One wok runs to the sky's edge
My fascination with the wok began at an early age. From the time I was a child, I was taught to respect wok hay—the prized, elusive, seared taste that comes only from stir-frying in a wok. I remember our family dinners in San Francisco's Chinatown as lessons in Chinese culinary appreciation. My father, Baba, knew all the best chefs, and rather than order from the menu, his custom was to stroll into a restaurant's kitchen to discuss with the chef what was best to eat that day. A reserved man, he rarely displayed his emotions, but those visits to the kitchen always charged him with an infectious excitement.
"I asked the chef to give us extra wok hay tonight," he would tell us.
When the first dish arrived, usually Baba's favorite—a stir-fry of clams in black bean sauce or a simple stir-fry of ginger and Chinese broccoli—it was wickedly hot, perfumed with an intoxicating aroma. "Ni dib sung yao wok hay" (This dish has wok hay), Baba would declare, highly pleased. We admired the dish as if we had won a prize. Then, knowing wok hay lingers only for a few minutes, we would relish those first irresistible succulent morsels. The taste, the experience of wok hay, always conferred a feeling of our good fortune.
Baba liked to describe how the chef had cooked such delicious food: "The powerful flames heat the giant woks until they are nearly red-hot," he'd tell us. "The chef stir-fries the dish in a matter of moments, often manning two woks simultaneously." I wanted so much to see for myself, but it was unthinkable for a little girl to enter a restaurant kitchen. Still, it was easy for me to imagine wok hay as the fiery breath of a wok, imparting a special life force or essence from the wok into the food. In my father's dialect, Cantonese, hay (more familiar to non-Chinese readers spelled chi or qi, from the Mandarin pronunciation of the character) is breath—the Chinese concept of vital energy that flows through the body.
On occasion, the restaurant's chef would come out of the kitchen to visit our table. My parents, delighted, showered him with praise, acknowledging his expertise. "The Cantonese chefs are the masters of stir-frying—only they know how to achieve wok hay," my father would boast. While the chef would smile humbly, he nevertheless would always nod in agreement. I felt as though I was meeting a celebrity after an outstanding performance.
When I was ten years old my family visited Hong Kong, where my father took every opportunity to point out how the Cantonese excelled in stir-frying. We saw dai pai dong, outdoor food stalls where cooks stir-fried in woks alongside their customers. We ate in fine restaurants and were invited to dine in friends' homes. Regardless of the locale, the stir-fries had an intense wok hay that was unlike anything I had tasted before. It was in Hong Kong that I realized the connoisseurship of wok hay extended beyond my parents. Aunties, uncles, and family friends were equally discerning and critical, forever discussing the merits of a dish.
When my parents cooked at home, they also aspired to stir-fries with the ineffable wok hay. Their efforts began with shopping and selecting only vegetables in season. If an ingredient was not fresh, my parents taught me, no matter how great the technique, it would be impossible to achieve wok hay.
When my parents married in 1949, my mother, newly arrived from China, did not know how to cook. I used to wonder if wanting to become assimilated had influenced her decision to adopt some Western customs into her life, such as using modern American cookware. Of course flat-bottomed woks did not exist in America at that time, and from a practical point of view, a skillet attained the heat so necessary for stir-frying far better than a round-bottomed wok on my parents' electric stove. So while my father was adamant in the belief that serious Chinese cooking required a wok, he himself used a skillet. Forced to used a skillet, my father was often dissatisfied with his stir-fries, lamenting that they lacked wok hay. One of his favorite dishes, stir-fried butterfly fish and bean sprouts, provided a constant challenge. The cooking of the delicate fish slices requires no more than a minute of heat. I remember watching him furiously trying to turn all the fish slices in the skillet with a spatula before they overcooked. Years later when a chef told me the weakness of stir-frying in a skillet is that you must "chase ingredients around a pan," I had a vivid image of my father's struggles.
While I understood the reasons my parents did not use a wok, I felt drawn to it. Undeterred by my father's warnings that a wok did not work on an American stove, I bought my first wok while I was in college. Unaccustomed to the concept of seasoning a wok, I soon found myself with a slightly rusted cooking utensil, and food stuck to it when I stir-fried. It was years before I purchased my next wok, but ultimately that pan acquired a greasy stickiness. Worse yet, my stir-fries sometimes tasted faintly metallic. I eventually decided that the wok was too troublesome and gave it away.
Often I wondered if my choice of wok had been the problem. In some ways I think it was my fate to walk into the Hung Chong wok store in New York's Chinatown and impulsively purchase a flat-bottomed carbon-steel wok. As an afterthought, I asked the store clerk how to season it. She instructed me to buy some Chinese chives at the produce stand and to wash the wok with soapy water to remove the factory grease. After drying the pan, I was to stir-fry the chives in the wok with oil. The chives, she explained, would absorb the wok's metallic taste.
