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Wok This Way: The History of The Wok

A look at how this versatile vessel solidified its position in kitchens everywhere.

This popular round-bottomed pan has been around for centuries, inspiring millions of chefs the world over.

So what’s the story behind the wok, and where does it go from here? We’re taking a special look at the wok’s origin story. We’ll also break down what makes the wok, including the Made In Wok a modern-day staple all across the globe.

Where were woks first used?

Despite its widespread use all across Southern and Southeastern areas of Asia, the wok is believed to have originated in the country of China. Etymologists and foodie fanatics track its existence to about 2,000 years ago during the Han dynasty.

The word ‘wok’ actually means ‘cooking pot’ in Cantonese, so its purpose is crystal clear. However, these early models were typically made of cast iron material, which enhanced the wok’s durability. Archeologists have even found small, rounded pieces of pottery in ancient Chinese tombs—indicating its popularity as far back as 200 BC.

Still, historians are unsure about the wok’s exact origins. Apparently, the Chinese didn’t exactly care about patents. They had a penchant for ‘borrowing’ inventions from nearby cultures, including those from India, Thailand and other areas in the Southeast and across the greater continent. So, it’s sufficient to say we’ll never know who (specifically) invented this beast of a pan.

Why did ancient Asians use the wok?

As you know, the wok is renowned for its incredible versatility. Thanks to its excellent heat retention and special sloped walls, you can stir-fry multiple ingredients fast and with little oil. It’s a very attractive cooking technique for people who are health conscious, or even for those who are simply short on time.

So, what was the motivating factor for the wok’s early users?

Again, it’s tough to say. But experts have a couple of compelling theories. Thousands of years ago, many people in Asia followed a nomadic lifestyle, moving in tribes and carrying their belongings all across the middle of the continent before settling into permanent communities.

In order to cook their meals on the go, groups needed a vessel capable of cooking fast and cooking a lot of food—that is, without being too bulky or fussy. The wok became their perfect portable companion. Quick to cook, easy to clean, effortless to carry.

Scholars also think these people would have had limited access to fuel. The wok not only heats quickly over an open flame, but also, a little oil goes a long way! When you cook at home, you’ll notice just a splash of vegetable oil is capable of sizzling up a heaping plate of veggies in no time.

How are woks made?

Hammered by hand and measuring about 12"-14” in diameter, the typical wok is made of cast iron or carbon steel. While cast iron is incredibly hard-wearing, newer models in carbon steel boast the same great heat retention, quicker performance and a lighter, more ergonomic feel.

Since any style of pan can be shaped like a wok, today’s manufacturers experiment with all kinds of materials, including aluminum woks, clad versions, nonstick Teflon-covered woks and more. In most cases, woks feature handles in either stick or loop construction. While the ‘stick’ handle is large and easy to grip, loop-style handles are positioned on either end of the wok for two-handed carrying.

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What’s next for the wok?

While Asian stir-fry is synonymous with the wok, this workhorse of a pan is also great for executing a number of popular dishes and general cooking techniques. Today, cultures all across the globe turn to the wok for its universal performance. 

Some popular Eastern and Western methods are:

  • Deep frying – meats, veggies, potatoes and more
  • Searing – steaks and other meats
  • Boiling – soups, rice, dumplings and stews
  • Smoking – meats and veggies
  • Steaming – wontons, pot stickers, veggies
  • Stir-frying – chicken, beef, veggies and beyond

Because food is cooked with such high heat and with limited oil, the stir-fry method is super healthy—as long as you stick with clean, green ingredients. A nicely seasoned wok will infuse your vegetables and meats with tons of flavor without the added calories.

So, as we forge ahead into the third decade of the 21st century, the question remains: where will the wok take us next? Nowadays, home cooks are handling all kinds of cuisine in this multipurpose pan.

Whether it’s pad thai, sweet and sour chicken, Italian pasta or coconut curry shrimp, the wok works its wonders in so many ways. Best of all, weeknight cooking has never been so fast and furious.

If you’re looking to up your wok game, check out this awesome article from Taste of Home with 35 wok recipes you can easily cook up in the comfort of your kitchen and challenge yourself with what you can make in a wok vs a frying pan

Was dinner delectable? Show your Made In pals what you’re woking with!

1 comment

  • Silvia Soberanis

    I bought a wok as a wedding gift, and back for one more for me

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