Before I became a more adventurous eater in my late twenties, my appreciation for traditional Asian food consisted of the bowls of phở that my friends would seek out when we visited Boston. I was fascinated in particular with how my chef friend Charlie approached his noodles: requesting his steak served raw on a side plate, he preferred to dip the thin, pink rounds one at a time into the aromatic broth, redolent of warm earthy spices and charred alliums. Pairing each slice with a chopstick’s graspful of the satisfying white noodles, or a still-crisp bean sprout or two, he’d pop them into his mouth before the meat had the chance to gray from the heat of the soup. Watching him work his jaw on pieces of tendon or tripe, I’d wonder how he managed to break down the tough fragments of offal enough to swallow them. At the time, I stuck with brisket in my bowl and found my own ways to experiment, mixing and matching the accompaniments from the Lazy Susan – sauces, herbs, raw vegetables – in search of my own perfect bite.
And I eventually found it at the enigmatically named One of the Kind, a tiny food stall tucked away on the dimly lit, left-hand side of the Super 88 food court in Packard’s Corner, Boston, which remains my Chinese food standard-bearer. Thirteen years later, one of the only remaining traces of its existence are the five-star sentiments of a single Google reviewer which touch on its uniqueness, but don’t quite capture how life-changing the food was for me personally: how stunned I was when I first slurped the red oil-slicked mala broth from the beef in chili sauce, when my lips and tongue – and then the whole bottom half of my face – turned numb from the Sichuan peppercorns. What should I do? Is this supposed to happen?
I discovered the spot the same year I became a cook. I used to sit alone at the grimy white Formica tables along the wall at the Super 88, with my winter jacket on to guard against the room’s notorious draft, late at night after working my own shift on the line. There, under the correctional-grade lighting, I was endlessly entertained watching newcomers fight their way through the vestibule doorway, which was possessed by a suction effect that resisted more the harder you fought it. Most nights, the only other person lingering in this section was the food court’s lone janitor, who, hunching forward over the table, had this way of appearing half like there was nowhere else he’d rather be and half like he was doing time – a condition I’d relate to soon enough in my own job.
But, of course, I had really picked this spot to watch One of the Kind’s chef, Fu Wen Cai, manning the wok station, the flames licking up and over the top of the cookware and flooding the food with that savory, ethereal essence. Watching Cai serve up those dishes with which I fell so in love – the intricately woven heaps of shredded pork and bright green longhorn peppers and that jiggly mapo tofu with the angry sheen and peppercorn powder freckles – I realized this was the food I wanted to be cooking and eating every day, not the overpriced gastropub fare I was churning out for a living down the street, sixty or more hours every week.
I couldn’t get enough of the Sichuanese flavor profiles. Not just hot and numbing, but strange flavor, fish-fragrant, scorched chili flavor and home style, nearly all of which rely on an addictive and complex chili and fava bean paste as an essential building block. I watched Cai knock a spoonful of this mystery mixture into every batch of my mapo for months before I gained the courage to ask the counter girl: “What are these things in the sauce, are they some kind of olive?” While I stood holding the salty Kalamata-colored flake I’d plucked from my food, she exchanged an unsettling burst of words with the otherwise quiet kitchen before telling me, “We think you call them Lima beans.” With this morsel of information, I was then on my way to discovering doubanjiang, the key component of so many Sichuanese classics.
I started investigating the cookbooks and videos that were trickling out into the world, the first of their kind, aimed at outsiders like me who were hooked on regional Chinese. After procuring a jar of doubanjiang, and mixing and matching techniques from these resources, I was putting onto my kitchen table at home my first attempts at dishes like fish-fragrant eggplant. But the results were iffy: The potency of my yu xiang sauce didn’t match the tangy punch of the restaurant’s; the cooked skin of the once beautiful vegetable reached the plate brown and sad instead of electric purple and alive; the flesh inside was wet and mealy, not buttery smooth and slurpable. What was I doing wrong? What was I missing?
These resources all emphasized the importance in Chinese cooking of something called wok hei. But the details on what specifically wok hei was and how to achieve it were, at best, vague. Grace Young, who coined the term, refers to it in her 2004 book, “The Breath of a Wok,” as “when a wok breathes energy into a stir-fry, giving foods a unique concentrated flavor and aroma.” Young and others presented methods to achieve wok hei at home, but without knowing how to spot it in the wild, it was impossible for me to work towards achieving wok hei in my own cooking. The only thing I knew for sure was that wok hei loomed ghostlike and conceptual as the master key in my mind to unlock Chinese cooking.
It feels pretty silly looking back on this period of my life, when I thought that cooking Chinese food in the Irish gastropub kitchen where I worked would be a good way to draw myself closer to the cuisine. Sure, pubs love to fuse cuisines together; the signature dish in this bar, after all, was their bolognese which featured a secret sprinkle of Mexican seasoning. They also offered an Italian twist on the spring roll whose miserly portioning (who eats one spring roll?) didn’t prevent it from reigning as a perennial, chipotle mayonnaise-laced, best-seller. But I was chasing pure Chinese flavor, and chasing it with nothing guiding me other than my own eating experiences and the few books and videos I’d tracked down.
Although it wasn’t wok hei, I succeeded through my cooking experiments at this job in unleashing a different kind of energy. By pouring overheated oil over the dried “facing heaven” peppers I’d mail-ordered from China, in an attempt at infusing my own chili oil, I unwittingly detonated a capsaicin cloud that overtook the cramped kitchen. The invisible explosion ambushed the eyes and throats of the handful of us working the line at the time, driving us into the alley behind the restaurant while the ventilation system worked to clear the angry fumes. The result of all of this was a sixth pan’s worth of a near-glowing shade of red chili crisp, usable although slightly burnt. Remember not to overheat the oil. Pour gently in several intervals. I won small success with the sesame noodle special I’d prepped for the following day. It was topped with slivers of cucumber, miniature cubes of fried tofu, cilantro and a big swirl of the hot stuff. My co-workers loved them and ate it all; the measure of success was that we didn’t sell a single order. I bottled up the remaining condiment and brought it home.
