This goes way beyond the scope of any traditional cookbook and will captivate cooks and non-cooks alike! This is a cookbook that sizzles, sings, and ultimately has you sighing with pleasure. When Grace Young was a child, her father instilled in her a lasting appreciation of wok hay, the highly prized but elusive taste that food achieves when properly stir-fried in a wok.
As an adult Young aspired to create that taste in her own kitchen. Along with award-winning photographer Alan Richardson, Young sought the advice of home cooks, professional chefs, and esteemed culinary teachers like Cecilia Chiang, Florence Lin, and Ken Hom. Their advice, stories, and recipes, gathered in this richly designed and illustrated volume, offer not only expert lessons in the art of wok cooking, but also capture a beautiful and timeless way of life. The recipes are a testament to the versatility of the wok, with stir-fried, smoked, pan-fried, braised, boiled, poached, steamed, and deep-fried dishes that include not only the classics of wok cooking, like Kung Pao Chicken and Moo Shoo Pork, as well as unusual dishes like Sizzling Pepper and Salt Shrimp, Three Teacup Chicken, and Scallion and Ginger Lo Mein.
Also included are menus for family-style meals and for Chinese New Year festivities, including an illustrated glossary and a source guide to purchasing ingredients, woks, and accessories. My friend Walter Chu tells me that they fell victim to stricter government bans on street cooking, although a few illegal dai pai dong were still operating at night. That evening I venture over to the Temple Street night market at dusk in search of the dai pai dong. I walk down a narrow street filled with produce vendors doing brisk business. In preparation for their evening meal, customers peruse an extraordinary array of fresh vegetables.
As night falls a hawker appears and, in no time, sets up a cart with an unusual hat-shaped wok nestled on a portable stove. He begins frying delicious stuffed peppers and eggplant. Suddenly from another direction I smell the appetizing scent of garlic and ginger. Down a side street that had been desolate when I first arrived I spot a row of small fold-up dining tables crowded with customers sitting on stools.
Close by, a cook stir-fries razor clams with black bean sauce in a restaurant-sized wok. With great showmanship he jerks the wok a few times, tossing the clams in the air, forcing a blast of flames from his stove. Two older men intently engaged in conversation, oblivious to the cook's activities, share a simple meal of rice and a stir-fry of pork and bean sprouts. At another table a woman feeds her children. It is hard to believe that this lively dining scene is now a rarity in Hong Kong, but my friend Walter tells me that the dai pai dong appear and disappear depending on the watchfulness of the local officials.
The next day, walking down famous Nathan Road, I'm thrilled to spot a hawker stir-frying chestnuts, one of my favorite Hong Kong street foods. He cooks in a mammoth wok over a charcoal-fueled portable stove. Looking into the wok, I'm fascinated to see how the chestnuts are stir-fried in a mixture that resembles fine ebony-colored gravel; the vendor tells me it's sand with a little sugar. I buy a piping-hot bag and devour the treat as I watch him tend his chestnuts and his steady line of eager customers. I can't help wondering if this is the last time I shall see a chestnut hawker in Hong Kong.
Unquestionably, Hong Kong remains a vital Chinese culinary destination, rich in traditional food customs.
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The chefs and home cooks I interview awe me with their prowess in wok cooking. But unsurpassed as Hong Kong's culinary culture is, it now lacks the old-world wok culture I seek. I am told that the best place to see a wok used on an old-fashioned Chinese hearth stove is a museum in the New Territories. A few ancestral homes still have such stoves, but they are difficult to locate. To find wok cooking on boats, there is only one floating restaurant left in Hong Kong, now a popular tourist attraction. I'm advised to view the historical photographs of Guangzhou's restaurant boats in the Hong Kong Museum of History.
I cannot fathom that I must go to a museum to see the wok. According to Hong Kong heritage researcher Nevin Lim, the wok street culture I seek disappeared in the last few decades as Hong Kong became more Westernized. When carbon-steel woks are produced, the heat is extremely intense, and the sound of the hammering is deafening. In addition, the high cost of labor shifted the manufacturing of woks to mainland China, where costs are dramatically lower.
As the standard of living has improved, the wok repairmen who used to make house calls also became obsolete. No one repairs a wok when a new one is so cheap," Lim explains. I suspect the dai pai dong street vendors at Temple Street night market and the chestnut hawkers will soon vanish, too. Perhaps their legacy will be preserved by a few photographs in a Hong Kong museum. The intent of my trip was to observe the many facets of wok culture, but instead it feels like I'm documenting its last vestiges.
