CHINA HAS always had a shortage of food and fuel. These scarcities have influenced most aspects of Chinese cusine, including the design and development of cooking utensils. The most obvious manifestation of this influence is the work, which literally means "cooking vessel."

China has done most of its cooking in brazier-type stoves that often look like rectangular boxes with a round hole in the top. The design of the stove concerves the fuel. The round work is the natural accompaniment. The wok's sloping sides hold it in the stove's opening, as well as bringing the central bottom portion of the vessel as close as possible to the fire.

In the United States, the wok is most commonly used for stir-frying, a cooking technique in which bite-sized morsels of food are quickly tossed, turned and flipped. The idea is to move the food about so fast (with a kitchen sppon and spatula) that the food never rests against the hot surface for more than a few seconds at a time. This method cooks the food before the cellular structure of the ingredients break down the juices so the flavors are sealed inside. I once read a description of stir-frying as "a way of surprising food so that it is cooked before it even has time to know it's in the work."

Woks are available in stainless steel, copper, aluminum, iron and carbon steel. They have also been electrified by a number of manufacturers. The use of the wok in our country has become so widespread that virtually every cooking equipment shop from Washington to San Diego considers it a "basic" retail item, like a coffee pot. This popularity has resulted in well over 25 different woks in general distribution.

Among the classic, nonelectric woks, choose the carbon steel or iron.

They will absorb, distribute, conduct and retain heat better than the others. Some of the imported woks are rather shabbily constructed with handles that are so poorly attached that they are virtually guaranteed to detach during the first six months of use.

Do not purchase a work made of thin aluminum. However, anodized aluminum woks will be introduced by General Housewares Corp. in January that will have the advantages of high heat conductivity and light weight, but will not interact with high acid foods as aluminum normally does.

Both iron and carbon steel woks will require -seasoning" before their first use. The technique is simple: Wash the wok with detergent, set it over medium heat for one minute, rub the inside surface with a paper towel dipped in vegetable oil (not olive), set the wok back on medium heat for five minutes, rub off the oil, re-oil, reheat for 15 minutes. The wok is now ready for use.

There are models with simple, ear-like iron handles - hot, but inexpensive: about $10. There are models with wood-covered, ear-like handles - cool to the touch, but higher in price: about $12. And, there are models with a wood-covered, ear-like handle on one side and a long wooden "frying pan" handle on the other, about $12. The best manufacturers or distributors of classic woks are Taylor & Ng and Atlas Metal Spining.

Atlas also makes a bonded metal wok with copper on the outside, a core of aliminum and a lining of stainless steel. This Atlas wok is the Rolls-Royce of woks, but at$90 it belongs in the special purchase category. My personal preference is for the wood handles, either long or ear-like. Not classic, but comfortable. some woks such as Joyce Chen's ae- also packaged with a steamer. If you later decide you want to add a steamer, all round-bottomed woks can be fit with steamers.

Whichever wok you use, make sure it comes with a ring stand. Most of us are confronted with the basic incompatability of the Oriental wok and the Western Stove. The wok has a round bottom and the stove has a flat top. The ring stand is the cultural bridge. It fits around a burner and gives the work a secure base in which to rest. The holes in the side of the ring allow air to enter and feed the flame. Steamers which fit into the bottom of the wok are also a helpful addition. Some woks, such as Joyce Chen's, come equiped with a steamer. However, any round-bottom wok can be fitted for a steamer.

People who use classic woks on electric stoves claim to have excellent results. I myself feel that a classic round-bottomed wok does not absorb sufficient heat on an electric burner. I also feel that electric burners limit the speed at which I can adjust the wok's temperature, a difficulty whic I mitigate by keeping two electric burners on at the same time - one at high and one at low and moving the wok as required.

If you are cooking on an electric range, do not despair. There are a number of slightly flat-bottomed woks available. They will sit stably on electric burners, yet are rounded enough so that a traditional Chinese spatula can be used inside them. A ring stand is not necessary. The flat-bottom Leyse wok sells for about $23 and the Taylor and Ng for $16.49.

In the electric wok category the best are the West Bend model at $50.95 and the Farberware at $49.99. Both models have detachable heat controls so the entire wok can be washed. Grace Chu, the noted Chinese f-od authority, was my first teacher in the art of Oriental cooking and she constantly used electric woks when she was giving cooking demonstrations around the country.

There were reservations about the maximum heat that the electric woks would reach and the speed at which they could change temperature, but on the whole they are excellent. The 12-to 14-inch diameter models are the most convenient sizes for the average home. CAPTION: Pictures 1 through 4, no caption