The Te Matuku Oyster Festival got off to a hot start!
First up, on the stage, following the first musical set, comes Julie Biuso. Yes, me.
I’ve been given a ginormous portable wok burner on legs (gas) with the biggest wok you can imagine. I’ve bought my own much-loved woks, burnished and non-stick from years of use. The shiny silvery virgin metal wok glints in the sun. Nah. Not using that. My wok fits the burner, so we’re in business. Everything is set. I’m introduced, I put the wok on to heat with a smidgin of oil and say hi to the crowd and tell them what I am going to make. KA-POW! Suddenly flames are leaping higher than an Olympic highjumper.
Holy Crap! The wok is on fire! The band’s equipment is behind me. There are a whole lot of flammables close by. I cannot turn off the gas because the switch is under the wok. I’d fry my head! What should I do?
I know exactly what to do. I very slowly move the wok off the burner, keeping it steady, not raising it or lowering it, so there is very little air movement. Unfortunately, there is no free or safe surface to put it on. But I cannot look away from the wok to turn the gas off which would allow me to put the wok back on the burner in case I accidently tilt the wok and flames belch all over me. Nerves of steel. Clear thinking. The thing is, if I move the wok quickly, I will feed the flames by giving them oxygen and the fire will increase. It could blow back in my face or burn my hand. I cannot put the wok on the floor and run because again the flames could increase and there would be a real risk of the electrical leads and other stuff on the ground catching fire. I am stuck to the wok and willing the flames to die down. All I have to do is stay calm, and very very still. And, do you know what? Of course, the flames slowly reduce in size, and eventually there is just a little golden glow in the bottom of the wok, then even that snuffs out. Phew! With around a thousand people watching, including children, I couldn’t let the opportunity go, and turned this into an exercise in how to deal with a fire in your kitchen at home.
1 Stay calm.
2 Turn off the gas, if you can.
3 Don’t act on instinct and think ‘oh god I’ve got to get this outside’, because you will end up with a much bigger fire, which you are holding on to, and flames may set alight curtains etc as you hurry the flaming wok (or pot) outside.
4 The best thing is to cover the wok (or pot) with a lid (or improvise with a baking sheet) and you will quickly knock out the flames.
Where was my wok lid? Too far away from me to reach and because I’d not been able to turn off the gas as this was an industrial wok burner and the on-off knob was close to the source of heat, I had no choice but to stay still and brave it out. Had things got too hot, there was the grass in front to fling it on to, and I was eyeing that up while I carried on talking to the crowd as calm as a cucumber. Talk about giving them an early fireworks display!
I’d like to say that from this point onwards everything went smoothly, but I can only say, they mostly did. I quickly switched to the next dish I was going to make while the wok was wiped clean, Te Matuku oysters with a kaffir lime leaf dressing, then I came back to the Spanish dish of clams, chorizo and Manzanilla sherry that had caused the fire. Great. Got there. All looked good. Delicious Southern clams are always a winner.
For my second demonstration I had to use the wok again. Oh bugger. Well, I had realised why the wok caught fire. The gas ring was so wide and although my wok fitted, the flames could come around the outside of the wok, and over the top, and ignite the heating oil. Even on its lowest setting, it was fierce. For this dem I was deep-frying oysters. Oh help. Lots of oil. So I knew I had to use the mamma of a wok. It went well, the oil heated without drama, the oysters, stuffed with preserved lemon and dunked in tempura batter, were dropped into the hot oil and sizzled away nicely and turned a lovely golden colour. But they stuck to the wok! The crowd was very forgiving. Yeah, new woks need lots of running in before they develop a lovely patina that makes them non-stick.
But this is a recipe worth trying because it produces tender creamy oysters with a gorgeously crunchy batter and there’s that nice little lemony-salty tang from preserved lemons as a contrast. Even people who say, ‘I never eat oysters’, will eat these.
The final lesson, set your pan or pot over the right-sized element. It’s particularly pertinent when cooking over gas because the flames can leap up the sides of the pan or pot and ignite oil or oily contents inside the vessel.