Ten years ago, I befriended a traveling chef in a six-room youth hostel in Naples. It was shabby but clean and a friendly haven for mostly English-speaking backpackers who communed in its cozy living room filled with mismatched furniture, well-thumbed paperback books, and a litter of adorable kittens playing underfoot.
The chef was from Melbourne and, like most Australians you meet on the road, he was somewhere inside a full year of travel, visiting places where he most wanted to eat. He had begun his trip in China, spent a long time in Lebanon, and even made his way to Iran. He told inspiring stories of afternoons discussing his strong Christian faith with pious Muslims who readily invited him to share a hookah pipe and a pot of tea. Among those recollections, what stands out most in my memory is the chef saying that in all the corners of the world, there were two constants: pizza and Chinese food. Both could be found anywhere people had enough money to eat out every once in a while. For the Australian chef, this discovery was proof positive that Italian food and Chinese food were the best cuisines in the entire world.
Italian food has always been an integral part of my life, but Chinese food has only been enjoyed in the form of inexpensive takeout or explorations of Chinatown. I’d never ventured further into Chinese cooking at home than steaming bok choy or adding a little store-bought black bean sauce to shrimp or chicken, until I befriended yet another chef.
I first met Grace Young at a symposium for professional food writers. She was there to speak about the industry and craft of cookbook writing, but within minutes, she had me completely enraptured with the story of stir-fry cooking in a traditional carbon-steel wok. She is a self-proclaimed “wok crusader” who teaches through her lectures, demonstrations, and award-winning cookbooks how to create excellent stir-fried Chinese food in a traditional wok that must be seasoned, treasured, and even passed down through generations.
There was a popular wok fad in the early ’80s where people in search of a low-fat way of cooking started stir-frying. (I remember that during a spring purge, my mother decided to toss her barely used nonstick wok. My little brother became entranced by the idea of cooking with great flames and smoke as he had seen on TV, and hid it under his bed for a few years.) The fad didn’t last, likely because the works were nonstick and couldn’t yield the true taste of Chinese cooking.
Grace explained how a carbon-steel wok could be the only pot you need in your kitchen for everything from frying to braising. Best used over high heat, the wok’s surface will change over time. Vegetables will be crisp and meat will sear quickly with little time to absorb the oil. The more you use your wok, the better your food will taste, and the easier it will become as the layers of flavor form a natural nonstick surface. The heat of the seasoned wok itself imparts a flavor to your food called “wok hay,” which translates most closely to “breath of a wok.”
Listening to Grace speak so passionately about her explorations of wok cooking was a revelatory experience that took me by surprise. By the simple act of showing people how to cook in a wok, she was channeling thousands of stories and traditions about Chinese culture and its diffusion around the world, which otherwise would be unknown or inaccessible to me. Grace opened up a new way to learn about the world that thrilled me much like the experience of meeting people from around the world in that crumbly little youth hostel on Via Diodato. This time, though, I could do it all in my kitchen and not have to sleep with my wallet and passport strapped to my waist.
After reading her exceptional book The Breath of a Wok I finally felt ready to buy my own own. Along with Casey and Andrea Lynn, fellow food writers and hopeful members of the stir-fry cult, I went to 78 Mulberry Street in Chinatown on Grace’s advice. (She had also armed me with the magic phrase “sook teet wok” to ensure that I received a proper carbon-steel wok.)
The shop, which has no name other than “K.K. Discount Store,” is packed to the rafters, freezing cold and generally a mess, but contains treasures for cooks at bare-bones prices. We asked the store’s owner for help, who became nearly giddy with happiness to learn that we already understood how to use and care for the wok. (Thanks, Grace!)
Before beginning to stir-fry, I must now clean and “open” my wok with a seasoning of oil, ginger, and Chinese chives. With Grace’s book opened reverently on my countertop, I’m ready to start this culinary journey.