It made perfect sense, I thought, to season the wok by stir-frying. At the produce stand, the vendor spied the wok handle sticking out of my bag. "Ahh, you must be seasoning your new wok," he said with a smile. It was a revelation. Not only had I unwittingly uncovered an ancient cooking secret, it seemed, but I'd made a culinary soul connection. I later discovered that seasoning a wok with chives is an old culinary ritual practiced by both home cooks and professional chefs. Here I was a Chinese American, in modern-day New York City, and I'd accidentally stumbled upon a valuable piece of traditional Chinese wok lore.
The simple seasoning instructions worked perfectly. The flat-bottomed wok heated up quickly and produced a much higher heat than the round-bottomed woks I had previously tried. In the next weeks, as the pan acquired a patina, the wok gradually developed a nonstick surface. I recognized how easy and efficient cooking in a wok was—and how much more I enjoyed stir-frying. This was the seasoned wok I had always imagined.
Nonetheless, a seasoned wok was only a part of the puzzle—it did not elevate my cooking skills.
I was "doing my own thing" with the wok, and I was sometimes pleased with my stir-fries. But I was aware that my cooking lacked technique. I wanted the taste of wok hay and to learn the secrets of how experienced cooks stir-fried with a wok. I aspired, as my father had, to excellence.
This compelling desire to know sent me and my collaborator, Alan Richardson, on a journey throughout America, Hong Kong, and mainland China. We sought home cooks, professional chefs, and culinary teachers, asking each their advice on wok cooking. The expertise ranged from that of legendary culinary luminaries such as cooking teacher Florence Lin and famed restaurateur Cecilia Chiang to rice farmer Liang Nian Xiu and my Uncle Lang in Foshan, China. It was my good fortune that each cook demonstrated his or her stir-frying technique by preparing a favorite dish or two.
My wok culinary studies became not only an extraordinary education in the wok but a unique documentation of the wok as a way of life. There were many lessons learned along the way. As each cook stir-fried for me, I wrote detailed notes on the style, material, and size of the wok; the marinade and sauce combinations; the heat levels and cooking times; whether they used a spatula, ladle, or the pao action to toss the ingredients in the wok. I observed their movements as if I were watching a dancer's routine. Cooks stir-fry guided by their instincts, monitoring not only visual cues but their sense of smell, taste, touch, and hearing.
While the conditions of a restaurant kitchen are completely different from those of a home, I wanted to see how professionals stir-fry, especially to garner tips on achieving wok hay. Traveling to Hong Kong and Guangzhou (Canton), I discovered that the finest Chinese restaurants rely solely on hand-hammered carbon-steel woks. No kitchen would ever attempt to use a skillet or nonstick cookware, especially to achieve wok hay. Every chef I met followed the hot wok-cold oil principle for stir-frying. I learned that if oil is added to a wok that has not been pre-heated, any food that is added will stick. The wok must be hot just to the point of smoking before oil is added. It was stunning to witness the ferocious heat of Chinese restaurant stoves. Thirty-five years after my father's restaurant visitations, I was finally allowed in the kitchen. Just as my father had described, superior stir-frying requires high heat and the shortest cooking time.
While my journey began with the focus on stir-frying and my fascination with wok hay, cooks showed me numerous other techniques as well. I soon learned the chameleon-like power of the wok as it was used for steaming, pan-frying, deep-frying, poaching, braising, boiling, and smoking. This extraordinary range of techniques far exceeds those that can be used in a pot or skillet. It was staggering to realize that nearly the entire repertoire of Chinese cuisine can be cooked in a wok.
Throughout my wok studies I experimented with countless varieties of woks to determine what styles and materials worked best on the American stove. I tested northern-style, Cantonese-style, and flat-bottomed woks. I tried Chinese cast-iron, enamel-lined Chinese cast-iron, American cast-iron, carbon-steel (hand-hammered, spun, and stamped), stainless-steel with aluminum core, anodized aluminum, five-layer, and even nonstick. I tracked down wok factories, wok artisans, wok stove factories, and specialty wok shops, learning from each the qualities necessary for a durable and superior cooking wok. In order to determine what method produces the best patina on carbon-steel and cast-iron woks, I tested numerous seasoning "recipes" gathered from cooks in China and the West.
Remembering how tentative I once was, it is all the more satisfying that the seasoning, maintaining, and use of a cast-iron or carbon-steel wok is no longer a mystery. But most empowering of all is to stir-fry fully confident that I know how to achieve wok hay. Beyond that, my wok is no longer simply a piece of cookware. It embodies all the rich stories and traditions that make Chinese cuisine so remarkable.
