Chinese food can be cooked using any pan at all but if you want a really versatile implement in which you can stir fry, braise and deep fry, you must have a wok. This simply designed yet incredibly useful tool has been used in Chinese cooking (and indeed the cooking of other Far Eastern countries) for centuries but even today is indispensable to professional chefs and home cooks alike.

Woks come in many shapes and sizes; some with flat bottoms, some with two handles and some with one. Cast iron is often used in wok manufacture but the resulting pan is very very heavy and cumbersome to use. Non-stick woks are also available but the surface can't withstand the very high temperatures needed for Chinese cookery and aluminum pans, while conveniently lightweight and cheap, don't conduct or retain heat as well as cast iron. However, by far the most effective is the classic wok which is made of beaten steel, has a rounded bottom and a single wooden handle. Of course, if the purpose of the wok is purely for serving, it doesn't matter what it's made of and all sorts of decorative varieties can be found.

The traditional wok works best on a gas cooker or a charcoal stove as the flames will heat the rounded bottom more effectively. Using a special stand, a wok can be used on an electric hob but it is much slower to achieve the same intensity of heat as little of the rounded bottom is in direct contact with the heat source.

Regardless of the heat source, once hot, meat, chicken and vegetables with a little oil cook tremendously quickly in a wok while the high sides and large surface area ensure that the food can be moved around safely to prevent burning. Equally, it can be used to flash-fry meat before braising, which is another commonly used Chinese cooking technique. It can also be used to deep fry such things as spring rolls and won tuns as well as braising spare ribs or a whole duck. A wok with a lid is excellent for steaming whole fish or Chinese dumplings. In fact, the wok is probably the most versatile cooking pan ever invented.

Because the food cooks so quickly while stir frying, there is no time for continuing preparation while you cook. In fact, organisation is the key here; all meat and vegetables should be prepared in advance, sliced in evenly sized and shaped pieces; other ingredients should be measured out into separate bowls and spices measured onto a plate. Make sure that stock is ready in a jug and if possible have sauce ingredients all mixed together.

Once all the component parts are prepared, the actual cooking will be completed in minutes and with some practice anyone can cook using this marvelous piece of equipment.