“Wok hay” is a Cantonese expression that describes capturing into the food the “hot breath” of a seasoned wok.
Hay means “breath”, “energy” or “spirit” in Cantonese.
Wok hay describes food that has been “wokked” properly.
- The food must have the right aroma (“heung mei”);
- The flavours are concentrated;
- Meat is juicy, and almost tastes grilled or smoky;
- Vegetables are crisp;
- There is an overall seared taste.
The opposite of wok hay would be something like soggy, oily vegetables that appear to have almost been steamed in the wok.
Cooks say the first step in achieving wok hay is in making sure the wok is very hot before adding the oil. Other elements include continued very high heat, and a well-seasoned wok.
The “wok hay” -ness of a food item won’t last long: the food must be eaten right away because the wok hay will dissipate as the food cools.
See also: Chinese Food
“Wok hay” is a strictly Cantonese expression and is unknown in other parts of China.