cookbook club: breath of a wok

Did you know that traditional hand-hammered woks have become a rarity, even in China? Have you ever wondered what makes great stir-fried foods so much better than the average stuff we make at home? Have you ever heard of “wok hay”? Want to learn more? Well, I’ve got the perfect book for you!

We’re three books into our Spring 2022 season of cookbook club, Legendary Women Cookbook Authors, Part 1, and this time, our legend is a woman just hitting her full stride into the arena of legends. A woman whose impact is growing exponentially, even as I write this. 

Grace Young is a Chinese-American cookbook author and culinary historian from San Francisco, although she calls New York City home these days. Grace Young has been called a “Stir-fry Guru,” a “Wok Evangelist,” and the “Wok Queen.” My favorite title for Grace came from food historian (another legend) Betty Fussell, who called her “Poet laureate of the wok” – it suits her well!

All those honors were sufficient for us to include Young in “part one” of our legends’ series. Then she raised the bar. Young’s work as a culinary author and educator is only surpassed by her activism in support of the AAPI community and Chinatowns nationwide. And that’s what’s getting recent attention. 

Grace Young is something of an “accidental activist.” She did not set out to take on city hall and powerful real estate developers as they made plans to decimate part of NYCs Chinatown community. And she certainly did not see herself as an activist publicly opposing social-political-economic institutional persecution of the AAPI (Asian American and Pacific Islander) community in New York City, and for Chinatowns nationwide. 

But, when faced with an opportunity to speak out for her community, she rose to the occasion. The video series, Coronavirus: Chinatown Stories, Young made with videographer Dan Ahn and Poster House museum, is a MUST see. And it is a big part of what earned Young the James Beard Foundation’s Humanitarian of the Year award for 2022. 

4 cookbook covers by legendary women
all books available at

more about Grace Young, legendary cookbook author

Young is, above all, a food scholar. And it is for this reason that she received her second great honor of 2022 –the Julia Child Award from The Julia Child Foundation for Gastronomy and the Culinary Arts. This annual award acknowledges the work of those who make a “profound and significant difference in how America cooks, eats, and drinks.”

Grace’s new-found work as an activist for the AAPI community continues, but in a form that is best suited for this culinary historian and author – through her writing and teaching about traditional Chinese cooking, her support of traditional restaurants in Chinatowns throughout the US, and – most importantly – her love of the wok!

Grace is an avid collector of woks and always travels with one of her own for doing cooking demonstrations. You may have caught her most recent appearance on the Today show… if not, you can catch it HERE.

about the book

The Breath of a Wok: Unlocking the Spirit of Chinese Wok Cooking Through Recipes and Lore is part history, part memoir, part travelogue, part buyers’ guide, and very much a love story. It’s also a collection of recipes selected to help the cook discover the elusive and magical “wok hay” – the quality of deliciousness that comes from masterfully preparing the best ingredients that elevates them to a level greater than the sum of their parts. 

Here are a few things I learned from reading The Breath of a Wok:

  • “Nothing comes close to [the wok’s] versatility and efficiency.”
  • There is an “ancient secret” to properly seasoning a wok.
  • The traditional wok is “the iron thread that connects two thousand years of Chinese cultural history.”
  • In China, community woks are the “focal point of (rural) village life.”

Like most of my favorite cookbooks, this book offers so much more than recipes. I love to READ my cookbooks. I like to be transported. The Breath of a Wok rewards readers with captivating descriptions of meals in bustling restaurants, and visits to professional kitchens where…

“The powerful flames heat the giant woks until they are nearly red-hot…. The chef stir-fries the dish in a matter of moments, often manning two woks simultaneously.”

Delwyn Young “Baba”, Grace’s father

Then, there’s the story of the authors’ visit to a small town where the community woks were still in use and some of the last traditional wok makers were still hammering iron into works of functional art. Between the rich photography and the vivid descriptions, you will feel like you are with Young and co-author Alan Richardson as they walk through the town following the sound and senses to discover the Cen brothers’ workshop. 

