As every J. Kenji López-Alt super fan knows, March 8 is the release date of “The Wok: Recipes and Techniques,” arguably the most anticipated cookbook of the year.

In his 658-page cookbook, author López-Alt makes a compelling case that the wok is a versatile vessel that deserves prime real estate on your stove top.

Like his groundbreaking 2015 opus “The Food Lab,” “The Wok” includes geeky experiments, like the sorcery of using baking soda to make gristly cuts of beef tender, and hacks like blowtorching your food to mimic that smoky “wok hei” flavor that your Chinese takeout possesses.

The Seattle Times recently caught up with the food scientist in front of Volunteer Park Café & Pantry to discuss recipes and kitchen equipment from his new book.

Seattle has never had a food celebrity on the scale of López-Alt who moved to Capitol Hill in 2020 from California. During the hourlong interview, fans interrupted to greet him or snap pictures with him. Others stood on the sidewalk to gawk or eavesdrop on what he had to say.

The following interview was edited for brevity and clarification.

When we met last year at Grillbird in West Seattle [one of his favorite teriyaki spots], you declared that the wok is the most versatile piece of equipment. Most westerners think it’s just good for a stir fry. What else do you cook with it?


I use it for steaming frozen dumplings, for boiling noodles. I use it to make stock. If I break down a chicken, which I do once a week, I have a carcass. I stir fry all the bones and chop up some carrots, onions and celery in a wok. I find it’s much faster and easier to do than in a stockpot. I use it for mapo tofu and other braised dishes. And it is a lot easier to deep fry in a wok then to deep fry in any other vessel. A lot less messy. A wok has these wide sides, so you are cooking in the bottom half of it so the oil just splatters around and hits the side of the wok and rolls back down.

I think the three most important pages in your book are the ones with your explanation of how you can make chicken and pork juicy by marinating the white meat in cornstarch and how gristly beef can be made tender by massaging and alkalizing the beef with baking soda. Most American cooking videos, and even Food Network, don’t mention this important tip in Asian stir fries.

Yeah, they don’t stress the way you treat the meat before you actually cook. Growing up, you could get beef chow fun as a $6.95 lunch special from a hole in the wall, and the meat was super tender and juicy and flavorful. I never knew how they got that texture. It was only later that I learned — the treating of alkaline and washing it and really handling the meat roughly. All these little steps you do before you actually start cooking.

In your book, there are two recipes that offer a peek into the daily life of many Asian American families. One is tomato and eggs, which you and the writer Francis Lam noted is a ubiquitous dish in Asian households that never appears on restaurant menus or in cookbooks.

There is not really a recipe, no right or wrong way to do it. I found out later that my wife who is from Colombia also grew up eating scrambled eggs with tomatoes and scallions, which is essentially the same dish as in China and the same dish that my grandmother made in Japan.

Not just those countries. You wrote that many have their own version. In Colombia, it’s called huevos pericos, in Italy, uova all’Amatriciana and Neapolitan ova ‘mpriatorio, in France, oeufs à la Provençale, in several Arab countries, shakshuka, in Turkey, menemen, the Parsee tomato per eedu, in Mexico, huevos rancheros. In the U.S., ketchup on eggs fall into the same family. Why is this combo popular?


Eggs are quick and cheap, and they store forever. So you always have the ingredients there and combining them with something fresh and acidic and a little sweet seems to work.

The other recipe that will resonate with many from Southeast Asia is called, “the mix,” an all-purpose mixture of seasoned ground pork and shrimp that you can use in many dishes. It’s the equivalent of leftover fillings from egg rolls or dumplings that kids squirrel away in sandwich bags and take out of the fridge for after-school tacos or to hack a frozen pizza. What do you do with your “mix” at home?

I put a seasoned ground pork mixture in a Cryovac bag, and I freeze it flat. I use it for fried rice, for filling dumplings. I stir fry with some vegetables, put it on some noodles. I cook the ground pork and shrimp mixture, add some frozen peas, some broth and drizzle, like, a bunch of eggs into it.

The flavor enhancer MSG is a controversial subject. I’ve read some say you believe MSG health symptoms are real. Your answer is more nuanced. So let’s settle this debate.