In the process of exploring wok traditions I discovered how common my family's choice to forgo the wok is among Chinese Americans. Assimilation and the demands of working life have seriously eroded Chinese culinary culture. When the Chinese came to America in the mid-1800s, they brought with them the traditions of wok cooking. Today the transmission of family recipes and the rituals of wok cooking are no longer an assumed inheritance. It often saddens me to realize generations of Chinese are growing up with no understanding of the wok's long history or of its use.
In China, the wok as a cooking instrument endures because nothing comes close to its versatility and efficiency. In what is left of the rich, old-world cooking culture, the wok is used on a traditional hearth stove, snugly fitted into a hole over the heat chamber. This approach is far different from that of the West, where the wok sits on a metal ring atop a contemporary stove. The old-world method provides a culinary link between the past and present, a glimpse into a vanished era. Today the wok remains the center of family life in much of China. It is the iron thread that connects two thousand years of Chinese culinary history.
In addition to collecting traditional recipes of authentic Chinese wok cooking, my mission with this book became to create both a written and visual document of wok cooking and old-world wok culture. While in Hong Kong I learned the expression "Yad wok jao tin ngaai," or "One wok runs to the sky's edge." It has two interpretations: "The wok endures eternally, all the way to the edge of the sky" and "One who uses the wok becomes master of the cooking world."
A Note About the Text
This book is written in my voice, but it is the result of my collaborative partnership with Alan Richardson. Like the Taoist symbol of yin and yang, our respective contributions spilled over into the other's domain, creating an exceptional rapport, a balancing act, that only deepened as the project progressed. Where my voice leaves off, you might very well hear a Richardson whisper.
Notes to the Reader
This book celebrates the Chinese cast-iron and carbon-steel wok. Traditional Cantonese cooks believe that an iron wok imparts wok hay, the special taste of the wok, to the food. Throughout this book I have followed the convention established in my last book and used the spelling wok hay, even though the standardized Cantonese spelling is wok hei. I have taken this liberty because the spelling hei can lead to an incorrect pronunciation for the non-Chinese speaker. I feel that hay is a closer representation of the Cantonese pronunciation. Chinese terms are rendered in romanized spellings of their Cantonese pronunciations, except for several words already familiar to readers in romanized Mandarin such as: Beijing, Sichuan, and Guangzhou.
If you do not have a traditional wok, all of the recipes are still delicious cooked in a skillet. However, I urge you to experience cooking in a traditional wok, for not only is it easier but the taste is incomparable.
How the Recipes Are Organized
Selection, Seasoning, and Care includes a selection of my favorite seasoning "recipes" with detailed instructions for curing a carbon-steel or Chinese-made cast-iron wok.
The majority of recipes are in The Art of Stir-Frying, organized by food categories—poultry, meat, seafood, rice and noodles, and vegetables. The recipes range in complexity from easy to advanced stir-fries. Here you'll learn the secrets of how Chinese professional chefs and home cooks stir-fry with wok hay, the coveted taste and aroma I call the breath of a wok.
However, no Chinese cook uses the wok solely for stir-frying, for it would be both daunting and inappropriate to prepare a meal of stir-fried dishes only. In keeping with the Chinese principles of yin and yang, a harmonious meal is composed of dishes prepared with a variety of techniques.
Eight Treasured Tastes is a tribute to the versatility of the wok. The recipes are organized by the techniques for smoking, pan-frying, braising, boiling, poaching, steaming, and deep-frying. In this section are memorable visits with the legendary Chinese cooking teacher Florence Lin, my family, and Amy Tan, followed by the recipes I learned from them.
The last section, Essentials, includes menu recommendations for family-style meals and for celebrating the Chinese New Year. Recipes that are appropriate for New Year's celebrations are in the Index listed under New Year's Celebrations. If you are unfamiliar with Chinese ingredients, refer to the Glossary, where you will find food identification photographs and information. Sources is a guide to purchasing Chinese ingredients, woks and accessories, and custom-made wok stoves. This section also lists some of my favorite Chinese cultural and culinary contacts.
All of the recipes are adapted from the cooks and chefs whom I interviewed. Please read each recipe before cooking, as well as the sidebars on stir-frying, steaming, and deep-frying if the recipe requires one of those techniques. In Chinese cooking, heat levels are very critical. All the recipes were tested on a KitchenAid residential-style range with gas burners (approximately 14,000 BTUs). If you are cooking on a custom-made wok stove, a professional range, a less powerful gas range, or an electric stove, adjust the heat levels called for, or increase or decrease the cooking times by a few minutes.
* Ginger is peeled unless otherwise indicated; I like to remove the peel by scraping it with the edge of a teaspoon. A slice should be about the size of a quarter, 1/4 inch thick.
* To make ginger juice, grate a small amount of ginger and then squeeze it with your fingers to extract the juice.
* While peanut oil has traditionally been the favorite oil in Chinese cooking, the cooks I interviewed used a wide variety of oils. I have called for vegetable oil in the recipes unless the cook specified a particular oil. Curiously, I've seen more and more Chinese markets stock olive oil, especially extra-light olive oil. Whichever oil you choose, be sure that the oil has a high smoke point suitable for stir-frying and deep-frying.