The Cen brothers produce hand-hammered woks. These traditional tools were once a staple in every Chinese community. Today they’ve become a rarity. And, even cooking with a wok at home has become less common, even in China. Today, the Cen brothers have retired, and with them a part of 2000 years of history. Examples of their work can be found in the book as well as in the cover photo. And, if you have the chance to visit with Grace, as we did (via Zoom), she may even show you her very own Cen bothers’ wok and handmade iron spatula!

Grace Young’s Cen Brothers wok

the cooking part…

For each cookbook I create a menu featuring a selection of recipes – kinda like an assignment. This provides some structure for prep and for our conversations. They’re only suggestions, and many people experiment with whatever strikes their fancy. This round I also included some challenges for those who wanted to push their limits a bit. Here’s what we chose from for this book…

chicken with Sichuan peppercorns
tofu with black bean sauce 
kung pao chicken
Susanna Foo’s mango chicken

Martin Yan’s five flavors pork chops 
cousin Zane’s Sichuan beef
lions’ heads

Ken Hom’s stir fried peppers with scallops 
sir fried shrimp with garlic sauce 
Che Chung Ng’s scallops with asparagus 

rice and noodles
Ken Lo’s chow fun with beef and broccoli
Ming Tsai’s mandarin fried rice
aromatic vegetable fried rice
scallion ginger lo mein

challenge time!
moo shoo pork
try a new technique, like tea smoking
dim sum!

notes on what we cooked

Most of us approached this round of cooking like ordering off a delivery menu, picking a mix of starches and proteins and veggies to round out a full meal. And, like good delivery, leftovers were awesome!

scallion and ginger lo mein. It seems so simple. But there’s so much flavor packed into this dish. But remember, when you only have a few ingredients, they have to be the best you can buy! A couple notes on this one: one person commented that you really have to like ginger to love this recipe (I do, so I did!); and from my own experience… if you like saucy noodles, double the sauce ingredients. I enjoyed this cold as leftovers the next day. Add shrimp and or extra veggies if you want to turn this into a stand-alone meal.

Susanna Foo’s mango chicken. Hands down the fan favorite. Just the name of the dish pretty much guaranteed that! This dish has contrast…. texture, flavor, temperature. Great balance and it looks pretty on a platter.

chicken with Sichuan peppercorns. I’ve always been a fan of the tingle and zing of Sichuan peppercorns, but I’ve never really cooked with them at home. I loved learning how to properly toast and grind them, and I enjoyed this very easy dish. Next time I’ll double up on the zing though!

kung pao chicken. This is a restaurant staple that – like a good roast chicken – is so simple yet so difficult to get just right. I love having a good recipe to keep challenging myself with!

Mrs. Miu’s stir-fried fish and eggplant. The person who made this one declared it a winner and a new regular in rotation. That’s enough to inspire me to add it to my list of follow-up recipes!

salt and pepper shrimp. Here’s another restaurant staple that we all loved making our own. So simple and so good!

Martin Yan’s five flavors pork chops. My grandmother was a huge Yan Can Cook (and so can you!) fan when I was a kid. So, I made these in her honor. I don’t know if it was her influence or the recipe, but these pork chops were insanely delicious. So tender that they nearly melted in my mouth. An absolute keeper!

spicy garlic eggplant. Another keeper. I love eggplant and have my standard preparations… most of which can be found in two of our other books this season! Well, add this one to the list! And definitely make it with smaller, firmer eggplants (I used a mix of Asian varieties). Spicy caramelized goodness!

Do you have a wok you love? Have you tried cooking from The Breath of a Wok? I’d love to hear from you! Drop a message in the comments below!

I hope you’re enjoying being a part of this season’s cookbook club. I’ll continue to write these follow up posts here on Wander Eat and Tell, so make sure to subscribe/follow for the latest! This season started HERE.

If you would like to catch up with the past seasons’ books, you can get started HERE.

As always, I want to thank Kitchen Arts & Letters bookstore and the 92nd Street Y in NYC for creating these programs that provide great opportunities for furthering food and drink scholarship and enrichment. 

Note: all the links in this post are here because they’re products or services I personally support. I do not receive any sort of payment for having them here. My compensation is in no way tied to your clicks, purchases, or registrations. 

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