Originally published Jan. 13, 2006
By Greg Atkinson, former Taste writer
IN THE SPRING of 2000, I started thinking a lot about an old wok I had stored in the back of my kitchen cabinet. I had just met Grace Young and heard her talk about “wok hay,” which means “spirit,” or “breath from a wok.” That year, Young’s cookbook, “The Wisdom of the Chinese Kitchen,” won an award from the International Association of Culinary Professionals, and I happened to be in the right place at the right time. I was invited by Young’s editor, Janice Easton, to join her and some mutual friends for dinner and what became a very memorable evening.
Young had used the phrase “Breath of a Wok” as a chapter title in her book, and the subject came up at the table. “Wok hay,” she wrote, “is not simply hot food; it’s that elusive second taste that only lasts for a minute or two. It reminds me of the difference between food just off the grill and grilled food that has been left to sit.” But there is more to wok hay than taste or temperature. “I always imagined wok hay,” she wrote, “as a special life force that, when consumed, provided us with extra energy, hay.” “Hay,” in Mandarin, is synonymous with qi or chi, “the vital energy that flows through the body.”
All of us at the dinner were intrigued, and I sensed it was the start of something. So in the fall of 2004, I was gratified when Young sent me a handwritten letter announcing that she had a new cookbook coming out, and she was coming to Seattle to promote it. The book was called “The Breath of a Wok,” and it was all about wok hay. It seemed clear then that this book would be one of the most important books of the year, and indeed it has been. It earned Young another IACP award and the attention of food editors all over North America.
To gather information for the book, Young had traveled through the United States, Hong Kong and China with photographer Alan Richardson to learn what she could from masters of Chinese cooking and wok-making. She worked beside chefs like Martin Yan, Ken Hom, Cecelia Chang and Susanna Foo in their own kitchens and befriended author Amy Tan, who gathered with her sisters to make New Year’s dumplings with Young. She also forged even stronger bonds with her own family, who shared not only their recipes but deep, previously unspoken insights about what it meant to them to be Chinese Americans.
“Most of my relatives had given up cooking in woks,” said Young. “Instead, they used Western-style skillets because they worked better than round-bottomed woks on Western-style stoves. But I was drawn to the wok.”
While Young gathered stories and recipes, Richardson captured amazing images of woks in action. One of the most interesting pictures in the book shows a master blacksmith pounding a flat sheet of metal into a bowl-shaped wok in China’s Guangxi Province. “It takes at least five hours,” writes Young, “to complete a single hand-hammered wok.” Intriguing, too, were the images of cast-iron woks, something I had never heard of before I read Young’s second book.
I had just spent time studying “The Cast Iron Skillet Cookbook” by Sharon Kramis, and I was keenly aware that cast iron has a way of gripping the juices that come out of food so they sear and brown on the surface of the pan before gradually becoming part of the sauce that forms around cooked food. The slightly porous and wonderfully conductive heat of the iron, I thought, would afford a more tangible form of wok hay than anything cooked on the polished, smooth surface of my dear old carbon steel wok.
Eventually, I persuaded a friend who was on her way to San Francisco to shop for me at The Wok Shop, a store Young recommends in her book. Tane Chan, who runs the store, probably has more experience selling woks than anyone else in America, and she sells cast-iron woks from China that are, according to Young, preferable to those made in America — “they are much thinner and lighter.”
Indeed, my new cast-iron wok weighs less than half as much as my smaller, cast-iron fry pan. Its surface is mottled like a clay pot, and when I tap a finger on its side, it resounds with a reassuring “bong” reminiscent of a Tibetan prayer bowl. For months, I kept it reverently stored in its original wrapper before I finally felt ready to break it in.
Only when my friend Barry Wong was on his way to photograph the initiation of the new wok did I break out my camp stove so I could heat the wok over an open flame (my kitchen range is electric). Then I opened Young’s book to the several pages devoted to “opening a wok,” and I got to work.
The secret, according to Young, who met with numerous Chinese cooks to learn how to season a new wok, is Chinese chives. Young thought the antibacterial properties of the chives might have something to do with it. But I think it has more to do with a chemical reaction between the sulfur compounds in the chives and the raw iron that causes the iron to be less reactive. Perhaps it is a tradition that has more cultural than chemical significance, but when I followed the procedure outlined by Young’s Chinese-language teacher, Wen Geng Lin, the metal that turned a stack of paper towels black when I first rubbed it dry after an initial rinse did not leave so much as a trace of gray when I dried it off for the final time.
And after it was seasoned, the surface of the wok went from a dull gray to a shiny, warm bronze-tinged hue, neither black nor brown nor gray — something like the color of the ocean on a cloudy winter day.