What Do We Really Know about the History of the Wok?

Not much.  Just enough to know that the standard story has to be revised.

My long-time friend and fine scholar and anthropologist, E.N. Anderson, told this story in The Food of China (1988).

“Wok is a Cantonese word; the Mandarin is kuo. The wok appears to be a rather recent acquisition as Chinese kitchen furniture goes; it has been around for only two thousand years. The first woks I know of are little pottery models on the pottery stove modes in Han Dynasty [that is about 200 BC to 200 AD] tombs. . . . The wok is virtually indispensable for stir-frying, and thus I infer that this cooking technique was a Han invention.”

It was Anderson’s best guess when he wrote. But now we are thirty years on and we’ve learned a lot about more about the history of food in China.  Those pottery models are not woks, if by woks we mean an iron cooking vessel. And if the wok is necessary for stir frying, which is not clear, then this technique does not go back to the Han either.

Don Wagner, the expert on the history of Chinese metallurgy, explains that making woks was a tricky business.  Do follow the link because he also reproduces a wonderful series of nineteenth-century Chinese gouaches of wok making.  In a letter, he commented that he believed a Japanese scholar had dated the wok to the Song (that is mid 10th to mid 13th century).

That still leaves open the question of whether the wok was an independent Chinese invention or whether it was borrowed from elsewhere.   Anderson suspected the latter.

“Since the same sort of pan is universal in India and Southeast Asia, were it is known as a kuali in several languages, I strongly suspect borrowing (probably from India via Central Asia)–kuo must have evolved from some word close to kuali.”

Ammini Ramachandran who hails from Kerala has been interested in Indian-Chinese connections. For her article on this, follow the link, go to articles, and scroll down to “Woks, Fishing Nets, and Ceramic Jars” an article she first published in Flavor and Fortune in 2004. (Do read other parts of her web site too.  It is full of interesting material).

Trade between the two regions was evident in her family kitchen.

“Other remnants of ancient Chinese trade still visible on these shores are Chinese woks and Chinese ceramic jars. In the local language these cooking utensils are still called Cheena chatti and Cheena bharani. These words literally translate to Chinese pot and Chinese ceramic jar. Today they might be manufactured in India or elsewhere, but still, they are known by their old names.

The traditional Cheena chatti is made with iron. It is in the exact shape of a Chinese wok. It is an indispensable cooking utensil in every home in Kerala; used to sauté, stir fry, and deep fry foods. Chinese ceramic jars are used, too, and preferred for storing homemade pickles and milk products such as yogurt and butter milk.”

Here is her photo of the Cheena chatti.

On a recent trip to Turkey, she saw this tava made of bronze in the famous Topakapi kitchens.

Tava, as she points out, is one word for a similar wok-shaped vessel in Indian.  Kadai is another.

Which all goes to show that anyone who knows metallurgy, cooking, and a number of languages has a great research project ahead of them.  And that there is a huge amount to be traced out about the origins, construction of, and use of these metal vessels made or bronze or iron.

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18 thoughts on “What Do We Really Know about the History of the Wok?

  1. Adam Balic

    From personal experience I would think that this shape of vessel could be invented at multiple point sources. With the caveat that it would involve the use of a copper alloy, not iron originally. Basically it you get a sheet of copper or copper alloy and tap in with a hammer (slightly more to it then this, but not much), it will form a wok shape.

    For stability in cooking you then alter the shape, depending on the source of fuel etc, shape of the stove top etc.

    It is worth mentioning that the way a wok is used now it likely to be quite different to even 50 years ago. Portable gas has changed a lot. On my last trip to Singapore I only saw one Hawker using a wok over charcoal, in the 80’s they were more common.

    Reply
  2. rajagopal sukumar

    Interesting post Rachel on Woks. I agree with Adam, the basic shape seems to me that it might have been first made in Bronze or even Copper before that. And before that it may have been made of clay but wouldn’t have been used for frying of course.

    Reply
  3. Dianabuja

    I agree with Adam, regarding multiple sites of ‘invention’. Woks are used in various places in East Africa, being made locally of iron alloy. Quite heavy, and excellent for cooking over wood fires where pots are balanced on stones around the fire. Perhaps they were introduced by the mass indian migration to East Africa that began during colonial times, and their popularity spread, or perhaps they were locally produced in pre-colonial times; iron working was developed many centuries ago here.

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  4. Don Wagner

    Hi –

    Thanks for the plug. I’ll probably get back with further comments later, but here is one small correction: I originally also believed that the character for wok is 鍋, which in Mandarin is pronounced kuo (in the Wade-Giles transcription; guo in the more modern Pinyin transcription). But I have been corrected by a native Cantonese speaker: the character in question is 鑊, which is pronounced huo (in both transcriptions).

