Grace Young is one of the most prominent wok advocates in the English-speaking world. Her first cookbook, The Wisdom of the Chinese Kitchen, has been credited with introducing legions of non-Chinese cooks to the fundamental technique known as wok hei, the distinct flavor created with proper wok technique, which she so poetically translated as “the breath of the wok.” Her subsequent cookbook, The Breath of a Wok, explored the technique further, and established her as an authority on woks, their use, and their upkeep, so much so that she has become a self-described wok therapist, offering guidance via email to nervous fans seasoning their woks for the first time.
And yet, despite the fact that she is one of the foremost authorities on wok-cooking, Young recalls that she never once saw her parents use one at home. “We lived in a house that had an electric stove. A round-bottom wok would not have worked on it,” she says. Instead, she watched them cook on an American Farberware skillet and a Revere Ware pot.
For years, Young assumed her parents just never owned a wok. But a few months after her father passed away, her brother handed her a large paper bag. Inside was a gorgeous round-bottom, carbon steel, Cantonese-style wok with two metal ear handles. The wok had an incredibly thick patina. “It was my parents’ from when they cooked in 1949 through the mid-50s,” she says. “It was from when they had a gas stove.”
Today, Young’s family wok is going to the Smithsonian as an artifact of Chinese-American history, and in many ways, its unusual story is a microcosm for how many in the Chinese diaspora stopped using the cooking tool but—through the efforts of people like Young—are slowly rediscovering its potential. “It’s a very important wok because it tells the sad story of how Chinese Americans have abandoned the wok,” she says.
We wanted to get the scoop on Young’s wok collection, including whether we could crack open her tightly-held secret on how many woks she actually owns. I spoke to her about her love for the trusty cooking vessel, her impressive collection, and her efforts to combat anti-Asian hate and help struggling mom-and-pop businesses in Chinatowns across America through the #LoveAAPI campaign. We did the interview via Zoom, with her kitchen framed in the background, and I found it delightful how all throughout the conversation she kept pulling woks from out of the oven behind her, out of drawers, from under the table, and seemingly out of thin air.
Interview has been condensed and shortened for clarity.
So…how many woks do you own?
I’ve never disclosed [the number] to anybody because I have so many and I don’t want my husband to know. But I can tell you I have some in my kitchen cabinet here, in my kitchen oven, and I always have one on the surface. I have them under my desk. I have them in an upper cabinet in one of our rooms and under the bed—I have them stashed all over the place.
Why did you start collecting woks?
When I see a wok that’s unique and beautiful, I just can’t resist. I basically sneak woks into the apartment. My husband always says, “What do you mean it’s a wok? You don’t need another wok.” I’m even lowering my voice because he’s in the other room right now. I knew that this Newquist wok was coming recently and I was going to sneak it in. But it was such a huge box and my husband happened to be coming into the apartment and the mailman handed it to him. So he says to me, “What’s this?” And I couldn’t lie, so I’m like, “Well, it’s another wok.” And he’s like, “You know, you don’t need another wok.” But when I opened the box my husband said, “Oh my God, that’s stunning. That’s like a work of art.”
I always joke that in my next lifetime, I’m going to collect chopsticks.
Grace Young Demonstrates Why The Wok Is The Only Pan You Need
What are some of your favorite woks?
One of them is made by the Cen Brothers, who created the wok that’s on the cover of “Breath of a Wok.” They were wok artisans in Shanghai and one of the last people that we know of that were hand-pounding woks in Shanghai. I haven’t seasoned that one because I want to preserve the look of an unseasoned wok made by the Cen brothers.
I also have a Newquist wok. It’s a hand-pounded wok by an American who lives in the Pacific Northwest. Do you see how the handles are really ornate? He was a blacksmith for many years. He made garden tools and carbon steel sauté pans and all kinds of different things, and then apparently he and his wife took a trip to Thailand and [got] really into Asian cooking. That inspired him to want to create a wok, but he was having trouble making it, and then he came across a copy of “The Breath of a Wok.” I don’t know how he got it, but he said between the photographs that were in the book and my descriptions of what the Cen brothers did, he was able to figure out how to create the wok.
Why don’t you season all of your woks?
The moment you season it, it’s really hard to see the hand-pounding. When it’s unseasoned, it’s much easier to appreciate the workmanship of the wok.
Of your collection, which woks do you find yourself using the most?
I can’t use anything bigger than my 16-inch, round-bottomed, Cantonese-made cast iron wok since my residential stove doesn’t have enough power for a bigger wok—I can’t get it hot enough. And I don’t use my 12-inch pow wok, which is a northern Chinese wok (also known as the Peking pan) that’s also round-bottomed, because pow woks are too small.
For an American stove, the most practical is a 14-inch, flat-bottomed carbon steel wok. I love carbon steel because it heats up quickly and distributes the heat up the sides of the wok.
Is a high-powered commercial stove necessary to use most woks?
So many people get so focused on, “Oh the wok has to be super hot and I can’t achieve the same heat that a restaurant stove can achieve.” But if you overheat the wok, it’s actually dangerous and you can create a situation where things catch on fire.
