The Breath of a Wok
Breath of a Wok
Publication Date: September 2, 2004
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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. Her quest to master wok cooking led her throughout the United States, Hong Kong, and mainland China. 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 instructions, 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.
With its emphasis on cooking with all the senses, The Breath of a Wok brings the techniques and flavors of old-world wok cooking into today's kitchen, enabling anyone to stir-fry with wok hay. IACP award-winner Young details the fundamentals of selecting, seasoning, and caring for a wok, as well as the range of the wok's uses; this surprisingly inexpensive utensil serves as the ultimate multipurpose kitchen tool. The 125 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, but also unusual dishes like Sizzling Pepper and Salt Shrimp, Three Teacup Chicken, and Scallion and Ginger Lo Mein. Young's elegant prose and Richardson's extraordinary photographs create a unique and unforgettable picture of artisan wok makers in mainland China, street markets in Hong Kong, and a "wok-a-thon" in which Young's family of aunties, uncles, and cousins cooks together in a lively exchange of recipes and stories. A visit with author Amy Tan also becomes a family event when Tan and her sisters prepare New Year's dumplings. Additionally, there are menus for family-style meals and for Chinese New Year festivities, an illustrated glossary, and a source guide to purchasing ingredients, woks, and accessories.
Written with the intimacy of a memoir and the immediacy of a travelogue, this recipe-rich volume is a celebration of cultural and culinary delights.
I grew up in San Francisco surrounded, on the one hand, by the immigrant Chinese traditions of my family and relatives, and, on the other, by an innovative American culinary culture. My earliest memories of food are of the extraordinary meals my mother and father prepared for us (my brother and me) and of the efforts they made to ensure that we ate well. Their care was not only a matter of selecting the freshest ingredients, but also for the authenticity with which they replicated the traditional Cantonese dishes of their youth in China during the 1930s and forties. This connection to the cooking of old-world China coupled with the discovery of Julia Child on television (and her “exotic” dishes) shaped my lifelong affair with food and cooking. At the age of thirteen I began an apprenticeship with Josephine Araldo, a French cooking teacher. Those lessons initiated an exploration of other cuisines and led me, eventually, to my career in food.
I spent much of my early professional life as the test kitchen director for over forty cookbooks published by Time Life Books. In the early nineties, after growing weary of producing what had become soulless work with formulaic recipes, I developed a yearning to reconnect to the tastes and foods of my childhood. Over the next few years, I made numerous trips back to San Francisco from my home in New York to cook with my 70-year old mother and 82-year old father. It took much cajoling and great persistence to convince them to teach me their recipes. At the beginning, my focus was on a precise recording of the recipes. Eventually, and to my great surprise, as we cooked my parents, who had always been reticent about their past, began to share memories of their lives in China and accounts of their early days in America. This is how I came to learn a large part of my family’s history. What started as a little recipe project soon blossomed into a memoir cookbook, The Wisdom of the Chinese Kitchen, which was published by Simon & Schuster [simonandschuster.com] in 1999. The book was awarded the IACP [iacp.com] Le Cordon Bleu Best International Cookbook Award, in addition to being a finalist for an IACP First Cookbook Award, and a James Beard [jamesbeard.org] World International Cookbook Award. It was also featured in a special segment on CBS Sunday Morning. Many of the relatives and friends who taught me their recipes and shared their stories have since passed away. The Wisdom of the Chinese Kitchen feels to me now almost like a treasured family album.
My second cookbook, The Breath of a Wok, grew out of the realization that most Chinese Americans know little about their own culinary traditions, specifically wok cooking. I had become aware also of how cooks in China were abandoning their classic, well-seasoned iron woks for inferior nonstick cookware. In a tribute to wok cookery and out of a desire to reignite its popularity, I partnered with Alan Richardson to create what the acclaimed food historian and author Betty Fussell described as, “a bridge between cultures for a Chinese-American in search of history and destiny. It is a remarkable collaboration between a writer and a photographer that reveals what the wok symbolizes---a craft, an art, a container of communal harmony and balance.” That book won the IACP Le Cordon Bleu Best International Cookbook Award, the Jane Grigson Award for Distinguished Scholarship, and the World Food Media Awards’ Best Food Book [worldfoodmediaawards.com]. It was also featured in the New York Times [http://tinyurl.com/y93gbj], on NPR’s All Things Considered [http://tinyurl.com/ddj2pv] and was selected as one of the best cookbooks of the year by Food & Wine[foodandwine.com], Fine Cooking [finecooking.com], Bon Appétit [bonappetit.com], and Epicurious[epicurious.com].