    (Hope the Chinese characters get through!)

    Regards
    Don Wagner

    Reply
  5. Rachel Laudan

    Working backwards.

    Don, Any hope that you could flesh out the significance of the kuo/huo difference. I assume this throws off all the usual etymological derivations. And that therefore it casts doubt on Anderson’s diffusion theory of the wok. And that therefore this is not at all a small point but a very important one.

    Diana, fascinating about the Indian use of woks. Are they cast iron? What is the alloy? Any photos? How are they used? Stewing?

    Adam, Rajagopal, Diana. On multiple origins. 1. I know that’s multiple origins are more fashionable than diffusion right now. But I am always struck by how what in retrospect seems obvious actually was not at the time. In other words, more and more in food history I see diffusion rather than independent invention.

    2. Maybe beating out a sheet of copper might have been easy. I don’t think casting an iron wok was. And if you look at Don’s piece, the proportion of silicon in the iron makes a huge difference. So I think we need some metallurgical studies at the very least.

    And, finally, Adam, I agree that the way woks are used is likely to differ a lot. What fuels were available to whom and when?

    And on a related note, the assumption that woks and stir frying go together like a horse and carriage seems to me completely wrong. You can stir fry in things other than a wok. And you can use a wok for things other than stir fries as we all know. In fact, the Indians, who seem to have been at least as good at oil technology as the Chinese through much of history don’t seem to have used the wok this way at all. Southeast Asia I’m a bit vaguer on.

    So we need to feed in at the very least information about names for implements shaped this waym fuels, metal working, and oil availability. There’s no smoking gun here, we need all the circumstantial evidence we can get.

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  6. Adam Balic

    I guess the metallurgical aspects are the important ones. Based on the Don’s article, the original iron woks were cast iron (although many modern ones are made from carbon steel sheets).

    If you are taking about a wok, then more factors then basic shape have to be taken into account. Beating a copper sheet almost automatically produces a wok shape, but these vessels are not woks. The technique for casting a wok seems very labour intensive and prone to producing wasters, so there must be a reason for the technique. My guess would be that using this technique you get a vessel that works perfectly with the specific stove arrangement that it goes with. In fact I would go as far to suggest that if you simply have a wok shaped vessel and use it like a more conventional vessel (say over a cooler heat source), then it isn’t really a wok.

    I would bet that while there are many wok shaped vessels, few of them are used in the same way as a wok, because they would deform or produce hot-spots on the vessels and so not cook the food correctly. I have a Portuguese copper cataplana, which is the same shape as a wok (two woks actually). If I used it on a proper wok stove/burner, it would deform and not work well as a cooking vessel.

    However, in terms of diffussion, just because a wok is used in a specific way in China, doesn’t mean that it would be used in the same way outwith China. There are plenty of examples of cookware being exported and used in a different way to its original manner. One modern example would be the Moroccan Tagine. It is essentially a portable oven, yet I rare see them used over a heat source with the lid on. Often they are used over the stove, without the lid (so like a conventional stew pot), in the oven or even not used for the cooking, but the finish dish is placed into the tagine for service.

    Potentinally the shape of the wok could be copied and then it could be used in a different manner. The tava could fall into this catagorie or it could be an independent invention.

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  7. Rachel Laudan

    Don suggests that the casting method produced a thick bottom and thin sides, ideal for Chinese cooking. But Chinese cooking when?

    And one conclusion seems clear. Shape (and even metal unless we know a lot about its exact composition and construction) do not necessarily or even often reflect cooking methods.

    And I agree that a cooking utensil in a different place might be used in a quite different way. The tagine is a great example. Any others on offer?

    What we don’t know about the history of cooking utensils is staggering.

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  8. Don Wagner

    Rachel asks about the etymological argument. In fact both words (huo and guo) have been used from very ancient times for various kinds of pot or cauldron, so there is really no likelihood at all that either word derives from a non-Chinese word. But that says nothing about whether the wok itself, rather than its name, came from somewhere else.

    Stir frying, etc.: In one of Edward Shafer’s books he presents an interesting hypothesis: In the Tang period the Japanese adopted a great deal of Chinese material culture, including cuisine, and in fact have continued that culture until today, while in China a new wave of food culture arrived from Southeast Asia (in the Tang or Song?), and that is the Chinese cuisine we know today. I wish I could tell you which book, but it is many years ago that I read it – and I may have gotten this wrong. In any case it is important to note that (again if I remember correctly) he presents this very diffidently, as an idea which migh be worth pursuing.