The best way to judge whether or not the wok is hot enough is to heat it on high without any oil in it and then flick a drop of water. When the drop of water evaporates immediately, the wok is ready to go. Then you swirl in your oil. If the oil immediately starts smoking wildly, you’ve overheated the wok. You should take it off the heat, cover it until the smoke subsides, then pour out the oil, use a paper towel to remove all the excess oil, wash it, and start all over again. But if you add the oil and there’s just a whiff of smoke, that’s okay. Whatever your first ingredient is—if it’s ginger, if it’s garlic—there should be a sizzle sound.
Most of the woks you own are made out of carbon steel. Why are you partial to this material?
I think the fact that Chinese restaurants only use carbon steel woks tells you everything. Chinese restaurants never use stainless steel. They don’t use anodized aluminum. And they never use cast iron because Chinese cast iron is too fragile.
I live in Taiwan now and with the exception of my grandmother, very few people I know out here actually own a proper carbon-steel wok anymore. Most people are really into nonstick, and I’ve noticed the same thing with Asians in America as well.
One thing that’s super, super depressing [is that] if you go to Chinatown, the majority of woks that you see being sold are nonstick, which are inferior for stir-frying. Asian-Americans are really into nonstick, and I feel as though that back in the ’60s or ’70s, Americans were totally seduced by nonstick cookware. I actually spoke to the owner of one big market in Chinatown and I was like “Why do you have so much nonstick?” And she’s like, “That’s what our customers demand.”
People don’t realize it’s a loss of culture. The wok has existed for 2000 years and [it’s] at a crossroads right now.
Speaking of a loss of culture, you note that you never saw your parents use a wok at home. How did you learn how to season woks?
The majority of the cookbooks that were written before mine all gave the same instructions, which was to scrub it, remove the factory coating, and dry it. Then everyone seemed to say, smear oil in the wok and heat it until it smokes. But when you use too much oil, it becomes this gummy, sticky, oily mess. I did it, thought I made a mistake, and then I kind of abandoned the wok.
It wasn’t until I was in my late 20s or 30s that I was in New York City’s Chinatown and I saw this wok in a store called Hung Chong, which sold restaurant equipment. And so I bought this wok, and as I’m going out the door, I turn to the clerk and I say, “How do you season a wok?” And she says, “Oh, you just use Chinese chives.”
And so I go to the vegetable vendor and before I even say anything, the vegetable vendor asks if I want Chinese chives. And I was like “How do you know I want Chinese chives?” And he said, “I see the handles of your wok.”
So it was like this inside Chinese secret as far as I was concerned. I came home, washed it, scrubbed it, dried it, and then stir-fried Chinese chives. And it worked. Then I started cooking with it and pretty soon I could fry an egg and it was just slipping and sliding.
What’s a moment in your wok career (good or bad) that you’ll never forget?
I was once on the Food Network and at the end of the show, the dishwasher came up to me and he said, “Your wok was very dirty.” He had scoured off all of the patina. He removed, at that point it must have been like 15 or 20 years [worth of patina].
Oh my goodness. I’m so sorry.
I always tell that story to show people that when you start cooking with a wok—protect it. Don’t let your spouse or partner or best friend wash your wok. Just make it really clear to everyone that you’re taking care of your wok. I never leave my wok anywhere overnight when I travel; it will always come back to the hotel room with me.
How do you even travel with a wok? Does TSA freak out?
I always put it in my carry-on. I have a special carry-on that just fits the wok.
But I have to tell you that if you’ve never traveled with your wok, you have not truly experienced TSA. They’re putting on gloves and they’re unzipping the bag. They basically just treat me like I’m a criminal and tell me not to talk. Then they pull it out and they go, “Oh, it’s a wok,” and then everybody’s like smiling and laughing. One time this guy said to me, “What’s the secret to fried rice?” So yeah, it is pretty hilarious.
My wok has gone to Hong Kong, the Philippines, Singapore, Bali. It’s been on cruise trips. It’s been to spas. (Spas love me because wok cooking is super healthy, so I’ve been invited to quite a few spas.) It’s logged a lot of miles.
Other than traveling the country and spreading the word on woks, what else have you been focused on lately?
My objective right now is to try and help AAPI [Asian American and Pacific Islanders] businesses throughout the United States because many are on the brink. It’s really important that people are reminded that they can make a difference and instead of just saying I’m against anti-Asian hate, that they actually support these little mom-and-pop businesses and show their love for the AAPI community. I’ve partnered with the James Beard Foundation and Poster House museum on the #LoveAAPI social media campaign, where you post a video or photo of your favorite AAPI restaurant, grocer, or shop with that hashtag, and tell us why you love it. These businesses need our support more than ever.
The NYPD just announced anti-Asian hate crime incidents are up 361% since last year. The FBI reports anti-Asian hate crime incidents increased 73% nationwide in 2020. The problem right now with anti-Asian hate is when you have a woman that’s pushed onto the subway tracks, it makes the AAPI community think twice about [going] out. It makes you definitely feel scared to be in Chinatown at night when it’s quiet and desolate. Restaurants, stores, and shops are suffering, which means that they’re at risk of closing. They’ve already had two years of hardships of mounting debt and rent, and most of them aren’t operating at what they were making pre-pandemic. So it means the end of a lot of stores and restaurants, and that’s how developers just zoom in, and we get a Chinatown that’s wiped out. It’s really important that all of us do our part, and everyone can do a part really easily.