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What is Wok Hei? Qi of the Wok Demystified 🔥 Mastery of Fire & Energy in Chinese Cuisine & Culture 火候与锅气


Mastery of fire or heat is central to Chinese culinary art. It is about the control of intensity and timing. In Singapore, mastery of fire is often seen to be all about wok hei but it is actually a little more than that. Great wok hei is just one end of the spectrum of control of heat in Chinese cooking. 

There are five levels of fire or heat (fuh hau in Cantonese 火候) in Chinese cooking - they are 旺火 high fire, 大火 big fire, 中火 medium fire, 小火 small fire, and 微火 low fire. Great wok hei is at the 旺火 high fire end of the spectrum.

The five levels of fire is grouped into 文火 civil fire and 武火 martial fire. 文火 Civil fire refer to medium to low fire. 武火 Martial fire refer to big and high fire.

Chinese cuisine is a balanced application of martial and civil fire like balance of yin and yang.

The mastery of fire in cooking is reflected in mastery of life and relationships in Chinese culture. The balance of martial and civil temperament, firmness and softness in approach.

We cannot talk about wok hei 锅气 without talking about fuh hau 火候 and the five levels of fire.

Stewing sun dried abalone is an example of using civil fire.

This dish is less seen in Singapore today and becoming a lost art here. My adoptive grandmother who was a Ma Jie (domestic worker) made it at home for special occasions and I last ate it at a wedding banquet a long time ago.

Sun dried abalone is cleaned and soften by soaking in water.

Pork rib, pork belly, and chicken are cleaned, blanched in boiling water, drained and then fried in boiling oil to seal in their juices. Everything plus sauces is then put into a claypot (covered) and stewed together with rehydrated dried abalone over low charcoal fire for a day.

Over the night, the claypot is removed from the fire and contents are left to stew in its own residual heat. The flavours from the pork rib, pork belly and chicken are infused into the abalone.

The next day, the claypot with all its contents are stewed over low charcoal fire for another day. The time needed to prepare sun dried abalone stew is about three days.

Making this dish requires mastery of civil fire and time.

The Suzhou (Jiangsu province) stewed pork dish 石家酱方 uses a combination of martial fire and civil fire.

The slabs of pork belly with skin, fat and lean meat are flash boiled in high heat (martial fire). The boiled pork belly is cleaned to remove any scum, cooked blood and coagulates. The pork belly is stewed over low fire (civil fire) for three hours in 石家酱 special sauce with additional salt, sugar, soy sauce, cooking wine and Chinese spices like star anise etc.

The stewed pork belly is transferred to bowls with the skin facing down in the bowl. The bowls are steamed for 15 minutes. When ready the luscious tender-soft stewed-steamed pork belly is served smothered in 石家's special dressing sauce.

The luscious looking skin is silky smooth and soft. The fat dissolves in the mouth almost like it was melting. The meat is tender-juicy. The dish is an exquisite blend of sweet, savoury layers. Aromas from the sauce and spices burst from the soft meat with every bite.

油爆双脆 Oil Fried Crispy Pair - the pair refers to pork maw and chicken gizzard - simple, humble ingredients. This dish is all about preparation, in particular, the mastery of martial and civil fire.

The pork maw and chicken gizzard are cleaned, and cut with serrations on the surface to make the pieces look like flower blooms. The pork maw and chicken gizzard are blanched in boiling water. Drained and then dunked in boiling hot oil for seconds. The drained blanched and fried contents are tossed in a wok with hot oil and sauces for another dozen seconds. The dish is then delivered to the guests.

Blanching in boiling water cooks the pork maw and chicken gizzard to 40%; dunking in hot oil, drained and then tossing in a wok with hot oil at high heat and sauces cook the dish to 70%. Residual heat cooks the dish to 100% during delivery from kitchen to the guest's table. At this point, the fried pork maw and chicken gizzard are at their best. Crunchy, crisp when it reaches the guest's mouth.

