An Evening With Grace Young

I remember the first time I saw Grace Young’s first book, The Wisdom of the Chinese Kitchen.

I worked at the Borders Bookstore in Columbia, Maryland in the café as a barista. That wasn’t all I did, of course–I also was a personal chef and had just started teaching Asian cookery through Howard County Parks and Recreation’s excellent adult education program. But I kept my job at Borders for several reasons; I enjoyed making coffee drinks–being a barista, I have always said is like having all the good parts of being a bartender–the fun atmosphere, the cool coworkers, the witty banter with guests, and the creativity of making drinks–without the downside of dealing with drunks. In addition to actually enjoying the job, I got a great benefit–a discount on books, music and DVD’s.

Anyone who has seen my library can attest to the love of books being a major portion of my life. Cookbooks, especially, take up an inordinate amount of room on my shelves, and I am constantly looking at new titles in bookstores, as well as scouring musty-smelling used bookstores for long out of print titles which might contain a crumb of information that I would find crucial at some point in my culinary wanderings.

So, the first time I saw Wisdom of the Chinese Kitchen, I had just finished my shift at the Café at Borders and decided to check out the new cookbook titles I had seen a coworker studiously shelving all day. There is where I discovered Grace Young. And her mother and grandmother, all of whom smiled at me from the cover of her book. I picked it up and was hooked.

Unlike many cookbook authors, Grace Young is a storyteller. I appreciate that, since not only do I cook from cookbooks, I read them the way other people read novels. I fully admit that perhaps such behavior is strange; however, it is an outgrowth of a belief that I have held since I was a child that if only you understand what people of other cultures eat, how they cook and why they cook and eat it the way they do, then you have a hold of a key which opens the door to your understanding of them as a people. Food is a transmitter of culture, and I have understood this since childhood. Every culture has special foods that are eaten at certain holidays that have not only nutritional value, but layers of symbolic religious and cultural meaning that can help us understand a great deal about others if we only try and decipher what those meanings are.

I came by this belief because of a single photograph in one book. That photograph haunts me still–it was of a little girl who was probably about four years old in Hong Kong, eating a simple bowl of noodles with chopsticks. The photograph was a close-up, focusing on her eyes, her hands as they held the bowl up close to her mouth, and her expression as she deftly ate what looked to me to be impossibly slippery thread-slender noodles with her chopsticks held in softly rounded fingers.

It was in a book that was part of an encyclopedia set for children, and the book was about culture and holidays around the world. The girl with the noodles headed the chapter that was about food around the world. My cousins had that book, and every time we visited them, I would take that book out and absorb the photographs of people all around the world celebrating beautiful, wondrous holidays and eating foods that I could not even dream of, they were so fascinatingly different. But I always came back to that little girl, her bowl, her noodles and her chopsticks. I just knew that if I could eat those noodles, if I could pick them up with chopsticks and taste what she was tasting, I would be able to have some measure of understanding of what lay behind her haunting eyes. I would be able to experience her world.

So, I took to reading cookbooks about foods from other lands, and in my mind, I traveled to kitchens all over the world and smelled and tasted the lives of people who did not speak English, but that did not matter. I knew that we spoke the same universal language–that of food, family, and celebration.

I digress. At any rate, I opened Wisdom of the Chinese Kitchen and came upon a wealth of stories from Grace Young’s family, tales of what they cooked and ate and how they cooked and why they cooked it that way. A full four chapters covered the celebration of the Spring Festival, also known as Chinese New Year, with discussions of the symbolism behind each food that was eaten at that time, and how and why. The complexities of Chinese philosophy and folk belief could be conveyed in a single meal, and I knew I was in familiar territory. Grace Young -got- it.

Clutching the book to my bosom, I scurried up to the cash register, plunked down my tips and bought it. I then spent several days devouring it in great gulps of fast reading, and then, later, took my time digesting the many treasures within.

One great piece of information had me rushing in to flap my arms and crow excitedly to my husband, “That’s it! That’s how to do it! I thought it was impossible!”

Zak is a patient man. He looked up from his drawing desk where he was working on a project for his master’s thesis in digital art and blinked owlishly at me. “What?”

I then rattled off in breathless sentences how Grace Young was the only author who told the secret of getting the true scent and flavor of stir fried food on a home stove. “You have to let the meat sit on the bottom of the wok without stirring it so it will brown a bit and after it sears, -then- you start stirring it!”

