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Breath of a Wok by Grace Young

I finished this book this week. Equal parts wok lore and recipes, it was a captivating read. The best parts were the stories and discussions of woks and their uses rather than the recipes which were good in their own right. According to the author, much of big city China seems to have abandoned the wok for western cookware since the high-rise apartments are equipped with western style stoves. She had some difficulty tracking down traditional hand crafted woks and even the wok factory she visits was out of the way.

The title itself derives from the english interpretation of wok hei, apparently a term only known to the Cantonese who she claims are the masters of stir frying. When showing the words to speakers of other dialects, the term was indecipherable or made no sense.

I was surprised that she advocates a flat-bottomed wok, even with a gas stove. She says even the gas stoves in US homes don't get hot enough and the flat bottom wok works better in this case. I rather disagree personally, but many other respected cooks did agree. It was interesting to note in the pictures of home cooks who used flat-bottoms and who didn't.

Excellent photography, I enjoyed the pictures of the woks and chefs more than of the food.

As to the recipes, they are from other people she knows and cooked with while researching this book, including Ken Hom, Martin Yan and some other respected names of Chinese cooking. Some have adapted some ingredients for home cooks and she writes all the recipes to use the flat-bottomed wok and a modified stir-fry technique similar to what I discussed in the Wok 99R thread. But mostly they reflect the cooking of the people from whom she got the recipe rather than Grace Young.

I noted a greater degree of simplification in how many US resident/citizen Chinese cook these dishes than would be in many allegedly authentic cookbooks. In part, I think it reflects a natural understanding of how the dish works that many non-chinese authors don't have. And I think some of it is influenced by the realities of cooking at home on a daily basis.

If you like to cook in a wok, this is recommended reading. It is not a general Chinese cookbook and focuses on the type of Chinese cooking where wok hei is important.

Phil