The dish (any hot food) tastes best while it is hot - that is the diner's role in the mastery of fire. To take so much time to photograph the dish for social media that the dish cools down would actually break the final chain in the control of fire. So yeah, diners have a role play in the mastery of fire too - you can see the anguish on chefs' faces when they see their hard work turn cold on the diner's table.


Great wok hei 
锅气 is often seen as the epitome of fuh hau 火候, especially in China's Guangdong, in Singapore and Malaysia. The origin of the concept of wok hei 锅气 is unclear and is usually taken literally as "breath of the wok".

It is most often explained in Western terms as the seared smell and taste of Maillard reaction between amino acids and reducing sugars such as in roasts and breads.

气 is also often literally translated as "gas", the aromas from steam and oil vapours released from ingredients (sauces, wine, oil, meat, vegetables, spice) when tossed and stir fried in a scorching wok.

The patina of a seasoned cast iron also plays a part in imparting wok hei. Hence, Chinese chefs lovingly nurture their wok 养锅, keeping their wok face well oiled to prevent rust and for the flavour the patina imparts.

There is also a more esoteric perspective of wok hei 锅气 from the concept of Qi 气 or energy in Chinese philosophy. The idea is about taming the energy from the high fire 旺火 through mastery of the iron wok, ingredients and fire, into the food.

The chefs toss the ingredients in a 3kg heavy cast iron wok with the orange tongue of angry looking flame blasting at the wok's bottom. The oil smokes and the ingredients release hissing steam. By tossing the wok's contents some 50 times per 30 seconds, the ingredients dance and hop from the scorching wok, somersaulting through the aromatic smoke, vapours and steam. Through this drama, the energy, flavours and aromas from the fire, smoke, vapours, steam and ingredients fuse and mell into wok's contents.

The end result is food with good wok hei.

It is a precise art - too much heat burns the ingredients ruining their taste and smell. Too little fire, there is no smokiness and no infused flavours.


Food such as fried noodles or rice with good wok hei have nice caramelisation, some browning, even subtle char outside. It is scorched and not burnt.

Equally important, inside the noodles or rice they are well infused, with focussed flavours from sauces, oil and ingredients.

Through the energy of wok hei, the flavours of the sauces and ingredients flow into the core of the noodles and rice in the same way as Qi flows throughout our body (not just on the surface).

Just as Qi in the human body is a microcosm of Qi in the universe, the chef through mastery of fire condenses all the flavours and aromas of the ingredients in the wok into the strand of noodle or grain of rice. Like the energy of the  universe is embodied in our body, it is the energy of the ingredients embodied in the grain of rice / strand of noodle, etc.

For skeptics of Qi, I feel this concept helps our understanding of wok hei even if viewed as nothing more than an analogy or metaphor. 

Viewed from the perspective of Qi, good wok hei goes beyond a nice smokey / toasty taste and aroma from caramelisation on the singed surface. When we bite into the noodle or rice, the concentrated flavours from the sauce and ingredients infused into the core of the noodle or rice literally burst and explode in our mouth.


We can feel the released energy from the infused flavours lift our spirit, triggers the release of endorphins that makes eating so enjoyable addictive (foodies will know this feeling). Hence, euphoria from this flow of flavours or energy is often described in sexual terms like orgasmic and the Singapore / Malaysia phrase shiok.

Where do you go to get your wok hei fix? Yes, wok hei is a craving that needs a regular fix.


So, mastery of fire 火候 in Chinese cuisine is not only about wok hei 锅气 though it is a very important part of the spectrum. Mastery of fire, its intensity and timing are also crucial in steaming, stewing, poaching, blanching, oil bathing, pan frying, etc. There is Qi 
气 in every dish but infused through different techniques from martial fire to civil fire. Feel the Qi 气 or lack of it in the food you eat.

Written by Tony Boey on 4 Mar 2021


Image of sun dried abalone courtesy of Wikipedia

Image of stewed abalone courtesy of Wikipedia

Image of Guan Yu courtesy of Pixabay

Image of Han Yu courtesy of Flickr

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