Capturing the Elusive 'Breath of a Wok' Melissa Block and food writer Grace Young trek through New York's Chinatown in search of wok hay, the magical essence released by a good wok when it's properly cared for and heated just right.
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Capturing the Elusive 'Breath of a Wok'

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Capturing the Elusive 'Breath of a Wok'

Capturing the Elusive 'Breath of a Wok'

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  • <iframe src="" width="100%" height="290" frameborder="0" scrolling="no" title="NPR embedded audio player">
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This is ALL THINGS CONSIDERED from NPR News. I'm Robert Siegel.


And I'm Melissa Block, in pursuit of an elusive quality called wok hay.

Ms. GRACE YOUNG (Author, "The Breath of a Wok"): `Hay' in Cantonese is the same as `chi' in Mandarin, so that means energy or life force or breath. And so that's why I describe wok hay as the breath of a wok.

BLOCK: "The Breath of a Wok" is the title of food writer Grace Young's latest cookbook.

Unidentified Man: (Foreign language spoken)

BLOCK: We meet up with her in New York's Chinatown, and we begin our quest for wok hay in the narrow aisles of the Hung Chong Cookware Store on the Bowery. There are woks of all makes and sizes; shiny and dull, flat-bottomed and round, made of carbon steel or thin cast iron.

Ms. YOUNG: When people choose a Chinese cast iron wok, they actually put it on the floor and they bang it.

(Soundbite of banging)

Ms. YOUNG: And it should have a clear bell-like tone, because what you don't want is a cast iron wok that has a crack because it won't last; it's not durable. This is what the Cantonese home cook swears is the best kind of wok for creating stir-fries with wok hay. But what you actually see the most in Chinatown these days, which is really sad, are these non-stick woks.

BLOCK: Now you say that's too bad. Why is that?

Ms. YOUNG: Well, it's horrible.

BLOCK: Not just too bad, horrible.

Ms. YOUNG: No, it's horrifying, because if someone teaches you, for example, a great stir-fry recipe and then you cook it in a non-stick pan, it won't taste the same. If it's correctly done, a stir-fry--actually, the wok breathes heat and energy and life force, and the food, therefore, gets a concentrated prized taste with a seared aroma. And that only happens if you cook it in the correct pan.

BLOCK: Well, Grace, it's been a long time since I've owned a wok, but I think I might need to get a new one. Why don't you go help me pick one out?

Ms. YOUNG: OK. So this is a $12.95 right here.

(Soundbite of banging wok)

BLOCK: All right.

Ms. YOUNG: This will last you an entire lifetime.

BLOCK: OK. $12.95?

Ms. YOUNG: Yeah. I actually want one, too.

Unidentified Man #2: (Foreign language spoken)

Ms. YOUNG: (Foreign language spoken)

BLOCK: Our woks are shiny and light, made of carbon steel with a long wooden handle on one side, an ear-shaped handle on the other and a flat bottom that will work nicely on a gas range.

(Soundbite of cash register)

BLOCK: There's one more stop, at a Chinese greengrocer.

Ms. YOUNG: So if you're in Chinatown, you should buy Chinese chives to season the wok. And so in Cantonese, we call them gau tsoi. The Chinese chives are very, very important because they are said to clean the wok and remove the metallic taste of the wok from it.

BLOCK: Hey, let's get a bunch.

Ms. YOUNG: (Foreign language spoken)

Unidentified Man #3: (Foreign language spoken)

Ms. YOUNG: I hate to say this. I'm the Imelda Marcos of woks. Instead of shoes, I collect woks.

BLOCK: Grace Young has about three dozen woks in her SoHo apartment. On the stove is her old standby, which has developed a glossy black patina inside from years of constant cooking. And we're going to take the first step with my new wok toward a nice patina and, we hope, some wok hay. We've got to season it.

(Soundbite of scrubbing)

BLOCK: First, a vigorous scrub-down with a frizzled stainless steel scrubber in the sink, then seasoning on the stove.

Ms. YOUNG: What you're literally doing is you're opening up the pores of the metal with the heat and coating it with oil. And by coating it with oil, it seals the metal.

BLOCK: And do you do this just once, or is this a constant seasoning?

