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Capturing the Elusive 'Breath of a Wok'


Melissa Block recently visited New York's Chinatown with food writer Grace Young. They went in search of the perfect wok -- the first ingredient in capturing an elusive quality called wok hay. In Cantonese, hay means energy, life force or breath.

In her latest book, The Breath of a Wok, Young writes about the magical essence that is released by a good wok when it is properly cared for and heated to the right temperature, and when the freshest ingredients are used.

Young says a Chinese cast-iron wok should have a clear, bell-like tone when banged on the floor. And avoid non-stick woks -- the food won't taste the same, she says.

Following, from Young's book, are stir-frying recipes and more wok hay tips:

Liang Nian Xiu’s Moon Hill Corn and Beans

(Serves 4 as part of a multi-course meal.)

1 tablespoon vegetable oil

1 tablespoon minced garlic

1 tablespoon minced ginger

1 tablespoon minced mild fresh chilies

3 medium ears corn, kernels scraped off (about 2 1/2 cups)

1/3 cup roughly chopped green beans

3/4 teaspoon salt

1 ripe medium tomato, cut into thin wedges

1/4 teaspoon sugar

Heat a 14-inch flat-bottomed wok over high heat until a bead of water vaporizes within 1 to 2 seconds of contact. Swirl in the oil and add the garlic, ginger and chilies and stir-fry 30 seconds. Add the corn, green beans and salt and stir-fry 1 minute. Add the tomato wedges and stir-fry 1 minute. Add 2 tablespoons cold water and the sugar and stir-fry 1 to 2 minutes more or until the tomatoes are just wilted and the vegetables are tender.

Seasoning a Wok: Hung Chong Chinese Chive and Oil Stir-Fry

(Carbon-Steel Wok)

The first time I seasoned a wok without problems, I used this recipe, which I learned at the Hung Chong wok shop in New York's Chinatown. Make sure the chives are very dry after washing to prevent the oil from spattering. One bunch of scallions cut into 3-inch pieces and 1/2 cup of sliced ginger can be substituted for the chives in this recipe. Scallions and ginger are said to remove the wok's metallic taste. Smell the wok after seasoning -- the metal will have a strong fragrance from the aromatics.

1/2 bunch Chinese chives (about 7 ounces)

2 tablespoons vegetable oil

1. Wash the inside and outside of the wok with hot water, using a stainless-steel scrubber and liquid dishwashing soap. Rinse with hot water. Dry the wok with paper towels, then place over low heat 1 to 2 minutes until the pan is totally dry. Cut the chives into 2-inch pieces.

2. Open the window and turn the exhaust fan on high. Heat the wok over high heat until a bead of water vaporizes within 1 to 2 seconds of contact. Swirl in the oil and add the chives. Reduce the heat to medium and stir-fry 15 minutes, using a spatula to push the mixture up the sides of the wok to the edge. If the mixture becomes dry, add an additional tablespoon of oil. Remove from the heat. Cool. Discard the chives.

3. Wash the wok with hot water and a soft sponge. Dry over low heat 1 to 2 minutes. The wok is seasoned and ready for cooking.

Jean Yueh's Shanghai-Style Shrimp

(Serves 4 as part of a multi-course meal.)

Cookbook author and teacher Jean Yueh advises that the shrimp can be made ahead, transferred to a platter, and served at room temperature. Yueh tells me the shrimp are even better the next day after they absorb the sweet and savory Shanghai-style sauce.

1 pound large shrimp

3 1/2 tablespoons soy sauce

1 teaspoon red wine vinegar

2 tablespoons vegetable oil

3 slices ginger

2 scallions, cut into 2-inch pieces

1 tablespoon dry sherry

3 tablespoons sugar, or to taste

1 tablespoon sesame oil, optional

1. Using kitchen shears, cut through the shrimp shells two-thirds of the length down the back of the shrimp. Remove the legs and devein the shrimp, leaving the shells and tails on. Rinse the unpeeled shrimp, drain and set on several sheets of paper towels. With more paper towels, pat the shrimp dry. In a small bowl combine the soy sauce and vinegar.

2. Heat a 14-inch flat-bottomed wok over high heat until a bead of water vaporizes within 1 to 2 seconds of contact. Swirl in the vegetable oil, add the ginger and scallions, and stir-fry 30 seconds or until aromatic. Add the shrimp and stir-fry 30 seconds. Add the sherry and stir-fry a few seconds. Swirl in the soy sauce mixture and sprinkle in the sugar. Stir-fry the shrimp 1 to 2 minutes or until the sauce is distributed and the shrimp are just cooked. Remove from the heat. Stir in the sesame oil if desired. Serve immediately or at room temperature.

From The Breath of a Wok by Grace Young and Alan Richardson. Copyright © 2004 by Grace Young and Alan Richardson. Reprinted by permission of Simon & Schuster, Inc.

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As special correspondent and guest host of NPR's news programs, Melissa Block brings her signature combination of warmth and incisive reporting. Her work over the decades has earned her journalism's highest honors, and has made her one of NPR's most familiar and beloved voices.