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The gift of wok hay (Recipe: garlic eggplant) {vegetarian}


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.

[Printer-friendly recipe.]

More recipes in The Perfect Pantry:

Mrs. Leung's beef and broccoli stir fry
Asparagus-cashew stir fry
Pad Thai
Mee goreng (spicy fried noodles)

Disclosure: The Perfect Pantry earns a few pennies on purchases made through the Amazon.com links in this post. Thank you for supporting this site when you start your shopping here.


Lydia, I love the patina of your wok and its tale.

Eggplant. I never seem to have enough recipes for eggplant.

Lydia, how funny! I just received my copy of the very book you mention! And I truly enjoy it!

I love the story. Hate my wok, too. I always make things stick in it, it´s impossible for me. Need to improve the technique, obviously

I have a wok - wedding gift - but never use it much. I think I should start doing that, Lydia!

Lovely friends, lovely wok, lovely eggplant!

Beautiful story about beautiful friends.

I actually have two great woks (got the second one at a yard sale and it was such a great wok I couldn't resist buying it for $1 even though I had another one at home!) I've been wanting this cookbook for ages, thanks for the reminder, and this recipe looks great!

Lucy, the hammered surface of this wok makes cooking in it a sensual experience, and of course woks improve with each use. I love eggplant cooked this way.

Anh, this book is one of my all-time favorites. In fact, I'm the person who recommended the book to Marcia, who then bought the wok for me!

Lobster, the more you use your wok, the more nonstick it will get -- like a cast-iron pan.

Patricia, my friend, you must start using your wok! I have no doubt you will achieve "wok hay."

Alanna, thank you. I'm the first to admit I am blessed with great friends.

Pauline, thank you, too. We will have to cook together with this wok some day.

Kalyn, this book is one of the best in my collection. In fact, one New Year's Eve, we made an entire menu from this book, but that was before I received the wok. Now I'm looking forward to doing a whole menu again. I have several woks also -- one is cast iron, one is carbon steel, and one is thin and not very good for stir frying. And, now, this one, which is the best of all.

I love the sound of this dish and especially all the pantry gifts. The cookbooks such as those below are my downfall!

We use out chinese wok practically everyday for most dishes. It's really practical & never wears out! Ours is about 15years old!!! :)
Your Asian eggplants recipe is a great one Lydia! I should try that since I love eggplants:)

What a wonderful story, Lydia. Only a true friend would go through such lengths!

Nothing can replicate the real wok hay, and it's wonderful to hear that you are able to create it at home. That wok of yours is a treasure.

Thanks for the eggplant recipe.

Wow -- terrific story, Lydia, and a glorious wok! I'm dying to try your eggplant recipe, too...oh my goodness...I have been having such a thing for eggplant lately and that sounds divine!

Wonderful story! Love it! I want a wok now. ;-)

A like this eggplant recipe. Thanks.


Oh the little hammered marks are gorgeous and how could it not have wok hay? So much nicer than the gigantic wok I had which I rarely used!

What a work of art that wok is...I'd be too afraid to use it. I still remember the first time I experienced wok hay, though I didn't know it had a name at the time. It makes food cooked in the wok really special, greater than the sum of its parts.

Laura, they are my downfall, too, as you can see!

Valentina, I hope this is the wok that lasts for the rest of my life. I have another carbon steel one, not hand-hammered, that I've had for quite a few years. The other types just don't seem to last that long.

Nora, no kidding, I have wonderful friends. When Marcia first told me this story, I felt that I was right there in the street with them, listening for the banging sound of Mr. Cen's hammer.

Genie, maybe it's the time of year, but I've had a real thing for eggplant lately, too. I always like it a bit spicy -- well, maybe more than a bit!

Paz, thanks. I do love this wok!

Callipygia, I am so honored to have this wok. Apparently all of the best restaurants in Shanghai have their woks made by Mr. Cen.

Neil, the thing about woks, of course, is that the more you use them, the more wok hay you have. It is a pleasure to use a wok that has traveled so far to be with me.

Talking about wok-hei, that's what makes all the good food in Singapore and Malaysia. I can never replicate the wok-hei at home!

What generous friends! The last dish I ordered for take out(like months ago!!) was garlic eggplant and I liked it a lot. Now I can make it at home...yipppeeee!

Tigerfish, I never understood about wok hay (I'm using Grace Young's spelling here) until I read her book. We never did any wok cooking at home when I was growing up.

Nabeela, no kidding -- my friends are the best! Garlic eggplant is a dish we used to get at dim sum at a wonderful restaurant in Ottawa (Canada), whenever we went to visit. That's where I first fell in love with eggplant cooked this way.

This is the best thing I've read in a while. I've been wanting a new wok - in all my moving around in the last 10 years, I somehow lost the not very good one that I had and have been jonesing for something like yours. I'm dreaming of the wok hay.

Your wok has such a good hammered surface - lovely!

Mary, I don't know where you might find these woks outside Shanghai, but my other carbon steel wok, which I do love, came from The Wok Shop in San Francisco. The owner sends great seasoning instructions with every wok, and is extremely helpful by phone, too.

Kelly-Jane, I've never seen one like it, except in the book. It makes me feel very connected to the wok maker.

That's a great story and a beautiful wok! I hope to find a wok like that one day. :)

Amy, if you ever find one outside Shanghai, please let me know the source. Several readers have emailed to ask me about that. I feel very lucky to have this one.

Ah, what a great tale! It must bring you such joy each time you use it.

Susan, it surely does. Same with all of the gifts in my pantry; I always think about the person who gave the gift.

Made the eggplant in our no name but well seasoned wok. Even with some missing ingredients, this was the best Chinese recipe ever. Usually I feel disappointed but this felt perfect. Now I can see many other configurations of vegetables with this amazing sauce. Thanks!

Susan, yippee! I'm so glad you enjoyed this eggplant. And you are right, it is a method of cooking as much as an individual recipe. Sounds like you have wok hay!

Beautiful story. I have had my wok for 15 or more years. It is black, nothing ever sticks, it cooks everything perfectly whether steaming, frying or stir frying. Whether Balinese, SE Asian or Chinese. No matter, that instant injection of heat works every time.

I felt like I had lost an arm when I lived in Sydney where there is no gas stoves and I had to use an electric wok. YUK. Never again.

VegeYum, welcome to The Perfect Pantry. Is there anything more wonderful than a well-seasoned wok? I can't imagine. And an electric wok? I do remember those -- I bought one for my parents in the 1960s, when woks were still unknown outside the Asian community here. Now, of course, I wouldn't think of an electric wok unless I had no option at all.

I love the story ... I just what to know the price and were,would i go to buy one ?

thank's david

David, the wok was purchased in Shanghai and it was a gift, so I don't know the price. But isn't it beautiful?

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