Wok cookery 101

— Marnely Murray

All over Asia, you can expect to find woks preheated in kitchens both in the home and at restaurants, because wok cookery is essential in their cuisine. What you don’t normally expect is that a couple of woks are preheating on the fire daily on a tiny island off the Cape, waiting for pan-Asian-inspired recipes to grace their insides.

Copper Wok in Vineyard Haven is home to these woks, and I had a chance to learn a little about wok cookery while visiting them. Originating in South China, “woks” are a round-bottomed cooking vessel, probably the most common vessel all over Asia due to their versatility. Typically hand-hammered, they are made out of carbon steel or cast iron. What these metals have in common is their great ability to conduct heat and cook quickly.

Marc Antinori, general manager at Copper Wok, welcomed me into the establishment and showed me around, explaining the menu and what comes out of the wok. “Our wok dishes are some of our most popular dishes, not only because they’re delicious but also because they’re healthy: Fresh vegetables, a protein, and a quick sauce at times is all you need for a dish,” he said. One of the benefits of stir-frying, which is the basic culinary technique behind the wok, is the focus on fresh, crisp vegetables, and it’s the reason I love stir-fries so much — because honestly, who likes overcooked, mushy vegetables? Mr. Antinori mentions that “mise en place,” the French term that refers to all the prep to be done before executing a recipe, is essential for the Copper Wok culinary team. A large chunk of their day is spent chopping, cutting, slicing, and dicing all the fresh produce for the dishes. Since stir-fry is a quick technique, you need to have everything on hand as soon as you turn on the heat — so make sure to prep, prep, prep if you’re trying to re-create at home.

To showcase the best the wok has to offer, we taste tested two dishes: the Szechuan Chicken ($13) and the Beef & Broccoli ($15). Szechuan cuisine, also known as Sichuan cuisine, is a style of Chinese cookery originating from the Sichuan province in southwestern China, where many popular dishes were born. Thank the Sichuan region for Kung Pao Chicken, Tea Smoked Duck, Dan Dan Noodles, and more. The Szechuan Chicken at Copper Wok tries to stay close to its roots, with a blend of chicken, sweet onion, bell peppers, squash, baby corn, carrots, roast peanuts, water chestnuts, and a spicy Szechuan sauce. As a heat lover myself, I asked for a side of their three hot sauces: sambal, sriracha, and hot oil, which I drizzled carefully over every bite for added heat.

Balance the heat with some cocktails. Vineyard Haven is a “no hard liquor” kind of town, but Copper Wok has been very creative in this aspect. Using sake as their base, they’ve created a cocktail list enviable by any “regular” list. Called “Saktails” these fresh and fun drinks are made with sake, or rice wine. One of the drinks we ordered was the Tiananmen Square ($9), made up of sake, fresh lemon, and agave, served over a large square cucumber purée ice cube. If there’s anything I’m recreating at home from this visit, it’s this drink. All I can say is that it’s the perfect balance of sweet and tart, with a herbaceous undertone from the fresh cucumber infused in the ice cube. It’s refreshing, light, and just what you want to sip on while taking bites of your Szechuan chicken.

Another classic dish we ordered was the Beef & Broccoli. Marinated beef, broccoli, and water chestnuts are cooked in a classic brown sauce which clings to every bite. And the great thing is that if you’re gluten-free, Copper Wok has created this brown sauce in a gluten-free version for their guests. Not only that, but their options for vegans, vegetarians, and Asian food lovers with peanut allergies are vast and plenty. A kiss of the wok makes any combination of vegetables and rice a delicious meal, so make sure to ask your server and not be shy. The staff at Copper Wok is incredibly knowledgeable and happy to guide you through their menu, offering substitutions or options, adapting to your lifestyle or diet.

End your meal with an unexpected sweet dish — rangoons stuffed with either Oreos or cheesecake, served with white chocolate sauce or berry sauce. Warm and deep-fried, the crispy exteriors lends themselves to creamy fillings that will remove any doubts you had about the deliciousness of a sweet rangoon.

Copper Wok has online ordering for takeout (copperwok.alohaorderonline.com) and is located at 9 Main Street, Vineyard Haven. You can also call for orders and reservations at 508-693-3416, and check out their menu online at copperwokmv.com.