It seems all the more important to locate as much traditional wok culture as I can, recording it before it becomes extinct. On my first morning in Foshan, in Guangdong province, China, my auntie and uncle promise to take me to breakfast at the best dai pai dong. I had imagined that this ancient city would offer a more rustic experience of China, but our taxi drive along a big boulevard passing enormous modern buildings, a McDonald's, and a billboard advertising Kentucky Fried Chicken quickly dispels that notion. My heart sinks as the taxi stops in front of a super-modern complex.
As we enter the mall, my uncle proudly says this dai pai dong has outstanding food.
The Breath of a Wok | Grace Young
We step off the escalator onto the third floor, where a modern Chinese-style food court is in full swing with a long row of cooks isolated behind a glass wall. I try to explain to my auntie and uncle that I want to see traditional wok culture. But I can tell they are perplexed by my request. Why would I be interested in seeing "old China" when its modern face is so much more impressive? Foshan, I learn, has transcended its 1,year history to become a model of China's economic modernization.
Dai pai dong have been banned by a government intent on promoting a cosmopolitan image. In answer to my request to see a wok factory, my uncle explains that Guangdong province, like Hong Kong, has grown too prosperous for wok manufacturing. After days of persistent inquiry, I learn from my cousin of a dai pai dong in a nearby town--a night restaurant set up in the parking lot of a supermarket.
We arrive late in the evening, just as the last customers are leaving the supermarket. Tables and chairs are set up as diners begin to filter in, and by midnight the dai pai dong is bustling. My cousin convinces the owner to take me into the cooking area, which turns out to be the kitchen of a small street-front restaurant by day. The small blackened kitchen has a long commercial stove with several wok stations. The large woks are pitch black and warped by the extreme heat of the flames.
Servers place dishes on the center table. Every minute or so the flames leap up around the wok at one or two stations. The cook gives the contents a final toss and then empties the wok onto the waiting dish. After a quick garnish the plate is rushed out to the tables. This furious pace continues until two in the morning, when the crowd starts to thin and the dai pai dong closes up; the scene reverts to a deserted parking lot. As we drive away my cousin points out the telltale signs of dai pai dong breaking up along several side streets.
Like Temple Street night market, these nightly street gatherings have an energy and warmth made all the more attractive to me because of their chimera-like quality--appearing and disappearing right before my eyes. My uncle, now enthusiastic about my adventure, calls me the next morning to tell me he has found a wok factory located on the outskirts of Foshan. He and my cousin's wife will take me. As we drive along I learn that my cousin's wife and her girlfriends rarely cook, and that when they do, they prefer nonstick cookware.
My uncle regales me with a story about close friends who recently purchased an expensive nonstick wok from Japan. It is obvious that my interest in traditional wok culture remains baffling to them. We arrive at a large dark factory made of rough-hewn timbers and ragged brick. Outside, a cluster of women hand-polish a large stack of newly pounded woks.
The bone-rattling throb of machinery resounds from inside the factory. When I enter, it takes a few moments for my eyes to adjust to the dim light. The massive room reveals a scene that looks to me like something out of a Dickens novel. Individual workers are seated in front of large timber-constructed hammering stations.
A heavy metal piston, as large as the worker himself, is poised perilously above a carbon-steel disc that the worker holds under the piston as a thick metal rod is driven forth, all the while keeping his hands and head out of the path of the forceful pounding rod. The piston is powered by a pulley system, and the worker quickly rotates the disc before the metal rod is driven down again. This process is repeated until all irregularities are pounded out of the metal disc and a perfectly curved new wok results.
Each worker stays at his task for long hours, despite the deafening sound of the pistons, producing a new wok every hour and a half. As I walk through the factory, passing a dozen or so of these pounding stations, I am reminded of the wok cooking rhythms--of the actions of spinning and turning, and of the close observation required for the task at hand. As with the wok warrior chefs, the hazards of the work are enormous.
At the end of our tour, in a separate area of the factory, two young workers, surrounded by stacks of fresh woks, pound rivets into ear handles. As we prepare to leave, the factory manager presents me with a wok he has carefully chosen from the stacks. We are all--even my uncle and cousin--impressed by the quality of this old-fashioned piece of cookware.
