Wok Hai

Wok Hai (or Wok Hay) is a Cantonese expression that means, roughly, “breath of the wok.” “Hay” is “Chi” in Mandarin, so it’s as much “energy” or “spirit” as “breath,” but the idea is the same: the food has a particular flavor that can only come from quick cooking in a wok. It’s something I’ve known about for a long time, and it’s one of the qualities that has eluded my Chinese cooking for even longer. No matter how good, it never tasted authentic. Until now. See, our gas range in Brooklyn was OK, but not great. And the execrable piece of shit of a hotplate that came with this house, well, let’s never speak of it again. But the new stove–the gleaming, stainless beast that it is–was the missing ingredient. All of the circular cast-iron grates lift out, allowing a wok to sit down low and get very close indeed to the burner. And when the burner in question is 22,000 BTUs, that wok gets obscenely hot. The thin steel becomes a highly conductive membrane bathed in fire, so your food is cooking right in the flames. It’s bad-ass, and it makes the best Chinese food possible.

Even if you make shit up that’s not even close to traditional, like I did tonight. There was a good bunch of asparagus to be picked, so I did. I got a fair amount of other gardening done today, too, including hooking up a free old stainless restaurant sink outside the house so we can give vegetables the first wash out there, saving our kitchen sink drain from a lot of dirt. I inaugurated it with the asparagus, which I then cut into pieces and tossed in the wok with a little oil. After about 45 seconds, I added a beaten egg and some garlic, then a splash of smoked chicken stock. I scooped it all into a bowl. After a quick rinse, cubes of tofu followed, with a bit more oil plus onion and sliced fennel stalk. They browned in no time, and then I added shredded coconut, smoked stock, grated garlic and ginger, and some soy sauce, letting it bubble for a minute before pouring it into another bowl. Last up, tempeh, also cut into small cubes, browned hard and followed by chopped kale and a sort of barbecue-type sauce made with miso, tomato paste, and smoked stock. I let the sauce reduce for a minute, then removed it to yet another bowl. Last up, I made quick fried rice with leftover rice and a few bits and pieces from the fridge, and dinner was served.

These four dishes took a total of about 10 minutes to cook. Add in a bit of chopping, and figure double that. Even with a less-powerful stove, as long as the wok is as hot as it can get, the results will be similar–hell, they’ll almost certainly be more authentic. The heat and speed allows for the most wonderful contrast between almost charred and nearly raw, especially in the vegetables. The asparagus tasted almost grilled, but was still al dente. And the tofu/fennel/coconut thing was out of this world, tasting like some sort of Malaysian mashup in the best possible way. When we have fennel and onions (both planted today) I’m going to make tofu from scratch and cook the definitive version of this; it’s good enough to be served by itself as a course in a fancy dinner to be named later.

This post is a sort of a response to a conversation that’s been bouncing around for a few days, in response to Ruhlman calling bullshit on the “30-minute meal” concept that has made food TV so utterly unwatchable over the last few years. (Personally, I think they should have called Ray-Ray’s show “Cousins shouldn’t marry,” but nobody ever listens to me). You should read it, but in essence his point is that we should all spend more time cooking, and not less. And there’s been some pushback by working people, saying they can’t possibly. To which I say: eh. It’s really all about the wanting to. Also, cancel your cable. Today. You’ll be amazed at how much more time you have for actual activity. I made this dinner in 20 minutes using about 9 ingredients, none of them even a little bit complicated. And there was one dish to wash at the end.

This thoughtful response to the Ruhlman piece got me thinking, as I like to do occasionally, so this post took shape around the idea of the overlap of quality and quickness. I’m fully aware that most people don’t have their own personal jet engine to cook on, since I have only had mine for two months. And I know that most people don’t work at home, like I usually do, which makes a big difference. But the busy, late evenings are why pasta was invented. There’s nothing but pleasure in a bowl of fettucine, especially if you grow the herbs, or the tomatoes, or buy the pasta locally and freeze it. Simple is good. What matters is that dinner doesn’t come out of a box, go into a microwave, and then onto the table. That’s not simple; it’s the end of an extremely complex and destructive industrial food system that only appears to be convenient.

