty wok less than half the size to get the motion right, he then moved on to tossing sand in it. Sand is heavy so it builds up your wok-tossing muscles. Then dry rice, then ingredients. After six months of perfecting wok technique you start learning to actually cook things in it.

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My pipixia are now cold, grey, agitated corpses. We put the flame back on and I have a go at adding the ‘wind’, that jet propulsion feature that concentrates a roaring flame for super fast cooking. We add fresh vegetables to restore some colour, I non-toss it all a few more times and the seasonings go in just before we serve up.

The best thing? No washing up. As the wok is cooling, just ladle water across from the sink, swill it around then tip it onto the range. It has a drainage system. So that’s how a chef powers through a whole restaurant of orders!

I sprinkle on the garnish and tuck into my prawns – the most delicious slice of humble pie I’ve ever tasted.

With thanks to Chef Dong Siqing and the team at East Beijing.

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