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Cooking from Grace Young's "Breath of a Wok"


Chris Hennes
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When I got my new wok burner for Christmas, the first book I ran out to buy was Grace Young's Breath of a Wok, at the recommendation of basically everyone on eGullet whom I asked. I've made a few recipes out of it, but what are your favorites? Are there any I should avoid?

In particular I really enjoyed Ming Tsai's fried rice recipe in there, as well as the Spicy Garlic Eggplant.

Chris Hennes
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chennes@egullet.org

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  • 2 weeks later...

The weather has been good here, so I've been out "wokking" for most of our meals this week.

Spicy Garlic Eggplant (pp. 144)

This is one of my favorites. This time I made it with some kind of small eggplant I picked up at the local pan-Asian market, I'm not sure the exact variety. I undercooked them a bit, but the flavor is just superb; very robust, not for the faint-of-heart.

Spicy Garlic Eggplant.jpg

Kung Pao Chicken (pp. 74)

This was almost a great dish, but turned into a flop by the addition of far too many peanuts. The recipe calls for 3/4 cup, but I think more like 1/4 cup would be appropriate. The flavor of the roasted peanuts completely dominated the dish, which was otherwise very good.

Kung Pao Chicken.jpg

Martin Yan's Genghis Khan Beef (pp. 91)

Another of my favorites from this book, this is a very flavorful stir-fry consisting almost entirely of beef. I served it with a simple stir-fried asparagus (and white rice, of course).

Martin Yans Genghis Khan Beef.jpg

Cousin Zane's Sichuan Beef (pp. 95)

I think the downfall of this dish was my use of a chicken stock prepared in the classical French manner, rather than a Chinese-style stock. Ultimately due to the shear quantity of sauce this dish came out tasting like a cross between a pot roast and a generic Chinese-American restaurant Chow Mein. It was OK for all that, but not worth the hoops you jump through, and frankly could probably live without the liquid addition entirely. Once thickened with cornstarch this dish just screams cheap Americanized "Chinese" (and I don't mean that in a good way). Has anyone had any luck with this dish?

Cousin Zanes Sichuan Beef.jpg

Chris Hennes
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chennes@egullet.org

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Chris, thanks for bringing this book, which I own, up. I've had it for quite a while, and the first dish I made was the Cousin's Zane Beef, and I'd have to agree with you. It wasn't bad, it just sort of "was," so I put the book back on the shelf and hadn't looked at it again until you brought it up.

I appreciate your notes, and have marked the book accordingly. Martin Yan's beef dish looks like a winner, and a pantry meal for me.

I'll report as I cook from this book (keeping in mind that any beef recipes will be venison recipes as I still have a freezer full of the latter).

Oh, I know the eggplants photoed above as Thai eggplants, commonly added to Thai curries.

Susan Fahning aka "snowangel"
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Try that eggplant again with the Japanese types. Those little guys are all seed and I made a similar dish recently with them that did not benefit from their use. They roasted up horrible.

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I enjoyed Breath of a Wok, but more for the technical, cultural, and historical information than for the recipes. Also, it pissed me off that the book’s binding fell apart almost immediately. Ratings caveat: many of the recipes in the book are relatively mild, whereas I generally prefer a healthy blast of chile heat. Feel free to adjust expectations accordingly.

Edited to add: Chris, your pictures look awesome!

The following recipes were winners:

Lee Wan Ching’s sizzling pepper and salt shrimp (p. 104): Probably my favorite recipe in the book. Delicious, dead simple, and an excellent basis for improvisation.

Millie Chan’s garlic shrimp (p. 105)

Martin Yan’s Genghis Khan beef (p. 91)

Also good:

Stir-fried chicken and shallots (p. 68)

Chicken with Sichuan peppercorns CCTI (p. 68)

Uncle Sherman’s home-style chicken and vegetables (p. 69): Very kid-friendly.