* All vegetables should be thoroughly washed in several changes of cold water. Make sure vegetables are dry by air-drying them in a colander for several hours, or using a salad spinner to remove excess water.
* Sichuan peppercorns (see page 226) can be difficult to find in the United States. When a recipe in this book calls for the peppercorns, they may be omitted. If you can obtain the peppercorns, they must be roasted and ground. Stir 1/4 cup peppercorns in a dry wok over medium heat 3 to
5 minutes until they are fragrant and just beginning to smoke. Once they're cooled, grind them in a mortar and then store them in a jar.
* Fresh chilies are stemmed and unseeded unless otherwise indicated. Always wear gloves when handling chilies.
* Meat and poultry should always be trimmed of excess fat.
* Sesame oil is Asian style, which is roasted, aromatic, and golden brown in color. Do not use clear cold-pressed sesame oil.
* Homemade Chicken Broth (page 195) is a secret to achieving full-flavored dishes; Pacific brand organic chicken broth in a carton, or canned reduced-sodium chicken broth, can be used, but the flavor is inferior to that of homemade.
* When soy sauce is called for, I use a thin or light soy sauce such as Kikkoman.
In Search of a Wok
"You are thirty years too late," Vivien Cheung informs me on my second day in Hong Kong. I had come halfway around the world seeking what I call "wok culture"—wok cooking on sampans, artisan wok makers, and wok repairmen hawking
their services on street corners. There was a time when this culture was an important dimension of Hong Kong life, and I remember many of these sights from previous trips. In recent years, however, I'd made no effort to seek them out, assuming them to be integral to Hong Kong's way of life. Never, certainly not in my lifetime, had I expected them to disappear. But they had.
The dai pai dong, the famous cooked-food stalls of Hong Kong, have been dwindling in numbers for years. Those I had seen on a visit eighteen months earlier now seemed to be gone. 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. 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. "Sampan and dai pai dong cooking doesn't meet strict hygiene codes," says Lim. "Today there are also government fire and noise regulations that make wok production in Hong Kong impossible. 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. 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 1,300-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. 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: two vegetable stir-fries and a special egg dish for which she has bought fresh pork, snow peas, corn on the cob, beans, and tomatoes. 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. 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. The 2 1/2-foot-high stove is the perfect height for stir-frying; Liang Xiu is petite and yet she can fully extend her arm while she stirs the wok.
After lunch, we return to Mr. Wan. 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." I step into a tiny room with a wall of cubbyholes filled with woks. Stacks of woks make it hard to move around what little floor space remains. 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.
"A hand-hammered wok is better than a factory-made wok. Hand-hammering changes the structure of the metal, giving it greater strength and durability," Cen tells me. Although the brothers sell to individual customers, the biggest demand for their woks comes from Shanghai's most famous restaurants.
Cen and his brother work without a staff. Once they retire, the business will end. Again I feel a disappointment that yet another wok tradition is destined to vanish. I ask Cen if it bothers him that Chinese home cooks no longer rely solely on the traditional wok. Cen shrugs his shoulders. "Today many home cooks are switching to modern cookware. People are too busy and they have less time to cook. But I don't worry about the fate of the wok. A good restaurant will always use a traditional carbon-steel fire-iron wok. Everyone has a different style. Today in China many people eat Western foods, but there are also those who want real Chinese food. For authentic Chinese food, serious cooks will always use a traditional carbon-steel fire-iron wok."
The Chinese have an old saying: "Falling leaves return to their roots," or "Lok yip gwai gan." The expression is intended for overseas Chinese like myself, encouraging a return to China. To understand the wok, I had to return. Watching Liang Xiu cook on her hearth stove helped me to appreciate the wok's brilliance. In rural China the wok is used very much the same way it was in olden days—a testament to its intelligent design. Even today it is the focal point of village life.
China's modernization has come quickly. It is inevitable that much of the wok culture I found throughout China will cease to exist. I can imagine someday towns and cities in China will replace dai pai dong with modern food courts, and the art of making woks by hand will eventually disappear. But I cannot imagine farmers like Liang Nian Xiu relinquishing their traditional fuel-efficient stoves and woks. And it is inconceivable that Chinese restaurant chefs will ever forsake the wok. It is the most treasured tool of their trade—no pan compares. While I lament the general loss of wok culture, the simple farmer and the gourmet chef, at two ends of the culinary spectrum, continue the vibrant tradition of wok cooking. The carbon-steel fire-iron wok, as Cen Lian Gen so wisely observed, will always be used by serious cooks of Chinese cuisine.
Copyright (c) 2004 by Grace Young and Alan Richardson
Text and Recipes copyright (c) 2004 by Grace Young