He looked at me as if he was disappointed in the great revelation. “But don’t you do that already?” he asked mildly.

I nodded avidly. “Yes, yes, but I thought I was crazy! No other author says to do it. They all say you have to stir fry as soon as the meat goes in, but if you do that, it doesn’t get that seared taste that you get in restaurant kitchens because the stoves are so hot. In a restaurant kitchen, you -have- to stir fry immediately or the food will burn! I’d been doing this, because I answered the phone once while cooking and left the wok on the heat and it turned out really good, but I thought I was doing it wrong! Now I know that is how Chinese American home cooks have been doing it all along!”

I dashed away before he could shake his head and mutter at me. He is patient, really, and can discuss food intelligently–my nattering has probably worn off on him. But sometimes, I still speak in tongues when I come running up to him and blather some incomprehensible thing in his general direction. He almost always smiles and nods, because he knows that he will reap the benefit at the dinner table.

So, at any rate, I felt confident teaching that technique of stir-frying in a wok on a home stove, knowing that it was taught in at least one Chinese-American cookbook and was a technique that had been passed down in a family. It wasn’t just a mistake that I made once that turned out really well. It was something that other people really did, too.

At any rate, when Grace Young’s second book, The Breath of a Wok came out, I ordered it immediately from Amazon. And when it was delivered, I tore the cardboard wrapping from it and proceeded to stare gleefully at the beautiful photographs by Alan Richardson and to read snippets of Grace’s prose, my eyes breath quickening as I learned more about wok culture in one book than I had been able to synthesize from my years of experiences working in a Chinese restaurant, reading Chinese cookbooks and teaching Chinese cookery to countless students, both public and private.

It was funny, too–I had just received a flat-bottomed Chinese cast iron wok from Tane Chan at the Wok Shop in San Francisco, and had been cooking the best Chinese food that I had ever made in it, and was amazed at how hot I could get it on my electric cast iron burner elements on my stove. I had started producing dishes filled with “wok hay” which is what the title refers to–the breath of the wok. It is that wonderful rich scent/flavor that you get from Chinese restaurant food that comes to your table sizzling hot, filled with the savor that comes from being cooked at very high heat in a well-seasoned wok. It is that elusive flavor that I called “wok taste” for years when teaching cooking, but which I refer to now by its Cantonese name, which sounds more poetic, and does have that mystical connotation that food is not only a bundle of nutrients, but it has an energy of its own that we add to our personal energy that exists in our bodies.

“Wok hay” has been pronounced as impossible to recreate at home by such Western cooking authorities as Alton Brown, who insists that Americans are better stir-frying in a regular sauté pan and just resign ourselves to never having Chinese food at home that is as good as a restaurant. Well, I have wanted to tell Alton Brown for a while now that I am going to side with all the thousands of Chinese American mothers, grandmothers, fathers and grandfathers who have been serving food blossoming with “wok hay” and passing the knowledge of how to do it along with their woks to their kids for generations.

At any rate, it was back in November when I found out that Grace Young, as part of her tour of public appearances, was going to be in Columbus at Sur la Table to teach a class on “The Chinese New Year Menu” on January 12, 2005. As soon as I saw that, I emailed Shelley, the coordinator of the culinary programs at the Columbus store and asked if I could volunteer to assist Ms. Young that night. Usually, Sur la Table employees assist the instructors, but I thought that it might be nice if there was someone there who specialized in Chinese cooking to help with prep and cooking so that Ms. Young could talk and teach at the same time and not worry about things like playing with the deep frying oil for the spring rolls.

I was thrilled that Shelley gave me a very enthusiastic yes.

When I showed up that afternoon, Shelley was nowhere in sight, but there was Grace, and an assistant, chopping away at things. Although I was, as my Gram would say, “as nervous as a cat in a room full of rocking chairs,” I did as I always do in those circumstances. I held my head high, walked in as if I was supposed to be there, stowed my jacket and purse, put on an apron, and walked up and asked if I could help.

Grace looked at me, smiled, introduced herself and as I shook her hand and told her my name, and said that I taught Asian cooking at Sur la Table, specializing in Chinese, she squeezed my hand, her smiled widening, and said, “Oh, you are -that- Barbara. Shelley told me you would be here.” As I started wiping down countertops and straightening things, Grace began the process of getting to know me, which meant she began asking a lot of questions. I could tell that she was good at interviewing people.