Stir-fried pork with scallions (p. 81)

Fried rice with ham, egg, and scallions (p. 120)

Ming Tsai’s Mandarin fried rice (p. 121)

Martin Yan’s Mandarin five-flavored boneless pork chops (p. 188)

Virginia Yee’s dry-fried Sichuan string beans (p. 160)

Sweet and sour cabbage (p. 146)

OK:

Mrs. Miu’s stir-fried chicken with cashews (p. 71)

Stir-fried shrimp with garlic sauce (p. 106)

Lee Wan Ching’s Chinese broccoli with ginger sauce (p. 140)

Uncle Lang’s pan-fried sea bass (p. 162)

Not good:

Kung pao chicken (p. 74)

Edited by C. sapidus (log)
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I enjoyed Breath of a Wok, but more for the technical, cultural, and historical information than for the recipes.

I totally agree. If you want info on woks, this is a great book. However, if it's recipes you want....

Monterey Bay area

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Lee Wan Ching’s sizzling pepper and salt shrimp (p. 104)

On Bruce's recommendation above I made these shrimp for dinner tonight. I basically followed the recipe, except that my shrimp were already shelled when I bought them, so no shell-on shrimp for me. I have to wholeheartedly agree with his comments above, this is a fantastic dish.

Pepper and Salt Shrimp (1).jpg

Chris Hennes
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chennes@egullet.org

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  • 1 month later...

Walter Kei's Shanghai-Style Pork and Bean Sprouts (p. 87)

Tonight for dinner we had this pork and bean sprout dish... or should I say, bean sprout and pork dish? It has a pound of sprouts to a half pound of pork. The predominant flavor is of white pepper, with a little soy and a little Shao Hsing (plus the requisite garlic and sesame oil, of course!). Overall it was a touch bland at first, but grew on me as I ate it. And I found the ratio of sprouts to pork to actually be about right, I don't think I'd change it. Next time I will fresh-grind the white pepper, I think. Mine is pretty fresh, but that being the principal flavor I think I should take a little more care with it.

Pork and Sprouts  002.jpg

Chris Hennes
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chennes@egullet.org

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Food in and around Shanghai and Jiangsu does tend to be...subtly flavoured, I think. Using everything at peak freshness is important. I notice you didn't top and tail your bean sprouts. This has always been for me one of those tasks (like peeling chickpeas) that is tedious but rewards the final dish. Have you ever tried trimming your sprouts?

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Sweet and Sour Chicken (p. 76)

Ah, Sweet and Sour Chicken... that staple of strip mall not-quite-Chinese take out. Red-dyed corn syrup mixed with the barest hint of vinegar, slathered atop soggy deep-fried nuggets of a meat that might once have been described as "chicken." Is there any hope here? Even well prepared, this is as white bread as it comes... and therein lies the appeal. You see, the wok burner was a gift from my mother, who is coming to visit next month. Mom doesn't like spicy food. She has so little tolerance for capsaicin, in fact, that foods I can't even tell are spicy are sometimes rejected after one bite. That eliminates about 75% of this cookbook. I've tried omitting the heat from the recipes, but never to good effect: it's there because it's needed, and it's good. I needed an alternate plan. Ah, S&SC to the rescue: there is no hint of spice, no questionable ingredients, and the taste is, well, completely inoffensive. It will surely be met by loud proclamations of approval, not least because it involves a lot of tossing of ingredients in the wok with impressive-looking bursts of flame here and there (if the wind is calm). Don't make this for your "foodie" friends, but for mom this might be just the ticket.

Sweet and Sour Chicken  002.jpg

Chris Hennes
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chennes@egullet.org

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What are the benefits, besides just looking neater?

I think, and YMMV, that they taste less bitter. The sprouts I usually get are super fresh, and the sprouty-bits at the end have a slightly green taste. If you like that, then why not keep the ends on? With the ends off, they provide more of a crunch and less of a flavour. The difference is subtle, at best.

Is that chicken above pre-fried before being sauced? One of my favourite local restaurants does a SAS chicken that is not only the best I've ever had, but I would put up against all comers, and would satisfy Moms and Foodies alike. Their trick is no vegetables or fruit at all; cut the chicken in whisper thin slices, so it's almost like you could be persuaded that you're actually eating chicken skin; fried, and then tossed in a gossamer glaze of sauce, so thin it clings only to the chicken, and creates no pool of sauce on the plate. Now that I have seen chicken cut in this manner, I'm never chunking again.

