Wok Hay: The Breath of a Wok (September 13-December 23, 2004)

Sbreath-wok-cover-1eptember 13, 2004 – December 23, 2004

Grace Young & Alan Richardson

GRACE YOUNG [Wok Hay: The Breath of a Wok]¬†Growing up Chinese American in San Francisco, it was always easier for me to identify with being American. I was not inclined to speak my family’s Cantonese dialect, nor did I inherit my parents’ love of Chinese opera or cinema. Mama and Baba raised me with much of the same Confucian fundamentalism and superstitions that their parents had taught them in China, creating a natural conflict with my American attitudes. In fact, the only time I felt completely Chinese was at the dinner table, eating the wonderful Cantonese home-style meals my parents prepared. Mama and Baba were extraordinary cooks and whether we were dining in a restaurant or eating at home, they provided an ongoing commentary on the fine points of Chinese cuisine. Paramount was an appreciation for what the Cantonese refer to as wok hay, the prized, seared taste of food that’s been properly stir-fried in a wok. My father explained that wok hay is achieved when a chef heats a wok until nearly red hot so that a stir-fry cooks in a matter of seconds. As a child I imagined wok hay to be literally the wok’s fiery breath imparting a special life force into the food.

My passion for Chinese cuisine has been a constant in my life. In the mid-nineties I came to a realization: because of assimilation and the demands of work life, my generation was losing its culinary heritage. As a food writer, I decided that the most natural way for me to recoup this loss was to learn my family’s home cooking. I soon recognized that probing into my taste memory was far more than a way of learning my family’s cooking secrets. As my parents, aunties, and uncles instructed me and shared their recipes, their kitchens filled not only with fragrant and reminiscent aromas, but also with their wonderful stories of life in China and growing up in San Francisco’s Chinatown. Those recipes and anecdotes grew into my memoir cookbook, The Wisdom of the Chinese Kitchen. Rich as this book was with personal history and food lore, I realized there was even more to be learned.

In 2001, I began work with Alan Richardson on a new cookbook, The Breath of a Wok, in which we sought to document not only wok cooking and mastery of the stir-fry, but the wok as a way of life. Our research took us to Chinese chefs and home cooks throughout the United States and ultimately to China. We collected as many different types of woks as we could find, including the famous hand-pounded carbon-steel wok, revered by the finest chefs in China for its durability. When we did find the classic cast-iron wok used on a traditional hearth stove or for street cooking, where it is set either on a metal drum stove, or a brazier, we gained even greater respect for the wok’s practicality for cooking every manner of food and its efficiency for conserving fuel. This exhibition evolved out of our pursuit of the wok experience. It presents a sampling of the basic types of woks: Cantonese (round bottomed with two metal ears), Northern-Style (round bottomed with a long metal hollow handle), and Shanghainese (like the Cantonese with two metal ears, but with a slightly deeper and rounder shape), and the flat-bottomed wok (with two wooden handles) adapted specifically for use on a Western residential range. Central to our research was the recording of traditional recipes and Chinese foodways which for me became a way to examine what it means to be Chinese. For others of Chinese American background, I hope this exhibition will provide similar enrichment. For those simply intrigued by culinary evolution, it offers a glance at one of the world’s finest cooking tools and its adaptability in design and application. As I look at these woks, I recall interviews and cooking sessions with cooks in their seventies and eighties, who explained traditional ways to season a wok and demonstrated for me recipes now familiar only to their generation. Receiving wisdom from these elders has allowed me to claim something of my cultural identity and heritage. In the face of China’s inevitable transformation, their stories of how the wok was used give continuity to the Chinese experience. Since 1979, when I began traveling to China, I have seen the once pervasive wok culture begin to change and disappear. In cities: the dai pai dong, the famous open-air cooked food stalls, are moving into modern food courts; government noise regulations often bar wok artisans from working at all; and the number of home cooks exchanging their traditional iron woks for the dubious status symbol of owning an expensive nonstick wok is growing. Sadly, the wok revered for over 2000 years for its versatility and longevity, is giving way to the fickle tastes of modernization, even in its homeland. All the more important, then, is this look at one of history’s earliest cooking instruments. For me, cooking in a traditional cast-iron or carbon-steel wok is an empowering experience, one in which the simple act of Chinese cooking becomes a ritual central to my Chinese American heritage. Wok hay is its essence.