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January 05, 2006

Wok Fu 101

I've encountered some pretty decent books that focus on the wok, but this is the best by a longshot. Those who stir-fry at home often lament the fact that they can't achieve the unique and intoxicating fresh glow of a good restaurant stir-fry. That glow is called "Wok Hay", which translates to "The Breath of a Wok", and lends the book its name. Wok Hay is one of those things that's difficult to describe but easy to identify, and this is the best available roadmap for achieving it.

For those who aren't familiar with traditional uses of the wok, a 240 page volume dedicated entirely to a simple, round pan may seem like overkill. But there's a reason the wok is arguably the heart and soul of Chinese cuisine. Only a culture that is thousands of years old could develop a pan that is simultaneously so simple and so versatile, and takes years to both season and master. There's something beautiful about an implement that increases in both beauty and utility as it ages... and for which the most traditional seasoning methods frequently involve copious amounts of lard.

Breath of a Wok is exceptionally comprehensive. To give some sense, the recipes don't even start until page 68, and with good reason. Without the proper technique, a wok is just a funny shaped pan. Young starts with a little wok history, but only to the degree that it's relevant to the cooking. However, once she delves into selecting and seasoning a wok, the book becomes an invaluable resource. She draws on a range of sources -- wok purveyors, family members, master chefs both eastern and western -- to cover multiple seasoning techniques for a myriad of different woks. It's less a matter of choosing what's best and more a matter of choosing what's best for you. Selection is a matter of both utility and personal style, and in the ideal world you don't have to choose between the two. As much as you may want to release your inner Iron Chef Chen with a northern style round-bottomed wok and ladle, they aren't going to do you much good on an electric range. Of course, once you've read the book through you'll be ready to run down to Chinatown and pick up 100,000 BTUs worth of blistering wok burner goodness, but Young patiently focuses on excellent alternatives for those who are less... enthusiastic.

Of course, the recipes themselves are fantastic and cover a broad scope. Young groups basic stir-fry recipes by primary ingredient, and then proceeds to provide instruction and recipes for other wok techniques, such as braising, smoking, steaming and deep-frying. The recipes aren't dumbed down for a western audience. Young keeps them accessible, but authentic. Plus, a comprehensive glossary that includes clear photos is sure to aid those who aren't accustomed to cruising Asian markets.

Bottom line, this book is a must-have. If you have an interest in wok cookery, start here. If you don't, start here anyway, and you probably will by the time you're about five pages in.


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