The Breath of a Wok led me to the adventure of traveling with my carbon-steel wok (in my hand-carry baggage) on a 25-city tour for the culinary retailer Sur la Table [surlatable.com] to teach the art of wok cooking. I published further articles on Chinese cooking in Gourmet, Bon Appétit, Eating Well [eatingwell.com], and Saveur [saveur.com], where I am a contributing editor. The book also brought me speaking engagements at the Culinary Institute at Greystone [ciachef.edu/California], China Institute [chinainstitute.org], New York University Asian/Pacific/American Institute [nyu-apastudies.org/new/index.php], the San Francisco Asian Art Museum [asianart.org], The French Culinary Institute [frenchculinary.com], and the Chinese Historical Society of America [chsa.org].
In 2006 I began work on Stir-Frying to the Sky’s Edge. This effort was dedicated to the effort of empowering home cooks to stir-fry with confidence. It explores everything from the origins and health benefits of stir-frying to the technique’s great economy of time and fuel. In 2011, the book won a James Beard Foundation Award for best international cookbook. I was also awarded an IACP Culinary Trust [theculinarytrust.org] eGullet Society for Culinary Arts & Letters Culinary Journalist Independent Study Scholarship which funded my research travel to Trinidad, Germany, Holland, Canada, and the United States to study the stir-fries of the Chinese diaspora. While Stir-Frying to the Sky’s Edge concentrates on traditional stir-fries, it is also filled with remarkable stories of how this simple, beloved cooking technique has enabled generations of Chinese around the world to eat well and with exquisite economy. My interview subjects include Chinese who grew up in such far-flung locations as Peru, Jamaica, Burma, Malaysia, Singapore, Taiwan, Vietnam, Macau, India, Indonesia, South Africa, and the Mississippi Delta.
My passion for recording and preserving Chinese culinary traditions continues to lead me in quest of home cooks who understand and enjoy the benefits Chinese cooking. If you have a comfort food that is at risk of being lost or a story to share, it would be my great delight to learn of them. Please feel free to contact me: www.graceyoung.com.
Amy Tan, author of The Opposite of Fate: A Book of Musings and The Joy Luck Club
Grace Young takes us into the heart of wok cooking -- from the master cooks of China to the culinary luminaries of the United States. We're privileged to hear the age-old secrets of seasoning a wok and the stories behind family recipes. This is a cookbook that sizzles, sings, and ultimately has you sighing with pleasure.
Ming Tsai, chef-owner of Blue Ginger and author of Simply Ming The Breath of a Wok will bring to you a new appreciation of Chinese culinary history. Grace takes us on an unforgettable journey, traveling throughout China's provinces to learn about this ancient culinary tool, accompanied by the phenomenal photography of Alan Richardson.
Betty Fussell, author of My Kitchen Wars: A Memoir If you've never used a wok, you must have this book. If you've always used a wok, you must have this book. This book is not just about the care and feeding of the wok as a useful kitchen pan, but 'the wok as a way of life,' a bridge between cultures for a Chinese American in search of history and destiny. It is also a remarkable collaboration between a writer and a photographer seeking to integrate text and images in a form that reveals what the wok symbolizes -- a craft, an art, a container of communal harmony and balance.
Deborah Madison, author of Local Flavors: Cooking and Eating from America's Farmers' Markets The Breath of a Wok is a truly inspired book. I loved every piece of it -- from the journey into the complex and fading world of wok culture to the pictures of the people cooking to the recipes. This is the ideal book on food -- history, culture, people, and recipes all together, as they should be.
Lynne Rossetto Kasper, host of public radio's national food show The Splendid Table® What a joy this book is. If you're a rookie cook, Grace Young is a generous, profoundly knowledgeable guide. If you live to stir-fry, Grace will be your new guru. The Breath of a Wok is an "A" list work.
Pang-Mei Natasha Chang, author of Bound Feet & Western Dress: A Memoir I've been in Chinese kitchens all my life, but Grace Young has opened my eyes to the splendor of the wok and its place in Chinese culture. This tribute to the workhorse of Chinese cooking resonates with the passion of a travelogue and intimacy of a memoir.
Paula Wolfert, author of The Slow Mediterranean Kitchen: Recipes for a Passionate Cook Grace Young's The Breath of a Wok is an exciting addition to my collection. I now at last understand wok hay, the sublime seared taste that only great stir-fry dishes possess. Anyone who loves Chinese food will learn much from this beautifully written book.
E. N. Anderson, author of The Food of China The Breath of a Wok is the best and most thorough book on the wok so far. No one else has stepped forward to evaluate the different materials and seasoning methods so thoroughly. It reminded me of wonderful days in the now-long-lost world of Hong Kong.
Ken Hom, author of Ken Hom's Top 100 Stir Fries Grace Young weaves wok stories and savory recipes with clear instructions; she makes you understand why the wok is one of the world's most popular cooking utensils.