If you enjoy Chinese food this book might be for you – even if you never plan to try and cook it for yourself.
In a nutshell you get a wonderful book prepared with love, care and feeling by the authors that takes you behind the lore and mystique of Chinese food and starts with the first key ingredient – a good wok!
Page after page of family memories related to the wok, culture and folklore, traditional methods of production and just “why” a wok is needed compared to a skillet or pan start the book off. A more comprehensive history and overview you could not ask for and it is a pleasurable read that imparts much information.
Did you know, for example, that the earliest woks date from the Han Dynasty (206 BC-220 AD) and that the wok was so highly praised that smaller pottery versions were even buried with many people to take them to the afterlife!
Important advice about choosing the right wok for your circumstances (for a modern western home) is provided and then it is back to the serious, honourable matters of “opening” the wok, that is to say the all-important preparation of the wok prior to use. It is vital to state that this book does not skimp on the information and whilst some might find it repetitive and long-winded and consider skipping large sections you are advised not to do so as what might be seen as repetition is, in fact, careful consideration of matters. Read, digest and you will be rewarded. In many cases no one opinion is given, but a range of different counterpoints and viewpoints that have been handed down through family generations and often never written down are duly presented.
Much information is also given about the care of the wok and practical importance of it. No throwing it in the dishwasher or attacking it with scouring products. For many cooks the wok and the chopper are their key work tools, so you want to keep them in good order at all times.
It is a good way through the book before one even gets to look at cooking with your wok, such is the love being provided to this “humble pan.” Once one gets to the cooking stages it is noticeable that any recipes are almost an afterthought in favour of good, practical advice about the best way to cook a specific ingredient and, perhaps more importantly, why such a thing is considered and recommended over something else.
The recipes, however, are no last minute addition and one feels that equal care has been lavished on them to ensure that they do fit the overall style and approach of the book. The recipes are relatively easy to follow but this does not set out to be a beginner’s book. Even if you produce the food as described in a recipe, this is only part of the battle as a good artist might be able to paint a dog, but the style and appearance of the dog can make a world of difference.
Throughout the book there are many wonderful full colour photographs that help round out the text and providing in place visual stimulation. They would not be out of place in a travel guide as they do make you want to be there. If a book could reproduce the sights and smells (that would come from the picture) one could imagine that this book would equally do them justice.
The book ends with a overview of “essentials” such as a complete glossary of terms and a very compressive in-depth index. All in all this is a complete book. It might not have as many recipes as some other books but it does have the love and feeling and hopefully this can be transferred to the reader to enable them to do more than just make Chinese food. Hopefully through time, even if they don’t have a drop of Chinese heritage in their body they will be able to slowly develop “the feeling and the way”.
The Breath of a Wok: Unlocking the Spirit of Wok Cooking Through Recipes and Lore, written by Grace Young & Alan Richardson and published by Simon & Schuster. ISBN 0-7432-3827-3, 240 pages. Typical price: GBP20.
This is a RETROspective review of a previously-published book that, whilst not new on the market, is still available and the review has been made of the book as it stands today.