As she handed me several pounds of romaine lettuce hearts to wash, dry and cut up to be stir fried (yes, stir fried lettuce–I am getting to that), she asked me how I had learned about Sichuan food. I told her the long tale of how I had worked as a waitress in a Sichuan restaurant in, of all places, Huntington, West Virginia, and how I then became “adopted” into the family of the chef/owner, who then started feeding me dinner at his table. In that simple act–in that one act of fellowship, Huy Khuu, the chef, began the process, completely unknowingly, of training my palate to parse out the flavors of Sichuan food. I began to understand the difference between Americanized Chinese foods, and true Chinese foods, both celebratory dishes and home style meals. As I related to Grace, Huy had under chefs from all over China; one was from Beijing, another had been educated in Shanghai, and several were Cantonese, and one grandfatherly gentleman who took a great liking to me, was a dim sum chef from Hong Kong. All of them cooked dishes from their repertoires for employee meals and celebratory dinners that Huy and his wife, Mei, would host.

I told her that once Huy realized that I could cook, I wasn’t allowed to watch him cook anymore, out of fear that I would give away his secrets, but that the other chefs, particularly Lo, my dim sum chef friend, would take me aside and teach me on the sly. It was from Lo that I learned my first Sichuan dish–it was extremely popular in the restaurant, and people would line up around the block to get it when it was a lunch special. It was called “Shredded Chicken with Garlic Sauce,” though the proper name is “Shredded Chicken with Fish-Fragrant Sauce.” Fish-fragrant does not mean that it tastes like fish, it means that the sauce is traditionally used on fish to give it a beautiful, delicious scent. But you can see why the name is nearly always changed to “Garlic Sauce” on an American menu; while it is less poetic, it is more appetizing to the average American.

I told her how, on my last day working at the restaurant, Lo waited until Huy had gone to take his daughters lunch he had cooked for them, then beckoned me back into the kitchen. Glancing around furtively, the tall man, whispered to me to get out a pen and paper, and he said, “I will show you this one time. One time.” He took my elbow and brought me back into the chef’s domain–the inner sanctum. He brought me back to the wok stove, and picked up the Peking pao pan–the smaller, one handled carbon steel wok, and then, began the process of cooking “Shredded Chicken with Fish-Fragrant Sauce.” He explained carefully, in his spotty English, what he was doing and smiled at me as I scribbled furiously in a notebook.
When it was done, we ate it together, and he said, “See, this tastes like my garlic sauce, not like Huy’s. He does something different. I cannot show it to you–it is his. But I give you this gift to say goodbye, because you remind me of my granddaughter back home–full of wanting to know. When you cook it, you will think of your old friend, Lo.”

Lo was right–his garlic sauce tasted different. I had known that for a while–I could always tell when Lo cooked it and when Huy cooked it. There was the slightest different flavor that I could not for the life of me quantify, but it was there.

I told Grace how I remember nearly crying at the sweetness of Lo’s gift that he had entrusted to me, and how for years and years, I studied and looked up recipes in books, and cooked that recipe over and over. And how, finally, about ten years later, figured out what the difference was.

Lo used only white rice vinegar in the recipe, while Huy used both black and white rice vinegar.

Such a small thing, but something that was crucial, that put Huy’s stamp on a traditional Sichuan recipe, and made it his own. When I finally replicated that flavor, I did cry, because I remembered both Huy and Lo, and how Huy would teasingly hide his wok while he cooked with his body when I was in the kitchen, and how Lo would, behind Huy’s back, explain the mysteries of Chinese food to me.

Here is the recipe for Chicken with Garlic Sauce–if you want to taste it as Lo taught me, then replace the black rice vinegar for white rice vinegar. If you want to taste it Huy’s way, then use both. I do not feel guilty giving this recipe away now; Huy has retired and his restaurant is closed, and besides–there are good recipes for just this dish in many other places, if you know where to look. (Try Fuchsia Dunlop’s excellent book, Land of Plenty–it is the single greatest work on the food of Sichuan province written in English that is in print today–I will review it in a future entry. But don’t look for the secret under the name Chicken with Garlic Sauce, because you won’t find it!)