Ms. YOUNG: No, you just do it once. But what really happens is the more you stir-fry with the wok, the more it becomes seasoned.

(Soundbite of chives being chopped)

BLOCK: And here's where those long, bright green Chinese chives come in. They get chopped up then tossed into the hot oil in the wok.

(Soundbite of chives cooking)

Ms. YOUNG: And that's the crackling, sizzling sound that you want with stir-fry today to season the wok, but literally, this is the same lesson for how you would stir-fry vegetables, in general. You always want a sizzling sound. If it's not sizzling, something's wrong.

BLOCK: Grace Young smooshes the chives into the sides of the wok, pressing hard to get them to absorb the metallic flavor. They smell great, but they'll get tossed out, then another scrub of the wok.

Ms. YOUNG: And that's it.

BLOCK: My new wok is nicely seasoned, but maybe not capable yet of true wok hay, the breath of a wok. For that, Grace Young leads us down into the basement kitchen of the East Ocean Restaurant in Chinatown.

(Soundbite of flames)

BLOCK: Huge woks are set well into the heat on their industrial stoves; they're cradled by flames. For real wok hay, you need a lot of heat. A regular kitchen stove generates about 10,000 BTUs of heat; these stoves pump out somewhere between 80 and 150,000.

(Soundbite of flames)

Ms. YOUNG: Here's a sound. What I really love about it is when he turns on the heat, you're going to hear the sound that, to me, sounds like the sound of a dragon. The heat that they use here is so ferocious.

BLOCK: The cook tosses in shrimp, bright asparagus, Chinese broccoli, noodles; it all stir-fries in a flash. He's in constant motion, conducting this performance, scooping, flipping, from time to time pressing his knee against the stove to adjust the heat.

Ms. YOUNG: And look at this coordination. Do you see the lever on the side of the stove? So he uses it with his knee. He kicks the lever to bring up the heat higher.

(Soundbite of flames)

BLOCK: Whoa!

Ms. YOUNG: Do you feel this heat?

BLOCK: Yeah.

Ms. YOUNG: Every time he pulls the wok up, sometimes there can be two or three feet of heat flying up into your face. If you don't know what you're doing, you can really, really hurt yourself with this. Oftentimes, they say that the Chinese chef have absolutely no facial hair or no hair on their arms; it's all been seared off.

BLOCK: The heat is so intense that a wok in this kitchen will only last for a few months. This wok has already buckled badly from the heat. Upstairs, in East Ocean's dining room, Grace Young asks the manager, Raymond Leong, about this Cantonese notion of wok hay.

Ms. YOUNG: Do you have customers who come in and say, `Give me extra wok hay with the dish'?

Mr. RAYMOND LEONG (Manager, East Ocean Restaurant): Yes, we do, especially from the people from ...(unintelligible).

Ms. YOUNG: Right.

Mr. LEONG: They know the breath of a wok is very important.

Ms. YOUNG: It's a prized taste. They say if you come for a meal and you have a dish, you have a stir-fry, and if it doesn't have wok hay, it means almost like it's unlucky. Like, if you're going to make an investment that day or you want to go and gamble, it's not a good day.

BLOCK: So, Grace, in your cookbook, you talk about first learning about wok hay, this breath of the wok, from your father when you were a child.

Ms. YOUNG: Right. From the time I was a child, my father used to always bring us to these restaurants in Chinatown. He would just walk into the kitchen, see what was the freshest that day and ask the chef which dish would have the most wok hay. And then he would say to the chef, `Give me even more wok hay.' And then he would come back. And that first bite, my father would always go, `Ah! Gau(ph) wok hay!' So in Chinese, `gau' means enough, enough wok hay.

BLOCK: A few other lessons: Grace Young's father would always make the family sit closest to the kitchen door so there would be the shortest possible time between the food coming out of the wok and into their mouths. And he'd urge them, `Eat fast. Wok hay can disappear in an instant.'

You can find recipes and photos from Grace Young's book, "The Breath of a Wok," at our Web site,

(Soundbite of "Walk--Don't Run")


SIEGEL: I'm Robert Siegel.

BLOCK: And I'm Melissa Block. You're listening to ALL THINGS CONSIDERED from NPR News.

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