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Jean Yueh's Beef with Onions and Peppers (p. 94)

Here's my attempt at making this dish appear more interesting that it actually is, by photographing it from a different angle (hey, all the others were starting to look the same to me!).

Beef and Peppers  002.jpg

Not good, not bad, just sort of "eh". Would not have been out of place served in flour tortillas, though it would have wanted some hot sauce. It tasted basically like onions, peppers and beef, fried together. I guess I was hoping for something more than that... the sherry and soy sauce get lost in the onions and peppers. And, like basically all the other recipes, it's thickened with cornstarch, a texture that's wearing a little thin now.

Chris Hennes
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chennes@egullet.org

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Stir-Fried Pork with Scallions (p. 81)

I'm starting to develop more of an appreciation for this understated flavor profile (white pepper, soy sauce, and rice wine): the real key seems to be really letting the wok get hot, and getting a top-notch sear on the protein. So, with the propane turned up to 11, this dish was really pretty good. It needs a vegetable side dish, but otherwise I'd definitely make it again.

Pork and Scallions  002.jpg

Chris Hennes
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chennes@egullet.org

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Chris, thanks for continuing to update us on your progress through this book. I'm finding it very interesting to hear what you are enjoying and learning, and hope to play around with some of these ideas myself soon (though I don't have the book so may need to scour for recipes or similar ones using the flavours and techniques).

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Mmm, the pork fried with scallions looks excellent.

I guess one of the reasons these dishes are starting to look the same to you is that they're all wok-based dishes, which are going to be cooked in similar manners. The ingredients are going to be treated similarly before cooking, and so on. Tell me - does the book include dry-fried items like dry-fried beans, crispy beef, cumin pork ribs or similar?

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Yeah, she's got several sections in the book on non-stir-frying uses of the wok: deep frying, "braising", steaming, etc. But I don't really see a reason to do any of that in my wok, I have other tools that I think are more suited to the task, and don't require me to fire up a 64k BTU propane burner.

Chris Hennes
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chennes@egullet.org

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  • 1 month later...

Chicken with Garlic and Sugar Snaps (p. 75)

Not much to say about this one: it's pretty boring. It seems funny to call it "Chicken with Garlic and Sugar Snaps" -- the garlic is obvious, but the sugar snaps are just part of the vegetable medley, and tend to lose out to the baby corn when you get both in the same bite. I'm not sure using canned vegetables in this dish is really advisable, despite that being what the recipe calls for.

Chicken with Garlic and Sugar Snaps  002.jpg

Chris Hennes
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chennes@egullet.org

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Stir-Fried Pork, Mushrooms, and Carrots

Another dish with a questionable name... it has six dried mushrooms and one cup julienned carrots, to two cups each of celery and cabbage. So why give top billing to the carrots and mushrooms? The celery is a very dominant flavor in this dish, which I like very much. I don't think it needs (or wants) the bamboo shoots, but maybe the brand I'm using is not a good one. Overall, though, I think this is one of the best dishes in the book. I'd leave out the bamboo shoots, and use fresh shiitake if they are available, but otherwise make it as-is.

Stir-fried pork  002.jpg

Chris Hennes
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chennes@egullet.org

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Chris- are you blanching the bamboo shoots to get rid of the tinny flavor? Brands can make a big difference with bamboo. I have actually had better success subbing the lightly pickled ones from the Vietnamese shop (in jars) as they were more firm, and giving them a good rinse, in stir fries.

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Aren't they meant to be a crispy/crunchy textural note anyway? Now that I've had fresh bamboo shoot, I could never go back to the tinned kind. The Vietnamese preserved ones are great, but they definitely have a particular flavour to them (great with pork and black pepper). If I were making this dish without access to fresh bamboo, I'd probably sub in woody asparagus ends or similar to imitate the taste and texture of fresh bamboo. Or leave them out altogether.

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