The Woman Who Invented a New Kind of Wok for Her American Audience

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From the mundane to the quirky and outdated, Here's the Thing explores the histories and legends of the objects in our homes.

Devotees of Chinese cooking are likely already familiar with the wok, a frying pan with a rounded bottom that's been used ubiquitously throughout China and by other Asian cultures for some 2,000 years. But what fans of the pan might not know about the wok is its more recent American history — particularly regarding one Joyce Chen, a central figure in Chinese-American cuisine.

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What is a wok, and what is it used for?

"Wok" means "cooking pot" in Cantonese, and that's exactly what a wok is — a shallow metal cooking pot with a rounded bottom that's key to a wok's function. Unlike a typical pot with a flat bottom, woks heat evenly and rapidly, allowing for food to be cooked quickly and with relatively little oil, per Encyclopedia Britannica.

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As such, woks are versatile cooking tools, and they're used for everything from stir-frying to boiling and steaming.

A round-bottom wok by Joyce Chen.
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Who invented the wok?

Researchers have traced the wok back to the Han dynasty in China, which lasted from approximately 200 B.C. to 200 A.D., but they theorize that the pan might have been used primarily for drying grains rather than cooking, according to Chinese History: A Manual by Endymion Porter Wilkinson. However, over the subsequent centuries, Chinese chefs began using the wok for all sorts of cooking methods. Interestingly, stir-fry (a dish made in the wok) only became popular over the past 200 years, per Wilkinson.

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Who is Joyce Chen?

Joyce Chen's United States Postal Service stamp.
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Born in Beijing in 1917, Joyce Chen emigrated to the United States with her family in 1949, settling in Cambridge, Massachusetts. Between the Chinese students at Harvard University and the Massachusetts Institute of Technology, and her own three children, the demand for Chinese food was high in Cambridge. This led Chen to establish her first eponymous restaurant in 1958.

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Eventually, Chen's empire would grow to encompass four restaurants, a best-selling cookbook, and even a TV show called ​Joyce Chen Cooks​ on PBS, in which Chen became the first woman of color to host her own nationally broadcasted show. One of Chen's biggest fans? None other than Julia Child, who frequented Chen's restaurants, according to Food52.

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The United States Postal Service honored Chen with a limited-edition stamp in 2014, citing her as "one of America's most well-known promoters of Chinese food."

So, what does Chen have to do with the wok? In 1971, Chen received a patent for a "cooking utensil," or flat-bottom wok, which she sold along with other kitchen supplies. Her wok is still incredibly popular today.

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How is Joyce Chen’s wok different from a traditional wok?

Even though a rounded bottom is a hallmark of traditional woks, this type of wok doesn't sit as easily on a Western-style gas stovetop. Since Chen was all about making Chinese cooking more accessible for an American audience, her wok is designed with a flat bottom.

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Joyce Chen's flat-bottom wok.
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Fortunately, with advances in modern technology, Chen's wok still heats evenly and quickly, despite having a flat bottom, and it's regularly regarded as one of the best on the market today. Plus, if you're feeling particularly traditional, Chen also has a round-bottom version, too.

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