The wok is one of the most common tools in Chinese cooking – a large, bowl-shaped pot made especially for stir-frying. Chefs are often lauded for their mastery of wok6 hei3 (鑊氣, “wok essence” or “wok breath”), using intense heat and flames to add that all-important smoky flavour and aroma to their dishes.
So, you’d think the bigger the wok, the better, right? Not quite. In Cantonese, the term daai6 wok6 (大鑊, “big wok”) actually means “a big mess” or “tricky situation.” And when you think of what can go wrong when cooking with a big wok, it’s not hard to see why – especially when high heat is involved. In fact, a related term, baau3 daai6 wok6 (爆大鑊, “big wok explosion”) refers to the reveal of a big secret, or as they say in English, blowing the lid off something – usually a scandal.
Another related term is me1 wok6 (孭鑊, “carry wok”), which means to take the blame or fall for someone else. The slang term is thought to have originated from the Mandarin phrase bēihēiguō (bui3 hak1 wo1, 背黑鍋) which literally means to carry a black wok on your back. According to ancient folklore, a thief who had broken into a bachelor’s home to steal valuables was caught running away with just a black wok on his back. The bachelor accused him of stealing the wok but came to realise that he had only stolen the wok’s case – hence, blaming the thief for something he hadn’t really done.
Then, there’s the term sin3 jat1 wok6 (跣一鑊, “slip a wok”), which means to set somebody up. Who knew a simple wok could get you into so much trouble?
What’s interesting to note is that the term wok is used only in Cantonese and English (taken from spoken Cantonese), while Mandarin uses another word entirely: guō (wo1, 鍋, “pot”). So if you come across any wok puns in English, such as wok ‘n’ roll and wok on, you’ve most likely found another fellow Cantonese speaker.
Going back to the size of the wok, there is probably one occasion where having a bigger wok is in fact better: when you’re sliding down a bobsleigh track at 100 kilometres per hour as a competitor in the World Wok Racing Championships. Held from 2003 to 2015, who could forget those crazy Germans who introduced woks into the world of competitive sports—soup ladled feet and all—at least for a brief moment in time. Wok on, indeed.
Photo by Clem Onojeghuo