Saturday, November 29, 2008

Cookbook Review: The Breath of a Wok by Grace Young & Alan Richardson

The Breath of a Wok is an excellent cookbook for a beginning to moderately-skilled home cook who is looking to make an initial foray into the world of wok cooking.

This well-made, hardcover book is essentially broken into two sections. The first contains what the authors refer to rather loftily as "lore" about wok cooking, but which is really a history of the wok and description about how to select and season a wok. There is also a section on how to use the wok to achieved the elusive flavor of "Wok Hay" (the unique, concentrated flavor of food rapidly cooked at high heat, which the authors translate as breath of the wok). While the discussion of Wok Hay is somewhat instructive and certainly poetic, it is the information on how to chose and season your wok that is the most useful. For those who've never made such a purchase, or used such an item, this information is vital. From my cheat sheet: get rid of the fancy, expensive non-stick wok you got off your wedding registry. This is not a wok. Go spend $10 in a Chinese market on a carbon steel flat-bottomed wok. Be willing to not scrub it clean each time you use it, rub it lovingly with peanut oil, and in a few weeks you'll be cooking wonderful dishes in no time.

The second section of the book is, of course, the recipes. You'll find all the basics here, but none of the icky Americanized Chinese food you get at so many restaurants. This is simple, quite authentic-tasting food with minimal ingredients, and all of them *fresh* ingredients. Most of the things that the recipes call for are easy to find. The recipe sections are broken down by technique (Stir-Frying, Smoking, Pan-Frying, Braising, Boiling & Poaching, Steaming, and Deep-Frying). There are recipes for chicken, pork, beef, vegetables, and seafood (lots of great shrimp dishes). Some are things you might expect, such as Kung Pao Chicken, but many are new to the American home cook, and are wonderful (think Braised Beef Short Ribs with Scallion, Singapore-Style Squid, and delicate Scallops with Asparagus).

The book is dotted liberally with beautiful photography, the recipes are well-explained, and a glossary provides information on potentially unfamiliar ingredients.

If you know someone who has been contemplating getting into Chinese cooking, get them this cookbook ($23 on along with a good, cheap wok (I've had plenty of luck with my Joyce Chen wok) and a wooden stir-fry paddle. They'll be set for a great new culinary adventure!

Bon Appetit!

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