The part of Anita’s piece that I don’t really agree with is her vow to post–and have her readers post–about all of the half-assed quickies they wouldn’t normally blog about, as a way of showing that we’re all hard-working people who do it fast and dirty on the regular. And OK, I get the point: solidarity, helpful shortcuts, inspiration to be found in other people’s phone-in repertoires. But here’s the thing. I don’t post those kinds of meals for a couple of reasons. One, they’re not that interesting. I don’t have anything to say about penne that I haven’t said before. The same is true for lackluster stir-fries, (though they’re much more lustrous now) or another fucking chicken curry, or any of two dozen other workhorses.

Two, have you SEEN the internet lately? There’s so much content even just in the food court that it boggles my tiny mind. The fact that so much of said content is provided by people who can’t cook, can’t write, and can’t even take a picture of a plate of food makes it a little bit easier to navigate, but still. The many great food blogs are impossible to keep up with. I think we should all be striving to write the best posts we can, not cluttering up infinity with mediocrity. Even if the goal is noble, which in this case it is, I’d prefer if people wrote less often about good food than more often about less-good food. But that’s just me, and I’ve been sick all week, and have to go to Brooklyn for a week on Sunday to do a bunch of unfun shit. I may try posting from my phone, since I’m hoping to have a few good dinners, but I may wait until I get back. Be sure to sit at the very edge of your seats, quivering in anticipation.

16 comments to Wok Hai

  • fastgrowtheweeds.com

    Oh, I am with you, Peter. Ruhlman of course is speaking truth here, and I adore Anita and all that she and C whip up but goodness: do people really need tips about how to put food on the table quickly? (I have one word for that: eggs.) And I know you're preaching to a particular choir (the want-to-cook) but Anita's *challenge* does sound like something you would do for a merit badge or something. "we're impossibly busy people yet we manage to cook what we eat!" What would that badge look like, I wonder?

    I completely understand why YOU do what you do, as I have this unscientific belief that there are two types of people walking about, the makers and the others; whether it's painting or putting food on the table the instinct is the same and there's nothing you could do to quell it (perhaps, without pharmaceuticals that is). I am likewise of the maker camp (duh).

    But I do find many food blogs so…quotidian. I dunno. In art school there was the certain type of student whose every artistic utterance, crummy as it was, was considered by that student to be high art. I would rather never blog about my omelet-and-greens dinner last night, thanks, even if it only took 15 minutes of my precious time and it was toe-curlingly delicious. Who the hell cares?

    Anyway, thanks for pointing out the true reasons for my undercaffeinated "no thanks" reaction to Anita's challenge this morning.

    –el.

  • peter

    El: Thanks for your eloquent endorsement of my cranky tirade. I love the idea of a merit badge for making dinner on a weeknight; it reminds me of the Chris Rock "You're not SUPPOSED to go to jail!" routine.

    I hear you about the art school narcissists… maybe we went to art school together, though experience tells me that those types are a dime a dozen.

    The quotidian nature of so much of it reflects what's good and bad about the internet: it's extremely democratic, giving everyone the ability to write whatever they want and have it read in public. But the flip-side of that absolute good is that it's rife with solipsistic mediocrity. I'm not sure there's much of a solution, and on the whole I'm glad for it; more people care more about their food than they have for quite some time. And that's a good thing, and will be self-reinforcing over time. I just don't want to read about a blurry lasagna made by someone who doesn't understand the difference between its and it's.

  • The Spiteful Chef

    I try to only write about things that I make that taste good. If it's an omelet and greens, and I added some ingredient that changed it from hum drum to fantastic, then I'm blogging that shit so that people can give it a shot. Or if I get a really pretty picture. Or if I have a funny (like, actual funny, not quirky funny) story to go with it.

    If I make a 23 course meal that's mediocre and sucky and my pictures are all blurry…THAT'S boring.

    So I don't mind quotidian, if it makes the ordinary turn into greatness.

    I'm about to post about a turkey sandwich, but it kicked the ass of all the other turkey sandwiches on the playground.

  • Heather

    I totally gave you some link love because of this post. And you say I'm not a giver.

  • peter

    Kristie: Agreed. But it's all about the resulting post being worth a read.

