THE WOK STARS

No modern kitchen can be considered complete without the most basic imp lement of ethnic cookery
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The Independent Culture
IN THE quest for that Holy Grail, authenticity, our kitchens are now filled with tortilla pans, balti sets and pasta-making machines. But if you still haven't bought one of the most basic implements of ethnic cookery, a wok, here is our test of a selection on the market. The design allows the flame to curl up the sides, as well as heating the base of the pan, giving an even heat. The wok's shape and size also mean the food can be tossed around enthusiastically without bits of bean sprout falling all over the kitchen.

With the help of students at the Leith's School of Food and Wine, we tested seven, some traditional, others less so. The two electric woks scored well, but there were conventional ones that were equally good or better, and far cheaper. They are most useful if you have an electric cooker or an Aga.

Some of the woks came with accessories: a tempura rack - a semi-circular device to drain deep-fried food - and chopsticks for cooking and eating.

The Panel Ayako Ueno, Kirsten Jensen, Amy Minden, Michelle Hattee, Sophie Wood, Kyung Ho Choi, Portia Dean.

The Test Each member of the panel made a chicken and vegetable stir-fry in each wok. They then gave them marks for how convenient they were to use, cooking results, looks and style, and value for money.

*Mandelstram (36cm/14in)

£7.70

This is the genuine object: a carbon steel wok imported from China, where you would find millions similar to it in kitchens everywhere. It is also remarkably cheap. But our panel pointed out several drawbacks. "It is very light, but also very thin so it's difficult to control the heat, and the food sticks to the pan," said Kyung Ho Choi. "The wok doesn't sit properly on the stove and the handle is loose," said Kirsten Jensen. "You get what you pay for," said Michelle Hattee. The only advantage was its authentic appearance.

****William Levene/Ken Hom non-stick wok (32cm/12in)

£17.99, including lid and spatula Sticklers for authenticity might not approve of non-stick surfaces, but this wok won plaudits from our panel for its convenience, cooking results, looks and value for money. It came out as everyone's favourite. "Excellent, base sits nicely on the cooker and food cooked evenly, needing little oil," said Sophie Wood. "A good deep bowl, very easy to clean, and a good long comfortable handle for shaking the wok," added Portia Dean. Amy Minden was very enthusiastic: "A greatwok. I would definitely buy it."

***William Levene/Ken Hom carbon steel wok (32cm/12in)

£17.99, including lid, cooking and eating chopsticks, tempura rack This is a wok for purists as it is made of the traditional material, carbon steel. The panel gave it good ratings, even if it didn't do as well as the non-stick wok in this range. "Nice and light and cooks the food evenly," said Kirsten Jensen. "The wood en handle is very comfortable and doesn't heat up, and has a useful hook on the end to hang on the wall," said Amy Minden. But more oil was needed to cook the stir-fry than with the non-stick version and the food was also more likely to stick to the pan or burn. Carbon steel tends to discolour, although this doesn't affect cooking ability.

*Prestige Debut Wok (34cm/13in)

£36.99, including lid, tempura rack, cooking chopsticks, spatula Another non-stick wok, in a speckled black material. Although cooking results were quite good, the panel were very criticial of its short handles which made it hard to use. "The handle is metal and conducts the heat rather too well. It would also be better if it had a long handle so that the hands weren't quite so near the heat," said Portia Dean. "The daft handle makes it impractical to use as a wok. But it would probably be a good paellapan," said Kirsten Jensen. The panel liked the non-stick surface, though.

*Le Creuset (28cm/11in)

£65.95, including lid, stand and burner This wok lets you to show off your stir-fry skills to your guests as it has a stand and a burner to use at the table (similar to one in a fondue set). As the cast iron wok takes a long time to heat, you need to start it off on the cooker first, though. A lthough some admired the wok's style, it was difficult to use, mainly because of its weight. "Heavy, clumsy, the food sticks to the pan. Trendy but useless," said Michelle Hattee. It had the same type of handle problem as the Prestige wok and it was also hard to shake the pan: "It was heavy and impossible to move," said Ayako Ueno. "Very elegant once it gets to the table, but not worth the fuss and money to get it there," added Kirsten Jensen.

**Tefal Electric Wok (36cm/14in)

£69.99, including lid, tempura rack The panel got good cooking results and found the wok, which sits on top of an electric element, convenient to use. "Easy and very quick to heat up. It heats the whole wok right up the sides. Very little oil was needed,because of the non-stick surface. I was very impressed with this wok," said Sophie Wood. Although the wok has short handles, they are made of a heat-resistant material. A major drawback was the price, however. Some worried that it didn't look very authentic, although not for Korean student Kyung Ho Choi. "At home, everyone has this one," he said.

***Meyer Electric Wok (36cm/14in)

£40, including lid, tempura rack, steam rack, cooxing and eating chopsticks, spatula There was very little to choose between this and the Tefal electric wok, but the Meyer is much cheaper, hence its higher star rating. Unlike the Tefal, it has the electric element built into its base. "Heated up very quickly, with good temperature control," said Portia Dean. "A good non-stick surface, with very little oil needed and a good end result," commented Sophie Wood. But Ayako Ueno preferred her favourite Tefal,despite its price: "The Meyer is cheaper, but I wouldn't choose it," she said.

Stockists: William Levene/Ken Hom available at leading department stores nationwide (readers' inquiries 081-868 4355); Mandelstam available from Divertimenti, 45-47 Wigmore Street, London W1H 9LE, 071-935 0689; Prestige available from Allders and good department stores; for stockists of Le Creuset, ring 0800 373792; Tefal 0604 762726; Meyer: 051-604 0036.

NEXT WEEK: CHILDREN'S TOOTHPASTE

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