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Among Chinese cookbooks, this one is unusual. It doesn't strive for comprehensiveness or focus on a regional cuisine. Instead, it analyzes that sacred object of the Chinese kitchen: the wok. The wok's "breath" is the heat rising from the sizzling instrument as a dish is finished, but also much more, according to Young (The Wisdom of the Chinese Kitchen). She offers a profound meditation on the wok's spiritual place, as well as its history and uses. As such, the book may be appreciated as a work of food scholarship as well as a cookbook. Nearly half of it concerns wok arcana, from an assessment of the best wok for a home kitchen to half a dozen "recipes" for seasoning a new wok (like Mr. Wen's Chinese Chive Rub). Naturally, the majority of the recipes are for stir-fries, such as the familiar Kung Pao Chicken. Usually, Young takes great care to attribute her recipes to her sources (e.g., Mary Chau's Shanghai-Style Snow Cabbage and Edamame). Those sources are refreshingly varied, including home cooks, like the author's many female relations, and well-known names like Martin Yan and writer Amy Tan. Although this is by no means a definitive Chinese cookbook, its elegance and meditative outlook make it a welcome gift. Photos.
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In the 1970s the wok burst into the American consciousness, along with the flurry of interest in all things Chinese inaugurated by Nixon's memorable trip to Beijing. Today, plenty of American kitchens have a wok of some sort, but cooks may not know how to use the implement properly. Young and Richardson set out to remedy that with this comprehensive treatise on wok cookery. More than 50 pages of text cover the manufacture, selection, and the seasoning of a new wok, a process for which Chinese chives turn out to be indispensable. Once technical concerns are overcome, the wok can finally be put to use to create "wok hay," the special, unique flavor achieved by the truly practiced cook. Young's recipes reflect a very personal repertoire that originates from dishes cooked within her extended family. Recipes, sorted into groups by cooking style, use generally available staple Chinese ingredients and a wide spectrum of fresh meats and vegetables. This practical, smart, and savory collection of lore and recipes promises to set off a rebirth of Chinese cooking in American kitchens. Mark Knoblauch
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