I offer it to my uncle as a gift, and he accepts it with a smile. My next destination lies in the interior of southern China, a city called Yangshuo. My friend David, knowing my mania for Chinese culinary culture, has put me in touch with Liang Nian Xiu, a rice farmer and part-time tour guide. She is a small bundle of energy with a big smile. I like her at once. We stow my gear at the Hong Fu, a beautiful Qing dynasty temple cum French inn where I am to lodge, and then head to the market.
I am immediately taken by the difference in this rural area.
The streets are lined with vegetable and fruit sellers. Each shoulders produce in hand-woven baskets hung from a bamboo yoke. Most vendors squat beside their produce along the sides of the street, but others work the street itself, using the yoke to weave their baskets through the crowd. The produce is fresh and abundant. As we wind our way down one narrow street, the fruit sellers give way to food stalls, and then to cooking stations surrounded by small stools and tables for eating.
In the center is a covered area filled with vendors using only woks to stir-fry, braise, steam, and deep-fry food of every variety. Each wok is stationed on top of a small metal drum, and through a side hole I can see burning red-hot coals.
I stop to watch a woman making cakes from green dough. She presses them into a mold before placing them in a bamboo steamer set in a wok. As she works, her partner lifts the wok off the burner and, using a pair of tongs, removes a whitened honeycomb-shaped piece of charcoal from the drum. Immediately she replaces the spent fuel with another piece, which is pitch black. This simple heating source is used to power the woks.
I expect the air to be foul and choking. Instead it is filled with the wonderful aromas of food cooking.
In the central area, on a table covered with a brightly patterned oilcloth, there is a row of spicy condiments in colorful bowls. One diner sits on a stool eating a bowl of noodles. I try not to stare, but I am so drawn to this scene, wanting to know what each bowl, each plate, each wok contains. Next to the noodle stand I see joong Chinese-style tamales heating on a steamer; beyond that, bean sprouts are being stir-fried with scallions, batter is being poured into a wok filled with hot fat for frying, and a large fowl is being lowered into a bath of boiling herbs.
Beside me, there is a large wok covered with a thin wooden lid. On top of the lid are stacks of bamboo steamers catching the steam as it pours through holes in the surface of the wood. Food is being prepared all around me. Bowls of soup with bits of thinly sliced meat cook in a hot broth.
Crispy fritters and pancakes frying in oil are strained out. Eggs steep in a soy sauce marinade. Thin rice pancakes brown in a large wok. Sitting at the little stools, the customers hold rice bowls up to their lips, using chopsticks or a Chinese spoon to eat. Many diners are alone; others sit in groups of two and three enjoying a meal together. It seems I have found the wok culture I seek. But to do it I have had to travel back in time to a place not yet transformed by Western-style development.
The Breath of a Wok
I feel ecstatic and exhausted. And tomorrow Liang Xiu is going to cook for me. The next morning as I float down the Dragon River on a bamboo raft, I watch Liang Xiu pedal her bike along the small trails that run through the golden rice fields. We are on our way to her home in the village of Moon Hill. Small mountains that look like brush strokes surround the glowing rice fields, and clumps of bamboo and acacia dot the landscape.
We arrive first at Liang Xiu's mother's birthplace, a "minority" village. As we make our way through the stone alleys of the nearly deserted village, Liang Xiu tells me how the villagers overthrew the landlord during the time of the Cultural Revolution. Now the few remaining villagers use the old kitchen of the landlord's house. Liang Xiu takes me into the main house.
The kitchen is just inside the central courtyard. She grins because she knows I have been looking for an example of a large communal-type wok. There are two in this kitchen, and they are huge--at least forty-two inches in diameter--and sit on an immense hearth stove. Large enough to cook the food for the entire village, they were used for everything. Today the village women boil soybeans in them for making tofu. They are also used for fermenting sweet potatoes or rice when making wine.
Liang Xiu tells me that in villages, a wok this size can be used to feed the animals, even to boil water for washing clothes or bathing. I try to lift one of the massive woks, but it is far too heavy for me. Liang Xiu gives me a hand, but only her side lifts off the stove. Liang Xiu has one other surprise for me before we reach her home.
