Chinese American, Collection, History

Collections: Chinese Cooking Tools

APA Collections Update from Noriko Sanefuji:


Chinese Wok

What essential cooking utensil comes to mind when you think of Chinese cooking?  Probably, the wok.  The basic design of the wok has not changed in centuries.  The wok’s rounded form is optimal for cooking with a small amount of fuel, higher heat at the base, and varied temperatures along the curve.  It is a necessity in regions where fuel is scarce and food must be cooked quickly.  For faster cooking and heat distribution, ingredients in the wok are usually chopped into small, thin slices. The wok is also the ultimate tool of kitchen convenience, as it can be used to boil, sautee, stir-fry, deep-fry and steam. It remains the main cooking appliance in Chinese restaurants today, and can also be found in many American homes.

Miners sharing a meal cooked in the wok

San Francisco miners sharing a meal cooked in the wok, lithograph 1850-69.

This wok dates back to the 1880’s and was used by Chinese immigrants in California.  These immigrants who came to work in the gold mines and railroads, brought this type of wok to America and continued to cook Chinese food in their new land.



Chinese immigrants brought not only the wok but also cooking utensils such as spatula and ladles, which are commonly used with a wok.  The long handles safeguard the cook from the high heat.  A skimmer removes surface items from the wok, the ladle adds or removes ingredients, while the spatula is an all-purpose tool.

These objects are currently on display in the Sweet & Sour showcase in the National Museum of American History on the first floor.

Sweet & Sour Showcase

Sweet & Sour Showcase at the National Museum of American History (first floor). Photo by Harold Dorwin.

Young, Grace. The Breath of a Wok: Unlocking the Spirit of Chinese Wok Cooking Through Recipes and Lore. Simon & Schuster. 2004


4 thoughts on “Collections: Chinese Cooking Tools

  1. Olive Garden Soup Recipes says:

    I LOVE food cooked in woks! I love the way it makes noodles taste… very distinctive. But meats are also done a lot of justice with wok cooking. I also love how quickly the food cooks.

    I must confess, I have used my wok for a whole lot more than just Chinese food. I’ve even cooked some of my Olive Garden soup recipes in record time using a wok! Of course, I had to scale down the portions a bit.

    But when you’re wanting good food fast, forget your microwave and bust out a good wok set over medium-high heat!


  2. The chinese work is basically used used for frying noddles. In fact lots of chinese tools are used in the preparation of various noddles. In mauritius, there are many chinese people who came, and they bring along several new dishes. They are mostly know for their really delicious noodles and snacks. In fact, all the kitchen cookware or tools that have been shown are widely used in my country. For example, the strainer are are widely used for frying snacks.

  3. As a Chinese I can say wok is hardly replaced by any other kitchen utensil. With big fire food fried with a wok gives out a different taste. That is why we Chinese cannot give up it.

  4. Nice article. It seems that the Chinese have always held on strongly to their cooking traditions where ever they migrated. In my country (Trinidad and Tobago) these utensils can also be found. The Chinese have been on the islands for over 200 years and traditions are still the same.

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