If there is a single cooking tool that stands above all others in Chinese cuisine it would have to be the wok.
Simple in design, yet mighty in utility, this rounded metal bowl has performed yeoman work in the service of Chinese cooking for centuries. Yet it remains among the most useful tools for modern chefs.
Though searchers may find cooking pans called woks with flattened bottoms, the classic wok is rounded and sits on a ring for stability. That's placed above a fire that may be a simple gas burner or the more traditional charcoal fire. Electric stoves are less effective, since the rounded bottom doesn't sit squarely onto the heating surface. But, wok add-ons are available that make it possible.
But whatever is used to heat the pan, the results are a very hot pan that cooks very fast. Aided by the right amount of oil, a wok can cook chicken, pork or other meats in a flash. Often they're seared before going on to be used in some other technique, such as boiling or steaming. Vegetables, too, get the same treatments. A bit of oil may fry a batter-drenched carrot stick, or be used to make Mandarin pancakes.
Woks are commonly made of either cast iron or carbonized steel. Both have their pros and cons. Cast iron takes longer to heat but is very sturdy. Carbonized steel is lighter weight but more easily broken. In either case, the pan can reach temperatures over 450F/230C. Teflon coated woks are available, but can't be used at such high temperatures since the coating would break down and contaminate food as well as flaking off.
Aluminum pans shaped like woks are available. They have the advantage of being very lightweight and inexpensive, but aluminum doesn't conduct heat the same way iron or steel does. They don't retain heat to the same degree. Also, they're softer, which leads to denting. But various materials are still useful for woks intended only for serving or presentation.
At standard temperatures food cooks very quickly and using a wok requires some practice in order to achieve good results. All ingredients should be pre-sliced, pre-diced and ready to go. Spices should be ready at hand with all lids removed. Butter or other additions should be pre-sliced or scooped on the spoon in advance.
Having a high, steep slope and a very hot bottom gives the wok the perfect attributes for fast and easy stir-frying. Chefs can use only a little oil and swirl the food around the pan without risk of being burned or having food fly out.
But it also provides a good shape for boiling, another common Chinese cooking technique. Chicken, duck and other fowl are often prepared this way. With a lid and an inner section steaming is another option. Jiao Zi, or Chinese dumplings by their proper name, come out perfectly in a wok using any of these methods.
Wok cooking has been employed in China for centuries. Fortunately, with the right materials and a little practice, chefs from any other country can master this useful instrument, as well.