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From The Asian Reporter, V15, #11 (March 15, 2005), page 13.

Discover the secret to artful and delicious wok cooking

The Breath of a Wok

By Grace Young and Alan Richardson

Simon & Schuster, 2004

Hardcover, 240 pages, $35.00

By Pamela Ellgen

Author Grace Young learned to appreciate wok hay with her parents over culinary masterpieces in San Francisco’s Chinatown. Her father, instead of ordering from the menu, met with the chef to ask what he should order that day. No matter the technique, he said, only stir frying with the freshest ingredients could imbue wok hay to a dish.

Wok hay is the breath, energy, or spirit that comes from the artful cooking of food in a wok.

When Young began cooking on her own in college, she struggled to find this elusive quality and gave up after one too many metallic tasting stir fries and a rusty, food-caked wok. Years later her suppressed longing to capture wok hay in her own kitchen was again ignited when she impulsively purchased a flat-bottomed carbon-steel wok in New York’s Chinatown. This time, she stumbled upon the ancient practice of seasoning the wok before use. Though substantially improved from her initial efforts, the results still lacked wok hay.

This is what inspired Young and photographer Alan Richardson to travel throughout America, Hong Kong, and mainland China in search of the techniques and traditions of wok masters. The fruit of their efforts is beautifully photographed and chronicled in The Breath of a Wok. It will educate and inspire at-home chefs in search of excellent Chinese cuisine.

The book is divided into five sections: Introduction; Selection, Seasoning, and Care; The Art of Stir-Frying; Eight Treasured Tastes; and Essentials. These sections cover everything from how to purchase the perfect wok for your home heating element to numerous recipes and wok lore.

Young provides keen insight into various techniques used to cook different ingredients. She also shows how to use the wok beyond typical stir-frying to steam, smoke, and deep-fry foods.

The recipes are easy to read and understand, and even a beginning cook can enjoy the results. All ingredients are common enough to find at a well-stocked grocery store if an Asian market isn’t nearby.

Sherman’s Home-Style Chicken and Vegetables, on page 69, is a simple and scrumptious, albeit a bit salty, recipe that can be made as part of a coursed dinner or served with just rice. Though chicken is suggested, tofu can also be used.

Young won the IACP International Cookbook Award for The Wisdom of the Chinese Kitchen and has appeared on numerous cooking shows. The Breath of a Wok is similarly sure to please and is the perfect addition to the library of any cook interested in Chinese cooking.

Richardson’s award-winning photography has appeared in Bon Appetit, Gourmet, Saveur, Food & Wine, and The New York Times Magazine. He also co-authored The Four Seasons of Italian Cooking. His artful images capture the spirit of wok cooking and make The Breath of a Wok not only a delight to cook from but also a joy to look at.


Uncle Sherman’s Home-Style Chicken and Vegetables

Serves four as part of a multicourse meal

12 ounces skinless, boneless chicken breast, cut

into 1/4-inch-thick bite-sized chunks

6 slices ginger

1 1/2 teaspoons plus 1 tablespoon minced garlic

1 1/2 teaspoons cornstarch

2 teaspoons soy sauce

1 teaspoon plus 2 tablespoons vegetable oil

3/4 teaspoon salt

3 teaspoons bean sauce

1 cup small broccoli florets

1 cup small cauliflower florets

4 cups bok choy, cut into 1-inch pieces

10 small button mushrooms, quartered

Cilantro sprigs, optional

1. In a medium bowl combine the chicken, 2 slices of the ginger, the 1 1/2 teaspoons garlic, 1 teaspoon of the cornstarch, 1 teaspoon of the soy sauce, the 1 teaspoon oil, and 1/4 teaspoon of the salt. Set aside. In a small bowl combine the remaining 1/2 teaspoon cornstarch and 1 teaspoon soy sauce with 1 tablespoon cold water. Set aside.

2. Heat a 14-inch flat-bottomed wok over high heat until a bead of water vaporizes within 1 to 2 seconds of contact. Swirl in 1 tablespoon of the oil. Carefully add the chicken, spreading it evenly in the wok. Cook undisturbed 1 minute, letting the chicken begin to brown. Add 1 teaspoon of the bean sauce. Then, using a metal spatula, stir-fry 1 to 2 minutes or until the chicken is browned on all sides but not cooked through. Transfer to a plate.

3. Swirl the remaining 1 tablespoon oil into the wok. Add the remaining 4 slices ginger, 1 tablespoon minced garlic, broccoli, and cauliflower and stir-fry 30 seconds. Add the remaining 2 teaspoons bean sauce and 1/2 teaspoon salt with 1/4 cup cold water and stir-fry 1 minute. Add the boy choy and mushrooms with 2 tablespoons cold water and stir-fry 1 minute. Return the chicken to the wok. Stir the cornstarch mixture, swirl it into the wok, and bring to a boil, stirring constantly, until the sauce has thickened and the chicken is cooked through, about 1 minute. Garnish with the cilantro if desired.

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