What’s the History of the Wok? A Continuing Investigation

I was so pleased to get a message yesterday from the distinguished sinologist, Victor Mair (and here), having found my blog posts on the wok.

Here’s the first asking what we know about the history of the wok, and what are the links, if any, with India and even Turkey? The answer. Not much (though Professor Mair now promises more).

And here’s a follow up on the how nineteenth-century Chinese and Irish tinkers mended metal pans in just the same way, plus European observers’ comments on woks.

He sent me this link to a fascinating (and sometimes hilarious) series of posts on Chinese restaurant names that slid into a discussion of the wok.

I hope I am not infringing web etiquette when I post the relevant excerpt here.  And I have to admit that I am struggling a bit, well more than a bit, with the technicalities.  What I take away is that there is more evidence that the history of what we call the wok is very tangled and may refer to more than one culinary tradition and more than one type of pot.

From Mandy Chan:

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鑊 and 鍋 are certainly not the same thing. 鍋 is rarely used in spoken Cantonese in HK. Cantonese uses 煲 (can be used as a verb or noun), which is a deeper bottom pot/boiler, for 鍋. 鑊 is for stir frying and 煲 for slow cooking like 煲汤. This is why it is 电饭煲, not 电饭锅. Although I suspect the “language police” in the mainland might one day eventually “standardize” by calling it 电饭锅. 煲 is pronounced as “bo” (as in “bow” or “roll”).

Also, in HK slang, if you hear people say “大鑊啦!”, it means “big trouble”, so 补鑊 is “correcting a mistake” — an extremely common phrase.

If you ask for a 鍋 in HK, people will ask you to clarify what you meant. You see it in the menu, like 沙锅鱼头, 回锅肉 but 锅 isn’t a Cantonese word.

Mandarin speakers seem to use 鍋 interchangeably for wok or a regular pot, because the 锅 in 沙锅鱼头 most definitely does not mean “wok” but a type of earthenware pot; but 锅 in 回锅肉 refers to a wok. And obviously people have 火锅 with a pot, not a wok.

“And do you think that either 鑊 or 鍋have anything to do with a word in any other language?”
I suppose it could have, but it depends on how these two words were pronounced in 中古汉语 (Middle Sinitic) and earlier stages. 鍋 in Cantonese and Hakka begin with a “w” sound. The language systems that I know best other than Chinese are Arabic and Turkic, and their words for pot and frying pan don’t even sound remotely similar to “guo”.

Did 盐铁论 or 史记 specify what type of pot was used in ancient times for salt boiling?

BTW, deep frying using a 鑊 is dangerous — it is a recipe for household disaster!!

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VHM: There are many unanswered questions and problems about “wok” that remain to be cleared up. For example, The Wiktionary etymology for “wok” confuses two words (http://en.wiktionary.org/wiki/wok#Etymology):

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From Cantonese 鑊 (wok6), in Mandarin called: trad. 鑊, simpl. 镬 (pinyin: huò) or trad. 鍋, simpl. 锅 (pinyin: guō).

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One thing we need to do right away is distinguish between 鍋 (Mandarin guō) and 鑊 (Cantonese wok6). These are two different words for two different types of cooking implements.

I suspect that the real reason we have both 鑊 and 鍋 in Sinitic is that they come from two separate cooking traditions and that, consequently, we may discover that one or both of them have connections to a non-Sinitic language, as with the multiple words for “dog”, “river”, etc.

Compare the very interesting post and discussion here:

“What Do We Really Know about the History of the Wok?”
http://www.rachellaudan.com/2008/12/what-do-we-really-know-about-the-history-of-the-wok.html

And Mandy Chan, in her good comments copied above, introduces yet another very different type of pot that is popular in Cantonese-speaking areas, the bou1 (Mandarin bāo) 煲 (the ones I’ve eaten from are usually earthenware).

So we see that thinking about the quotidian wok leads to all sorts of fascinating and important questions about the nature and transmission of cooking traditions and technologies. More work needs to be done on all of these issues.

For the moment, however, let me return to the remark about the reluctance of restauranteurs outside of China to provide an equivalent of “wok” in the names they come up with for their establishments with which I closed my original post. The reason is that “wok” is very much a part of spoken Cantonese and English (borrowed from spoken Cantonese), but the character for writing it is not well known, certainly not by Mandarin speakers, who — when pressed to come up with a character for writing it — are apt erroneously to choose the graph guō 鍋 / 锅.

Wait for more on this in the next few weeks.

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7 thoughts on “What’s the History of the Wok? A Continuing Investigation

    1. Rachel Laudan Post author

      A lot of people look at that link. then they are disappointed because there’s not a clear, neat story. I’m playing around with all kinds of ideas right now.

      Reply
      1. Nick Trachet

        My two cents worth:

        I experienced this with my youngest son (now 18) who has always been very keen on techniques: Heat any piece of metal over a fire and then hammer it on a flat surface: you obtain something wok shaped

        Reply
        1. Rachel Laudan Post author

          Hi Nick. I’m sure that’s true and your son is a lucky lad to have so much chance to experiment. But he had sheet metal to begin with, right? Or soft metals. It’s not clear to me that iron was so easy to work with.

          Reply
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  2. Phil Bowler

    If I may, so late, add a penn’orth of additional information from north-east China: after reading this and the Language Log stuff, I waved the wok at my wife and asked her for the word, she immediately said, “chǎo sháo / 炒勺”, literally “frying ladle”. When I said that the discussion concerned “guō / 锅”, she immediately said, “Yes, that’s OK, chǎo guō, too.” So take your choice!

    Reply
    1. Rachel Laudan Post author

      Every penn’orth of information helps, Phil. So much nonsense has been written about woks. One day someone will come along and clear it all up.

      Reply

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