A long time ago in a land far away … OK, it was the early 90’s in Boston … I was a young mother married to a graduate student so our meager resources meant we had to be frugal with our purchases and live a simple lifestyle. Garage sales were our favorite store! I happened upon one and picked through the children’s toys before spying a wok tucked amongst household items. It was only $1.00 and I struggled with the purchase because we really did watch every, single dollar. The wok was well worn and had been used a lot. I plunked down my dollar and headed home. Though I knew very little about Chinese cooking – particularly with a wok – I knew enough to leave the interior patina that had accumulated by countless meals cooked.
Over the years, I dabbled in using the wok but never really used it correctly … until now. While I am certainly nowhere near a master of the wok, I am much more comfortable using it and have learned the basic techniques thanks to Grace Young and her incredible, award-winning cookbook Stir-Frying to the Sky’s Edge: The Ultimate Guide to Mastery with Authentic Recipes and Stories. Ms. Grace’s book is filled with recipes, gorgeous photos, information about woks, and personal stories of Chinese cooks around the world.
Turns out, I was doing everything wrong. Rule #1: Have everything ready to go. In fact, the prep work takes much longer than the actual cooking. I mean, everything. All of the veggies, herbs and meat need to be cut into uniform sizes; the sauces need to be made beforehand, the recipe read repeatedly because once the ingredients hit the wok, there is very little time to waste. Rule #2: The wok has to be super hot. I was afraid of burning everything so I kept the heat a little too low. Nope! You want it hot! Like, water drops sizzle and disappear within seconds kind of hot. Rule #3: don’t overcrowd. I would always just throw everything in the wok and it would basically steam. Instead, it is not unusual to stir-fry in batches and then incorporate everything at the end. Rule #4: Keep the ingredients moving. It’s called “Stir-Fry” for a reason. Constantly stirring, flipping, and moving the ingredients ensures all sides of each piece is seared on the wok surface. Those are the basics, but Ms. Young’s book gives much more information and guidance.
This is the type of cookbook that one curls up with and enjoys. Ms. Young is an excellent writer and gives you a glimpse into the world of Chinese cooking using a wok. She uses Chinese languages to show the beauty of the words used to describe the equipment, the technique, the food. Perhaps my favorite part of the book is the section “The Longing for the Taste of Home” where she brings to life the stories of Chinese migrants who have settled throughout the world and the struggles of their respective journeys. No matter where they ended up, they would try to bring a piece of China with them via their cooking, even if it meant making some extraordinary substitutions in a fry pan. Ms. Young includes some of these recipes from places like the Caribbean, Malaysia and Mississippi. It’s a lovely example of adaptation while adhering to the comfort foods of home.
And the recipes are simply amazing with sections devoted to vegetarian, poultry, beef, seafood and rice and noodle dishes – classic recipes, like Kung Pao Chicken and Ginger Beef, along with Stir-Fried Lettuce with Garlic Chili. My wok is getting a lot of use these days. As the spring and summer produce begin rolling in, I think this will be the way to cook them since it’s a quick, easy way of cooking that accentuates the flavors of the ingredients and does not require heating up the kitchen.
Oh, and another rule that Ms. Grace pointed out in a comment to my Instagram post: do not cross your chopsticks. While it might look nice when plating and styling your food, it’s actually bad luck and should not be done.
Pepper, May 2021