Chicken with Garlic Sauce

1 lb boneless skinless chicken breasts, cut into 1″ long thin strips.
2 tbsp. Shao Hsing wine, or dry sherry

2 tsp. cornstarch

1 tbsp. freshly ground black pepper

2 tbsp. rice vinegar

2 tbsp. black rice vinegar

2 tbsp. dark soy sauce

1 tbsp. Shao Hsing wine

2 tbsp. sugar

2 tsp. chili garlic paste

1/4 tsp. sesame oil

1 head garlic, minced

2 tbsp. minced fresh ginger

1 bunch scallions, white and light green parts, minced

8 fresh water chestnuts, peeled and thinly sliced *

1 piece (about 2 ½-3” square) black cloud ear fungus soaked and drained

1 bunch scallions, dark green parts, thinly sliced

2 tsp. cornstarch dissolved into 2 tsp. water

Peanut oil as needed for stir frying

Marinate chicken with wine, cornstarch and black pepper while cutting vegetables.
Mix together sauce ingredients: vinegars, soy sauce, wine, sugar, chili garlic paste and sesame oil. Set aside.

Slice water chestnuts into shreds, about three pieces per slice. Trim any woody parts from the fungus and discard. Roll up fungus into a cigar shape and thinly slice crosswise to make thin ribbon-like shreds.

Heat wok on high heat until it is about to start smoking, add oil and heat until it shimmers, then stir fry garlic, ginger and white part of scallion together for thirty seconds. Add drained chicken, and pat into a layer on the bottom of the wok. Allow chicken to brown lightly by sitting undisturbed on the wok for 45-60 seconds. Stir and fry until chicken is nearly done.

Add water chestnuts, fungus and sauce ingredients. Bring sauce to a boil. Add cornstarch and water, boil until thickened and glossy. Remove from heat and garnish with green scallion tops.

*If you cannot find fresh water chestnuts, which is a very sad thing, then I would suggest that you do like Ming Tsai says and use jicama instead. Jicama looks kind of like a cross between a water chestnut and a giant radish, and has a similar crisp texture and slightly sweet flavor that a fresh water chestnut has. It is also increasingly available in grocery stores. Just peel it and cut it into pieces a bit smaller than the chicken strips, and cook as you would the water chestnuts. If you cannot find jicama, then go ahead and use canned water chestnuts. They have the nice texture, but they contribute nothing to the flavor of the dish. I tell you, that if you use fresh water chestnuts, you will turn up your nose at the canned ones for ever afterwards. There is just no comparison. The fresh ones are sweet and divinely crisp, and they add a delicate sparkle to this particular dish.

By the time all of these stories were told, the lettuce had been washed, drained, put through a salad spinner, cut into bite sized pieces and then towel dried. I was just portioning the lettuce into three bowls for cooking–it had to be done in batches, there was so much of it, and was nearly finished with that when Grace said, “So, you have this old Chinese soul in you and you don’t know where it came from, do you?”

I looked up in shock, and then laughed and said, “In culinary school, all of my Asian student friends used to tease me and say that in my last life I was an old Chinese epicure, and that my tongue is constantly trying to find those familiar flavors again.” She laughed with me and nodded. “Maybe they are right.”

We kept working together, and after that, we traded stories like friends. I discovered that she is as much of a storyteller in person as in print, and we had a good time as the students began trickling in, and the prep work was done. We watched them, and she told me a story of a friend who once had the fortune of having a class with Julia Child, though this friend was not a cook herself. She had been invited to go along with another friend, an avid cook, who bowed out at the last minute. When she realized that it was a hands-on class, the woman tried to bow out, but because she had brought Julia a bottle of wine as a gift, Julia insisted that she stay, and promised to help her.

Well, when the recipes were given out, Julia gave the non-cook the sole, because it was the simplest dish. As the other students scattered with their recipes and began working, apparently our non-cooking protagonist began to make great messes and as Grace said to me, “All the other students just kept as far away from her as possible.”

When the dishes were assembled and done, and were given to Julia to present to the class so they could be eaten, apparently the sole was burned. Completely black. And this, Grace said, was way before Paul Prudhomme had taken the country by storm with his blackened redfish. So, when Julia picked up the dish, and presented it to the class, she said, “And this is a very fine dish of blackened sole. Do try it.”

To the horrified cook, Julia said in an undertone, “Never, ever apologize my dear. Present it as if it is meant to be that way, and smile, and you will be fine.”

Just as the class was about to start, Grace and I nodded together and I agreed–one should never apologize–many dishes’ births come from culinary mistakes.