    Blanche: No, I say you're not a commenter. And you know you can't resist when I get all ranty.

  • Zoomie

    Perhaps you are thinking too narrowly about blogging and food blogging in particular. Some people use it just to get their recipes up where they can be accessed from anywhere. Others use it as a writing exercise to keep the brain cells going. Others actually hope to make money or fame from it. Still others cherish it for the comments, negative or positive – the feedback. It doesn't have to be all about the food, the ingredients, the recipes. Sometimes, it's just about memories the food evokes. I agree with you about the grammar – it's painful to read some – but easy enough to skip the painful ones.

    Yours, for example, I read more for your writing style than for your recipes, which I don't really aspire to re-create. I love reading what you are doing and how you express what you are doing, however. I just read to admire.

    As for photography, not everyone has a fancy camera, either, or the artist's eye to style the photos. I don't usually return to blogs that have blurry photos or pictures of food that doesn't appeal but there are one or two that I read for the stories rather than the pictures, too.

    As for speed, anyone with half a brain can put a balanced, nourishing and delicious meal on the table in 20 minutes if they put their mind to it. It might not reach the level of sophistication of your offerings but to say one hasn't time to cook is silly. It takes longer for the pizza delivery than to make a stir-fried meal, including the rice!

    Keep writing, Peter, your posts are always a pleasure.

  • peter

    Zoomie: You're right, especially about the time thing. That's what bugged me the most about the tizzy over Ruhlman's piece.

    I think a lot of what bothers me in terms of quality is the discrepancy between people's need to put content out into the world and the appallingly low standards they set for the quality thereof. I get that we're all our own documentary crews these days, but do we really want the world to know that our dinner was indistinguishable from plastic novelty vomit, we used a phone to shoot it, and we read and write at an 8th grade level? It's the publishing equivalent of leaving the house with spinach between your teeth, BO, and your shirt tail sticking out of your fly, and then shouting "Hey everybody! Look at me!" I'm just saying. Mazel tov to all of them, but I'm not reading.

    Even my "new" camera is a hand-me-down, and only has a 5 MP chip. Before that, it was a point and shoot. As with the food, I think it all comes down to wanting a good result and taking more than three seconds to achieve it.

    But everyone gets to do what they want, and that's as it should be. I don't use recipes (I suspect I'd get more traffic if I did) but it's nice to look back occasionally at something from a year or two ago and remember it again. It's certainly nice to meet other people and get to know them through this wacky virtual portal. And it's good exercise to try to improve one's skills across the board in the interest of better quality food and posts. At the end of the day, though, for me the main motivation for keeping this blog is that sometimes it makes the voices stop.

  • Anita (Married... with dinner)

    Thanks for the shout-out, but (hey now!) I'm sure I didn't say "half-assed quickies". :)

    In all seriousness — I'm not about to start posting photos of my cheese sandwiches. The point of the series is to share tips for getting *thoughtful* dinner on the table, but quickly — much as you did here with the stir-fries. I think we're on the same page, actually…

    I encourage you to reread this part:

    >>I’m going to write about a trick I use to get dinner on the table quickly. I’ll also give you a little homework: Something simple enough that you can do it while your partner washes up after dinner, or in an hour or so on the weekend. And each post will include a recipe to show how to use the week’s tip in a real-life setting, usually a tried-and-true supper we actually eat on a regular basis.<<

    I promise, there will be no blurry lasagne. I wouldn't do that to you.

  • seantimberlake

    I don't mean to come off as arrogant or superior, but I think there are plenty of people out there who comb food blogs and watch Food Network and read food magazines who honestly don't know how to do the sorts of things Anita is setting out to outline. All too many people of my generation were raised without basic kitchen skills, having grown up on fast food or TV dinners. Now, in their adult life, they may have discovered an interest and even some aptitude in cooking, but as like as not, they're focusing all their energies on one recipe at a time. That's good and well — any cooking is better than no cooking — but it doesn't really help the home chef think through the steps that could really help them prepare for sustainable fast meals on an everyday basis. I know it took me years to get to that point.

    Sure, anyone with some basic skills can whip up some eggs or a sandwich, but I can tell you that Cam and Anita manage to produce quite remarkable food under great time constraints, and that can only happen as the product of great forethought. Anita is being generous in offering her hard-learned tips and tricks, so that the average home cook doesn't *have* to resort to a plate full of eggs every time they are short on time.

