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.