So, the class began, and we started work. Grace was a wonderful teacher, full of witty stories and funny tales, not only of the dishes themselves, but of her experiences in writing the book. She told of standing behind the cooking line in restaurants in Hong Kong where the wok stoves pour out flames that can jet many feet into the air as the chefs toss the food in large heavy pao woks. She told of one incident where her photographer had clipped a flash to the hood of the stove and she was taking notes avidly beside a chef while three-foot flames roared up from the stove and heat blazed into her face. She said she was thinking to herself “This is great–I hope he is getting lots of pictures.”

When they left the restaurant, she said to Alan, “Did you get a lot of shots of those flames, weren’t they great?” And he said, “Well, I hope I did. The flash fell.” Apparently, it had fallen off of the hood and into a simmering pot of stock and every time the shutter tripped, a flash of light was coming up from the stockpot instead of down from the hood. When she asked him what he was going to do about the flash, he said blandly, “I’ll take it apart and dry it out.”

Apparently, it all worked out well, because there are photographs commemorating that restaurant visit in the book, and she said that the flash, though greatly mistreated, did dry out and work fine.

As she told these stories, Grace was busy cooking cleanly-flavored home style Cantonese dishes in her well-seasoned carbon-steel wok. Blackened by years of careful use and cleaning, she had brought it in her carry-on luggage from New York City, much to the fascination of the TSA. Though she was happy for it, she, just as the rest of us, found it amusing that nail-clippers were too dangerous to carry aboard a domestic flight, but a heavy steel pan was perfectly safe. Though, while it was perfectly safe, she added, it was subject to much careful scrutiny as it was passed through the x-ray machine twice.

She cooked a great version of salt and pepper shrimp, then launched into a home style braised sweet and sour chicken dish that used lemon slices and thick planks of fresh ginger as well as a dash of sugar and some rice wine. Then she made the stir-fried lettuce, which comes to the New Years table to symbolize abundance.

The lettuce was simply cooked and seasoned, with the oil flavored by a lot of whole cloves of garlic simply smashed under the side of the cleaver and tossed into the hot wok. Once they were browned, in went the completely dried lettuce–if it is wet, it cools down the wok too much and you lose the “wok hay” and your lettuce steams or braises, rather than being stir fried. A bit of salt, pepper, soy sauce and sesame oil and the dish was finished, fragrant and sizzling. As we tasted it, I was struck by how the romaine was a study in contrasts; the central rib of it was still crisp and very sweet, while the edges of the leaves had been softened to the texture of silk, and had soaked up the savory flavor of the sesame oil. It was a completely unexpected set of sensations and flavors and I think surprised everyone with its simple, yet satisfying flavors.

After the break, she demonstrated the making of both spring rolls and jiao-zi–northern style boiled dumplings, which she learned from Amy Tan and her sisters. Both dishes represent abundance because they are shaped like different styles of ancient Chinese coins. I had agreed during the break to heat up the deep frying oil and to both fry the spring rolls–something I have done many times myself–and put together the rest of the spring rolls so there would be enough for everyone to eat. It was fun to do the cooking while Grace went on with demonstrating the making and rolling of the dough for the dumplings, and then demonstrated filling and shaping them. By the time the spring rolls were done, the dumplings were ready to put in and I once again got to mind the pot while Grace continued explaining New Year customs and food symbolism, which helped make her teaching go more smoothly and easily.

After class, every copy of The Breath of a Wok was bought and signed by Grace; even though I already had a copy at home, I bought another and had her sign it for me. I didn’t mind–I want her to be as successful as possible with her book tour. I asked her if she had any idea what her next book was going to be and she shook her head and said, “I have no idea.”

Whatever it is, I have no doubt it will be not only beautiful and filled with very useful information, but it will be a very personal recounting of her journey in understanding Chinese cookery, a journey which we are privileged that she shares with us.


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  1. I can’t believe I missed this post of yours, Barbara. Your story about Huy and Lo is especially touching.

    Comment by stef — April 29, 2006 #

  2. Well, it is -way- back in the archives, being one of the first posts I ever wrote, Stef! That is probably how it has been overlooked.

    I do terribly miss Huy and Lo. I know that Huy is still alive and well, enjoying retirement, but I have no idea about Lo. I hope he finally got to bring his family, including his granddaughter, to the states. He missed them very much.

    Comment by Barbara — April 29, 2006 #

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