Grace Young doesn't just talk the talk. She woks the wok, determined to preserve a 2,000-year-old tradition that she believes is on the brink of extinction. "In America, the wok has become an endangered cooking utensil in the home," says the native San Franciscan, whose new book The Breath of a Wok demystifies the big pan.
"Don't get me wrong," she warns. "The wok will always be used in Chinese restaurants. But there has been a huge movement in the United States [toward] nonstick-coated cookware, which I find really appalling because the more you cook in a wok, the more it naturally becomes nonstick. Yet most people are intimidated by the wok because they don't understand the principles of seasoning" -- a process that is traditionally called "opening" the wok -- "and then keeping a pan for years. I also find it really sad to see that that old-world wok cooking tradition is not being passed on."
As a descendant of elders who emigrated during the Japanese occupation of China, Young is acutely aware that a lot of other Chinese Americans grew up in wokless homes. She understands all too well how easy it is to eschew traditional cooking techniques and finally to forget and lose them.
"For Chinese Americans, as with Italian Americans or Mexican Americans or African Americans, all of us now live such quick and fast lives that it's difficult to pass on our culinary heritage" -- all the more reason, she insists, that it behooves us all to record family recipes.
"The taste of your own family's cooking is one of the greatest comforts a person can have," says Young, adding that a meal made with a wok is "a connection in my soul to the long lineage of Chinese cooks before me."
The daughter of a liquor salesman who knew all of Chinatown's top chefs, Young remembers countless family outings at local restaurants: Her father would hurry into the kitchen to ensure that the meal would exude wok hay, a Cantonese term which Young defines as the "prized, elusive, seared taste that comes only from stir-frying in a wok." To achieve wok hay, small amounts of food must be stir-fried rapidly over an extremely high heat and then eaten almost as quickly because that essence lingers only for a few minutes; once the food starts to cool off, it's gone.
Part memoir and part anthropological exploration, The Breath of a Wok includes 125 recipes for stir-fried, smoked, pan-fried, braised, boiled, poached, steamed, and deep-fried dishes supplied by home cooks and master chefs such as Martin Yan, Ming Tsai, and Florence Lin. Oakland-born Amy Tan makes an appearance in the book too, as Young describes Tan preparing New Year dumplings with her sisters.
Woks became trendy implements in American kitchens circa 1972 and have been mainstays ever since. But most of their owners still have no idea how to use them, ending up with goopy stews and watery steamed chunks that many cooks try to convince themselves "taste Asian," yet lack any trace of wok hay.
Horrified by such misconceptions, Young staged a "wok-a-thon" a few years ago, inviting her entire extended family in hopes of yielding classic examples of wok hay while creating recipes for the book she planned to write. Unfortunately, only one of the relatives showed up with a wok. Everyone else brought skillets, which put Young and her collaborator, award-winning food photographer Alan Richardson, in serious doubt about the future of their project. If even her own family members had given up on the wok, then why bother to write a book about it? Richardson noted with despair that the Westernization of Chinese Americans was making woks pretty much obsolete in this country. Young sought inspiration -- and hope -- in her childhood memories of Hong Kong, scene of family vacations during which she witnessed what she calls "wok culture" everywhere. She cherished those long-ago images of Hong Kongers not only cooking in woks on city streets, but also washing clothes and dishes in woks and using the pans to perform other household chores.
Arriving in Hong Kong with Richardson, Young got a shock. Aiming to give the streets a cleaner look, the government had officially banned the use of woks outdoors. But over the border in mainland China, the coauthors found old-world wok culture embodied in street vendors who prepared alfresco meals and snacks in woks heated by portable incinerators -- often late at night.
Last fall, Young and Richardson were guest curators for a wok exhibition at New York University'sAsian/Pacific/American Gallery. But for the author, they aren't mere artifacts. At home, in front of the stove, she sets her flat-bottomed carbon-steel pan on the burner and turns the heat up very, very high.
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