This is the story of how a beautiful hand-hammered, carbon steel, fire-iron Chinese wok came into my life.
The story is too good. And, really, I am the wrong person to tell it.
My friend Marcia, who gave me this incredible cooking tool and with it the gift of wok hay, the sometimes-elusive spirit of culinary harmony that comes with a well-seasoned and properly-used wok, will tell you about the wok. First, though, please go to your cookbook shelf and look at the cover of Grace Young's stunning book, The Breath of a Wok. Then turn to page 27.
Ah, yes, now you understand. And this is Marcia's story:
"My daughter and I each own a copy of The Breath of a Wok. While visiting her in Shanghai, I frequented a little Moroccan sandwich shop that served mocha lattes (how's that for a combo?!). The shop is right across from the Shanghai library. So I'd sit there and watch students going in and out, amazed, as the Cultural Revolution had destroyed the previous library and its books. One rainy day, I picked up a magazine and read this article about the wok maker featured in the cookbook, and other shops along the same small street. So here I am, sitting in this tiny shop, watching modern Shanghai which is all bustle and sophistication, reading of something I had learned about back home, something ancient and wonderful.
We began the search.
Coming off main streets are little streets, some of which can be navigated with a car. Then these peter out and the mazes of alleys begin. They are actually little neighborhoods, laid out geometrically, even though at first it was confusing to us. Our driver took us as far as we could go in a car; then we set out on foot. The streets were filled with carts, bikes, people, an occasional cat or Pekingese, very colorful... shops' wares spilled out into the street. The intersections were filled with farmers' markets selling everything imaginable. The astonishing thing about this neighborhood was how old the buildings were, a few stories high -- the lower floors are shops, the upper ones apartments. Every morning quilts were hung on the balconies to air them out. And in the background, just a few streets over, the most modern skyscrapers fly into the air, laden with glowing neon.
We walked along leisurely, going into each impossibly tiny shop. Our daughter wanted a bamboo scrubber. We bought a pineapple. We went down to the end of the street and listened for the hammering [of the carbon steel] that was described in the article. Didn't hear it.
Lydia, we walked those streets over and over, thinking we'd missed it somehow. Of course the article listed a street number of the shop. Ha! We asked several people, and while no one knew the word 'wok', they knew our pantomime of banging and kept pointing back the way we'd come. Finally we found the shoemaker described in the article and again, in a little English mixed with Chinese, we managed to get a sense of where it was. But the shoemaker said that because it was Golden Week, Cen Lian Gen, the wok maker, was probably on vacation.
So, we returned another time. And we followed the sound of the banging and found Mr. Cen and his helper flattening huge sheets of metal to form the woks. We purchased one for our daughter, a large and small one for us, and yours."
A few months later, when Marcia's daughter came to Rhode Island for a visit, she carried three woks with her, and one of them, in an old rice bag, came to live -- came to life -- in my kitchen. Of all of the many woks I've owned, this one, the result of a friend's quest and a long journey, makes me happiest.
Spicy garlic eggplant
How do I love this dish? Let me count the ways. From Grace Young's The Breath of a Wok, this simple recipe is a revelation, and in a well-seasoned wok, it is the epitome of wok hay. By steaming the eggplant before frying, you reduce the total amount of oil in the dish while retaining the eggplant flavor. Serves 4, as a side dish.
4 medium Asian eggplants (about 1-1/4 lb)
1/4 cup soy sauce (I use this one)
2 Tbsp Chinkiang or balsamic vinegar
2 Tbsp Shao Hsing rice wine or dry sherry
1 Tbsp sugar
1 tsp salt
1 tsp red pepper flakes
3 Tbsp vegetable oil
1/4 cup minced garlic
1/4 cup minced ginger
1 tsp sesame oil
1/4 cup finely minced scallions
Cut the eggplant into 2-inch sections, then halve each section lengthwise. Cut each half lengthwise into thirds to make sticks. In a small bowl combine the soy sauce, vinegar, rice wine, sugar, salt, and pepper flakes. Set aside.
Put the eggplant in a shallow, heatproof bowl. Place a 1-inch-high steamer rack in a flat-bottomed wok. Add water to a depth of 3/4 inch and bring to a boil over high heat. Carefully put the bowl on the rack, cover, and steam on high heat 5-8 minutes, or until the eggplant is tender when pierced with a knife. Be sure to check the water level from time to time and replenish, if necessary, with boiling water. Carefully remove the bowl from the wok. Pour out the water from the wok and dry the pan.
Heat the wok over high heat until a bead of water vaporizes within 1 to 2 seconds of contact. Swirl in the vegetable oil, add the garlic and ginger, and stir-fry 10 seconds. Add the eggplant and stir-fry 20 seconds. Stir the sauce, swirl it into the wok, and stir-fry until the eggplant is heated through, about 1 minute. Drizzle on the sesame oil and scallions.
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