I've been seeing Grace Young's The Breath of a Wok around for several years now, but had always skipped over it. Though I do love a good Hong Kong style meal, when I'm cooking Asian dinners at home my preferences lean toward Sichuan and Hunan (and, of course, the spicy cuisines of Thailand and Korea). I picked it up at a bookstore and was quickly captivated by Grace Young's tale of her quest for "wok culture" and wok hay, that elusive seared taste that can only be achieved in a well-seasoned wok.
Young guides her reader on a trip across China, touring a factory where skilled craftsmen fashion increasingly hard to find hand-hammered woks, seeking out street vendors with their woks set over portable stoves, visiting a village where an immense communal wok set over a stone hearth is use for everything from boiling soybeans for tofu to water for washing for clothes, and venturing into restaurant kitchens with their high powered wok stoves. (I want one!) All of this is fascinating reading in itself — a mix of cooking tips and culinary travelogue. The home chef will appreciate the detailed descriptions of types of woks, how to season and clean them, and cooking tips for achieving wok hay. Before reading this, I hadn't realized that there was a reason some woks have a single long handle and others have two "ear"-like handles (it's a Northern vs. Southern thing relating to cooking technique), or that there was even such a thing as a cast iron wok (but don't drop them on a hard surface because they'll crack!).
The recipes include both traditional and contemporary ones, including a few influenced by American ingredients. They're adapted from a large group of chefs including Ming Tsai, Martin Yan, Florence Lin, Ken Hom, and a host of other highly skilled professionals, as well as her own family and friends and author Amy Tan. If you're wanting a detailed, authentic exploration of Sichuan or Hunan regional cuisines, I recommend Fuchsia Dunlop. If you want to see a pleasing range of dishes from Northern China down to Hong Kong, with a focus on the more subtly flavored side of Chinese cuisine, and you want to understand the techniques of wok use, The Breath of a Wok is a good place to start. And if you're serious about Chinese cooking, you should have both.
All her recipes call for flat-bottomed woks — probably out of the assumption that most American kitchens are not equipped with a gas stove that can supply the heat needed for a round-bottomed wok. If you're lucky enough — as we are — to have a powerful gas stove with a good wok grate that holds the wok close over the flames, a flat-bottomed wok isn't necessary. (Wok rings that sit on top of your regular grate don't get the wok close enough to the flames.) If you aren't, you can still do this stuff, but you probably will need a flat-bottomed wok. And don't bother with electric woks; they aren't powerful enough and are mostly non-stick, which believe it or not messes up the flavor by preventing the food from caramelizing properly. (Though a brief search suggests that this 1500 Watt one might prove me wrong on the power issue...)
Recipe in the extended post...