As a wok cooking teacher, I'm constantly looking for new ways to use my wok, including with cuisines other than Asian. And it turns out the Hispanic world has a wealth of ingredients and classic recipes perfectly suited to this cooking style.
Though I grew up in Hong Kong — where I watched local cooks use huge cast-iron woks to prepare classic street foods such as choutofu (stinky tofu), stuffed peppers, curried octopus and roasted chestnuts — I now live in Miami, a city rich with Cuban culture. I've noticed many similarities in cooking techniques, ingredients and seasonings between the cultures.
Cuban-style paella, for example, is similar to Asian fried rice. Even the paella pan resembles a wok.
Look more broadly across Hispanic cuisines and examples are plentiful. Churros and Chinese crullers are both crispy deep-fried dough sticks. Fillings for quesadillas, fajitas and tacos are basically stir-fried beef, chicken or pork.
In Peru, which has a sizeable population of Chinese immigrants, there is even an Asian-Peruvian fusion dish known as chifa, a mash-up of the term "chow fan," which refers to Chinese fried rice. Chifa — basically fried rice with native Peruvian ingredients, often leftovers, and soy sauce — has become an integral part of Peruvian cuisine.
One of the most common ways to cook in a wok is to do so briefly at very high heat. This is why ingredients often are cooked in batches according to how long they should take. For example, vegetables go in until just tender, but still lightly crisp, then are removed from the pan. Next, the meat is cooked until nicely seared, then everything is combined.
This same approach works with Hispanic ingredients. It can be as simple as stir-frying some onion, peppers and other vegetables, then setting those aside. Add some thinly sliced beef, pork or chicken with Hispanic seasonings and cook that. When the meat is ready, combine everything and use as a filling for tacos.
But woks can do more than stir-fry, and that versatility is what makes them so useful for other cuisines. Because of their shape and wide opening, woks are great for deep frying, steaming, stewing, toasting spices and nuts, even baking.
For example, a wok can fry up churros as easily as wonton-wrapped dumplings or spring rolls. It also can be used to fry plantains. And in both cases, the attachable wire rack that clips to the side of the wok is excellent for draining excess oil from the fried foods.
Don't have a paella pan? Use a large wok. It also does a fine job with arroz con pollo — brown the chicken, cook the sofrito and tomato sauce, then add the rice and other ingredients. I've even made tortilla omelets in my wok. Start by stir-frying the vegetables in the wok, then add the mixture of egg and cheese. Set the entire thing in the oven (set on a wok ring) and bake.
A cast-iron wok over gas heat is the best choice. But in a pinch, a large cast-iron skillet can be substituted. A stainless or carbon steel wok also can be used, though you may find you need to use more oil to prevent sticking. Never use nonstick woks for high-heat frying; they aren't made to tolerate extreme heat.
Because speed is essential when cooking at high heat in a wok, it's important to have all ingredients prepped ahead. If you are using a small wok or a skillet, you may need to cook the meat in two batches. Avoid crowding the pan, as this cools it. The meat also should be cooked in two batches if your stove is electric, which does not maintain temperature as well as gas.
Stainless steel spatulas with a wooden handle and curved edge work best with steel or cast-iron woks.
This dish is best served with rice, especially red or brown. Start the rice cooking as you prep your ingredients so everything is ready at the same time.
Start to finish: 30 minutes
1 tablespoon tamari or good (MSG-free) soy sauce
1 teaspoon medium drinking sherry
2 teaspoons of cornstarch
2 pinches white pepper
1 pound 90 per cent lean ground beef
1 tablespoon canola or other high-heat oil, divided
1 medium yellow onion, finely chopped
1/2 medium green bell pepper, cored and finely chopped
1/2 medium red bell pepper, cored and finely chopped
2 cloves garlic, diced
2 plum tomatoes, finely chopped
1/4 cup diced green olives with pimentos
1/4 cup raisins
2 teaspoons ground cumin
1 teaspoon dried oregano
1 teaspoon paprika
Juice of 1 lime
Sprigs of fresh cilantro, mint or parsley, to serve
In a medium bowl, whisk together the tamari, sherry, cornstarch and white pepper. Add the ground beef and mix until thoroughly incorporated. Set aside.
Set your wok over high and let heat for 1 minute. Add 1/2 tablespoon of the oil and heat until it shimmers. Add the onion and both bell peppers. As soon as they hit the wok, immediately stir them around the pan. Cook for 5 minutes, or until the onions and peppers are just barely cooked and still firm and colorful.
Transfer the vegetables to a plate. Use paper towels to dry the wok, then return it to the heat.
When the wok is hot again, add the remaining 1/2 tablespoon of oil and heat until it shimmers. Add the garlic first, then immediately add the ground beef.
Use the back of the spatula to spread the beef across the wok as if frying a wide burger. Let the meat sear on one side until golden brown. This gives your meat a crispy exterior with juicy interior. You can test for doneness by flipping beef in the centre of your wok where the heat is the hottest. If it is golden brown, flip all the beef and start breaking it up with your spatula.
Once the beef is just cooked (when you don't see any red, about 7 minutes), return the onion-pepper mixture to the pan. Add the tomatoes, olives, raisins, cumin, oregano and paprika. Mix well, then reduce heat to medium and fry for 5 minutes. Stir in the lime juice.
Serve spooned over rice and topped with fresh cilantro, mint or parsley.
Nutrition information per serving (values are rounded to the nearest whole number): 340 calories; 160 calories from fat (47 per cent of total calories); 17 g fat (5 g saturated; 0.5 g trans fats); 75 mg cholesterol; 19 g carbohydrate; 25 g protein; 3 g fiber; 670 mg sodium.
EDITOR'S NOTE: Eleanor Hoh teaches wok-style cooking and blogs about it at http://www.eleanorhoh.com