We head for the village blacksmith whose hammering I can hear from the end of the street. Upon entering the metal shop, I see the blacksmith, Mr. Wan, is holding a piece of rough-cut iron in a coal forge. He uses a fan to increase the heat of the fire. As he holds the metal in the flames it begins to glow red and then white. He pulls the metal from the fire, tosses it onto an anvil, and pounds it with his hammer. I suddenly realize that he is making a wok for me. The blacksmith tells me that wok making is not his full-time occupation, but if someone in the village wants a wok or needs to have one repaired, they come to him.
The shop looks like something out of the American Wild West, with metal parts scattered about. A few extra discs have already been cut for woks. The wok-making work is slow and loud, and the blacksmith asks us if we want to come back later. The wok will be ready in two hours. I am hungry and excited about cooking with Liang Xiu, so we head for her home. Liang Xiu's outdoor kitchen opens onto a garden in back where we are surrounded by her fruit trees and chickens. She plans to cook three dishes for me: Liang Xiu removes the pork from the screened safe where she stores most of her staples and utensils.
She chops it together with garlic, scallions, cilantro, chilies, and shiitake mushrooms, perfuming the air with the wonderful smell of fresh herbs. She removes several chicken and duck eggs from the safe, cracks them into a bowl, and, using a pair of bamboo chopsticks, beats them with salt. They turn a dark, rich, almost amber color. Liang Xiu pushes a couple of rice stalks through the stoke hole and into the burning chamber of her traditional hearth stove. The flames leap into the air, and she pours a small amount of oil into the wok.
She gives it a quick swirl and adds a spoonful of the beaten eggs. They sputter and fry, and while the egg is still loose, she drops a spoonful of pork mixture into its center. Using a spatula, she folds the egg over the pork mixture once and then again, to form a fat cigar. Liang Xiu pushes the "omelet" higher up the side of the wok, where it continues to cook at a lower heat. The moment the center of the wok is empty, she spoons in more egg and repeats the process.
When the new omelet is ready to be pushed up the side of the wok, she removes the first one to a side dish. After a few omelets, the fire dies down and Liang Xiu increases the heat by adding a new rice stalk to the fire. Once all of the egg and pork has been used, Liang Xiu returns the entire batch of little omelets to the wok and adds the mushroom soaking liquid. By now the fire is low. Liang Xiu places a lid on the wok and allows the omelets to braise over this low heat for a few minutes.
When she removes the lid, steam rushes out and she places the juicy omelets on a platter, tops them with cilantro, and brings them directly to the table.
Unlocking the Spirit of Chinese Wok Cooking Through Recipes and Lore
A little spicy and so tender, the omelets are unbelievably delicious. As I watch Liang Xiu cook, I realize that this stove is the very type I was told to find in a museum. The brick stove with stoke hole and fire chamber has been in existence since the Han dynasty, its fuel efficiency dictated by centuries of shortages and need. In fact, the entire workplace is a marvel of efficiency. The brick retains the heat from the burning chamber, allowing Liang Xiu to cook over high heat or low heat when the fire subsides. After lunch, we return to Mr.
He presents me with a very rustic wok, crafted from a sheet of recycled metal. It is nearly flat and about 15 inches in diameter, with a carefully repaired hole in the center and a welded seam on one end. It is clear that this wok is made for rugged use. Liang Xiu and I decide that it is perfect for frying potstickers. I leave rural Yangshuo for cosmopolitan Shanghai, where I am excited to find that dai pai dong and street cooking thrive.
Even more amazing, it had never occurred to me that woks were still being handmade in such a modern city. In a residential neighborhood far from the skyscrapers and big boulevards, past open markets bustling with shoppers, I hear the unmistakable sound of metal being hammered. I follow the sound to a small outdoor area where two men sit crouched, working alternately at heating pairs of carbon-steel discs on a forced-air charcoal burner and then carefully hammering them into woks.
Cen Lian Gen, a boyish-looking man, is shy to answer my questions at first. Through an interpreter I ask about his woks and their quality. He stops his work and brings me into his "shop. Stacks of woks make it hard to move around what little floor space remains.
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The woks are beautiful, with rich, dull, pebbled finishes and exquisite crafting. They are like nothing I have ever seen before. In Shanghainese Cen explains that his father started the business more than seventy years ago, and that he and his brother, Cen Rong Gen, have continued producing the famous hand-hammered carbon-steel woks, which they call fire-iron woks. Each one requires at least five hours to produce. Hand-hammering changes the structure of the metal, giving it greater strength and durability," Cen tells me.