We are not going to be able to settle anything. It is not something that can be settled given the current amount of information we have. There is something we can probably settle, which is that there seem to be no long-term health effects from consumption of MSG anymore then say, long-term health effects of regular sodium consumption. In the vast majority of cases, there is no short-term effect. So, most people can eat MSG fine. I use it all the time. The thing I take issue with is that there are some people who report getting this MSG symptom complex. We don’t know if those symptoms are tied to MSG or in what specific circumstances these people are getting these symptoms. What bothers me is when people say “Oh, you are imagining these symptoms.” I cook with MSG. Most of the time, I am fine. Every once in a while I get these symptoms, which people described as the same symptoms that they get from MSG. I don’t know if it’s MSG that is causing it for me. I don’t know what specific set of circumstances that is that makes me get these symptoms. But I do know they are real symptoms. It’s a difficult issue to discuss because the history of MSG is steeped in racism. 


[Context: In 1968, the New England Journal of Medicine speculated that eating Chinese food with MSG might cause numbness and other ill effects. In recent years, several studies have concluded that MSG doesn’t cause any health symptoms. López-Alt believes the pro-MSG crowd has been too quick to draw such conclusions when more studies are needed. As a counterpoint, he mentioned a 2000 study in the Journal of Allergy and Clinical Immunology that said MSG does “elicit adverse responses” from a particularly sensitive subgroup of the population when administered in large doses on a mostly empty stomach.

 As many Asian community groups have pointed out, MSG is heavily used in many mainstream products from Doritos to Chick-fil-A sandwiches. But MSG syndrome remains so synonymous with Chinese food that many Asian chefs post signs in front of their restaurants, declaring “we don’t use MSG” for fear that Americans won’t eat there otherwise.]

MSG is such a contentious subject and a heated topic on online forums that you’ve gotten snagged in. Do you worry that topic might hijack your book tour?

I am always happy to discuss in person like this. It is difficult to have this conversation because of the history of MSG and this internet culture of “you are wrong,” bro-y culture. They don’t read more than the headlines. Online comments — I try not to engage in it.

We’ve spent 20 minutes on MSG. But I want to go another round. I want to hear it coming out of your mouth since people seem confused about your MSG position. Many studies have refuted that MSG causes any health problems. What I’m hearing is that you’re not saying these studies are completely wrong. But you are saying the studies are not so conclusive and that more research is needed before we can get a definitive answer?

Yeah, it might or it might not [cause symptoms]. We don’t know. We have some information, but we don’t have all the information. If someone tells you “I don’t like eating MSG because I get headaches” or “I get lockjaw” or whatever symptoms they have, then don’t say they are racist or imagining it. I don’t know how they feel. You should trust people about how their bodies feel.


OK, now I’m getting a headache going down this rabbit hole with you.


Korean fried chicken is trendy now in Seattle. You wrote, “when it comes to frying chicken, nobody and I mean, nobodydoes it better than Korea. My apologies to all you Southerners.”

Korean fried chicken tends to be much lighter and crispier than American style.

You declared that the mortar and pestle is the most underrated kitchen tool. Many cooks think a food processor is just a modern day version of it. Discuss.

Mortar and pestle crushes, and a food processor chops. When you crush plant cells, you release more internal, volatile aromatics. So, you get more flavors.

One secret to why Asian street food tastes so good is because the sauces drowning that grilled meat were emulsified with a mortar and pestle. In the streets of Saigon and Bangkok, cooks are squatting over to crush those chile and curry pastes. You can smell the aromas from the sidewalk. You wouldn’t be able to smell that if they used a food processor. In fact, you conducted a pesto taste test, one using a food processor and the other with mortar and pestle. Your conclusion?


With mortar and pestle, you get a creamy, emulsified sauce as opposed to chopped up stuff suspended in oil.

I’ve seen more customers in Seattle order mapo tofu during the pandemic than I have in the previous ten years. Mapo tofu is also your favorite dish. You say the best version you’ve tasted in the U.S. comes from chef Zhang Wenxue at Fuloon restaurant in Massachusetts. What makes a great mapo tofu?

One of the things the chef there stressed is that it should be spicy hot, numbing hot and also temperature hot. Tofu retains heat very well because it’s so dense, but also he said the key is that once it is done, you put the hot oil over the top and that helps insulate it and keeps the heat in there. It stays hot the whole time you are eating it.

What’s your next book project?

I want to write another children’s book and a cookbook for parents who want to teach their kids how to cook.