    Regards
    Don Wagner

    Reply
    1. Rachel Laudan

      Thanks so much Don. So the words huo and guo were originally just names for cooking pots. Are they still used that way?

      So we need to separate three issues: the history of pots and cauldrons generally; the intersection of the history of the wok with the history of other kinds of cooking pots; and the evolution of stir frying over intense heat and how that interacted with these pots.

      And on that, thanks for laying out Edward Shafer’s hypothesis. I take it the point is that Chinese cooking pre-Tang or Song (that is pre 600-1200 AD) was the foundation of classic Japanese cooking and that therefore certain aspects of Japanese cuisine even today, such as the lack of stir frying (and the ways of dealing with fish and rice-sushi) reflect pre- Tang (say 200 BC-600 AD) Chinese cooking.

      I am a big fan of such comparative analysis. And I also hold to the view that although cuisines change continuously in small ways, the important changes occur in big jumps. So it is possible that after Japanese cuisine was shaped by the Chinese model at the end of the first millennium, it then stayed relatively stable. Especially probably given that the outside influences on Japanese cuisine were limited until the late nineteenth century.

      If only we knew more about the details of the outside influences on Chinese cuisine. Scholars such as Joanna Waley-Cohen, an expert on Chinese military history now working on culinary history, have suggested to me that Chinese cuisine as we know it today is surprisingly late taking shape–the last couple of centuries, in fact. This would certainly fit with my belief that most of what the West eats is of very recent vintage.

      Reply
  9. Lyssa

    I’m in a Home Ec. Family Living class, and we had to do a research paper. & I got the Wok to do mine over, & this gave me absolutely NO information about a Wok. Like really, if your going to tell about it. Then actually tell about it!!

    Reply
    1. Rachel Laudan Post author

      Sometimes Lyssa, if you are reading this, it is important to know what we don´t know. And we know very little about the history of the wok. Most of what is written is complete rubbish.

      Reply
  10. Stephen Jack

    Great article and discussion.
    The characters 鍋 (guo) and 鑊 (huo) both contain the radical component 金 (metal), so clearly these words would not be used for a non-metal pot regardless of shape. I am not sure though whether a non-metal, round-bottomed pot cannot be called a wok. I think you could stir-fry with some of them (just as you can with a flat fry pan), though not as effectively as with a metal wok.

    Both guo and huo could refer to a range of metal cooking pots or pans, but in my experience with Chinese people, if you say, “Pass me the guo,” you will be handed a wok. Perhaps, when if needs to distinguished from other pots, it might occasionally be referred to as chao guo, ‘stir-fry pan.’ The wok is very versatile, handling a range of cooking methods reasonably well, but it is stir-frying that it really excels. On a recessed stove burner, regardless of heat source, nothing beats a wok for stir-frying.

    Perhaps what is more important than the implement itself is what it does: it allowed the Chinese an important cooking method, or least allowed them to perfect the style. In the chicken or the egg argument of what came first, I would guess that the idea of cutting food into small pieces came first, and the round-bottomed pan evolved to support that (Chinese already had other round-bottom pots or cauldrons that predate the wok, but these were not used for stir-frying as far as I know).

    In the The Food of China, Anderson also says there are Han Dynasty descriptions of food being cut very finely –a prerequisite (though not proof) for stir-frying. The rounded model pots he describes could be the proto-wok?

    As to the thorny question of what defines a wok I am now thinking: a round-bottomed stir-frying pan (regardless of material, or extra duties).

    Reply
  11. chef707Ken Woytisek

    This is a great article and the discussions that follow only add to my continued interest in this subject (and I agree that it is “important to know what we don’t know.” ) That’s what make reseach so rewarding!

    Reply
    1. Rachel Laudan Post author

      Thanks so much, Chef Ken. I now actually have a theory about when and where the wok was invented. But it is true that you have to distrust most of the stories about great antiquity that you see.

      Reply
      1. Ken Woytisek

        Rachel,
        Thanks for your quick response. Now, are you willing to share your theory on where and when the wok was invented? I would love to share this with my students!

        Reply
        1. Rachel Laudan Post author

          Chef Ken, I need to check one major reference work before I launch my theory on the world. But you might want to ask you students to think about what the advantages of the wok are. I know there’s the usual shortage of fuel story but that was true almost everywhere (and the Chinese had to cook rice or whatever staple and that took a good bit of time). Woks would have been a lot more expensive that a sandpot. So why the investment.

          And I will try to check the reference work on Chinese metallurgy this w/e. No promises though!

          Reply

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