  • Laura

    As someone that taught myself to cook (I left home knowing how to make mac & cheese and salad) and is quite good at it, I still struggle to keep dinner interesting on the nights we're short of time. We've lately found ourselves slipping back into some bad habits in terms of takeout and less than fantastic shortcuts which I've given us a pass on for a lot of reasons. Sure, I can fry some potatoes and eggs and serve it up, but I'd love to be better prepared than that.

    I'm the first person to hate on boring, poorly written food blogs – I rarely read them anymore unless I'm running the Dark Days Challenge or looking for a recipe or inspiration. But, having gotten a peek at Anita's plans for the series and experienced what she & C can cook up on short notice, I'm excited to see what she has to say and steal her tips and tricks.

    Instead of feeling superior, we need to be helping people figure out how to make a sustainably sourced and delicious meal in the time they do have on weeknights. I'm continually surprised at the positive responses I get when I post simple (boring?) meals with time-cutting tips. It definitely is harder to learn to cook with what you have than it is to follow a recipe step-by-step.

  • peter

    I'm living in fairly spartan conditions right now- an unfurnished apt. I'm working on- with only my phone to intertube on. As my thumbs are much too fat to do justice to your comments, I'm going to reply when I'm in front of a real keyboard. Thanks for leaving them, and feel free to keep the thread going- I'll be reading.

  • butterface

    This is why I stopped food blogging. There are so many awful food blogs- particularly baking blogs where the writing is crap, and the recipes are yet another pancake or cupcake or whatever, that get so much fucking attention and book deals that it makes me ill. Truly good food blogs, like yours and Heathers, etc where the writing is good and the food is actually thoughful, do not get the love they deserve and it pisses me off. Eff that. I don't know if that was your point. Or Ruhlman's. But thats where my brain went.

    And I may have just kissed your ass there, which I assure you, was not my intent.

  • Stephanie V.W. Lucianovic

    Why don't we wait and see what Anita actually does before rushing to make snap judgements about what we think she *will* do?

  • The Short (dis)Order Cook

    I've really been enjoying everyone's reactions to the Ruhlman blog. There are really two sides. Plenty of people ARE too busy. If cooking were up to my husband, we'd eat takeout every night. He works 14-hour days. But it is true that if we all just turned off the TV, we'd have more time to cook and indulge in myriad other activities as well (the same can be said for the internet actually). Time management and prioritizing are just as much as an issue as time itself these days.

    Posts like this always make me feel insecure about my own blog though. I know my food photos are crap. I'm lazy with learning the settings on my camera. I intend to get a light box at some point, but haven't done so yet and there fore, my food photos will continue to be crappy. I don't pretend my recipes are anything great either. I write my blog for me, and not for anyone else (although I love the fact that there are some people read it), but I feel like I'm wasting cyberspace some time – like I should be leaving the internet to "real" foodies or something.

  • peter

    Anita: The disparity in tone between this comment and what you sent me privately (or so I thought) in response to my email is beyond ridiculous.

    Sean: You don't come off as arrogant or superior- not at all. I understand where you're coming from. I just have an aversion to challenges, memes, and the like. As with all of the rest of this mysterious wave of annoyed first-time commenters, if you actually read more than this one post you'd see that I'm all about the art of the possible and making highly tasty dishes in minutes flat. I just don't twee it up.

    Laura: OK, fine, but again if you had even a passing familiarity with what I do here you would likely have written a different comment.

    Butterwench: Are you hitting on me?

    Stephanie: Why don't we read a post or two–or, I don't know, the preceding comments–rather than just popping in for a spot of drive-by?

    SdOC: I hear you about the internet, too. We should all get out more.

    I also keep planning on building a light box, but haven't managed yet- now the long days make everything better. Let's try again in the fall. What matters, as you said, is that you do it for you. That's what we should all do; I get put off by people trying too hard.

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I'm a painter who happens to also spend a lot of time growing, making, and writing about food. I'm particularly interested in the intersection of frugal peasant cooking techniques and haute improvisation. And I have a really great personality.

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