My pork and fennel potstickers met a more fortunate fate, lasting an entire season on the appetizer menu. I’d spent hours during those months hunched over the lowboy fridge which doubled as a prep counter, in my flour-dusted black chef’s garb, stuffing and folding rows of the crescent-shaped dumplings into fish tubs. One at a time I’d scrape a small wet clump of the raw meat and soft-cooked herb mixture from a soup spoon with my fingers and work it between the warm folds of dough, carefully molding each jiaozi into uniform shape. While the dumpling-making process itself was therapeutic, my efforts didn’t lead to the kind of breakthrough I had had in mind. After all, it isn’t exactly revelatory for something pan-fried and paired with a salty dipping sauce to sell well in a bar.
Instead, the dumpling’s presence on the gastropub’s menu added to the frequency with which the kitchen, already leaning heavily on fusion food, heard comments from our patrons about our serving too much “ethnic food.” This fed my insecurities about my enthusiasm for Chinese food, and how far away I felt from its traditions and techniques. I tried to exercise my interest in the cuisine in less obvious ways, practicing strategies I’d seen cooks employ in videos to achieve wok hei. When I was working at the saute station, for instance, I’d use our largest-sized pans to approximate the breadth of a wok, searing batches of our shredded brussel sprouts and practicing the rolling flip technique often used in Chinese cooking. Just before plating, I’d drag the feathery heaps of the vegetable with my tongs along the sides of the stainless steel pan, imagining that I was coaxing out more of that pan-browned flavor – that wok hei – in the process. But, as I moved up within the kitchen hierarchy and gained more responsibility, I lost the time and desire to experiment. Towards the end of my stint at the pub, I put my wok hei daydreams aside and focused on just making it through each shift.
While I was beginning to burn out as a line cook, I was also finally starting to recognize wok hei in the wild. There was no one “a-ha” moment where it all came together for me. Instead, I found myself, more generally, turning into the kind of person who Kenji Lopez-Alt, the food writer, and fellow outsider to Chinese cooking, describes in his essay on the subject, fiendishly scouring the streets in search of their next fix of “smoky clams in black bean sauce, fire-kissed stir-fried greens, beef chow fun that almost tastes grilled, or noodles that are singed just right.” I was creating my own mental lists of the Chinese restaurants that served the most craveable dishes and planning my schedule around them. Why doesn’t my food taste like this at home? Maybe there’s a Chinese kitchen that would hire me so I could learn the secret?
My desire to feel more connected to my work, and to feed my increasing cravings for the smoky stuff, led to me accepting an offer that felt like the closest I could get to Chinese cooking without speaking the language: a wok station gig at an upscale, Taiwanese-owned, fusion-style diner on the outskirts of Chinatown. But at my new post, I was quickly disappointed to learn that the food, which shared the names of the classic dishes I loved, didn’t look or taste the same. Part of this had to do with the diner chef’s unique vision. A soon-to-be celebrity with a background in Italian cuisine, her approach muddied the flavors of the individual ingredients instead of capturing their essence – a core tenet of Chinese cooking. One of the worst offenders on the menu were the Dan Dan noodles, whose sauce was marred by an inescapably bitter florality, and a gritty texture on the tongue in lieu of the standard sesame-smooth one. The noodles were also served premixed with the sauce, instead of sitting in pools of the separate components, taking all the fun out of the experience of eating the dish. But worst of all, these Dan Dan noodles were missing the thrilling signature tingle which practically yanks your taste buds alert. I was left scratching my head, which was covered by a company-mandated bandana, wondering where this all left me.
Wok hei in many ways had become symbolic of the insecure relationship I’d developed with Chinese food. Even though I could now spot wok hei while restaurant hopping, I still didn’t know whether it was happening in my own stir fries on the job, or how to achieve it at home. This was partly because, not once in the seven months I worked at the Taiwanese diner, pushing out plate after plate of their “wok-charred” noodles, did I have the opportunity to enjoy an honest meal’s worth of their food. The kitchen’s daily prep list never permitted the line cooks enough time for a proper meal break, nor were we allowed to taste in the open kitchen. So, instead, we just pushed straight through each day, sneaking crumbs along the way.
Meanwhile, the secret to achieving wok hei had been right under my nose the whole time: the scorching flame of the restaurant standard 100k btu (British Thermal Unit) jet engine burner. This revelation was something that I wouldn’t confirm until long after I’d left that job, though, when a new wave of food writers (like Lopez-Alt) and video bloggers (like Chinese Cooking Demystified) dedicated to cutting through the wok hei haze, began to emerge. “Most people in China don’t own restaurant burners,” Lopez-Alt’s voice can be heard saying on one recent video, while footage shot from a GoPro camera mounted on his head shows him tossing food around in his backyard. As he shimmies a wok full of zucchini, the cooking oil ignites, sending up foot-high flames which completely engulf the food. He’s testing a series of burners with names like the PowerFlamer and the Portable Kahuna in quest of achieving restaurant-grade wok hei at home and finding the best backyard burner for the job. “In the West, I don’t think most people are familiar with home style Chinese cooking because we don’t experience Chinese cooking at people’s homes; we experience it at Chinese restaurants. This is why people here have this obsession with recreating those restaurant-style flavors,” he says in another video, discussing the origins of the English-speaking world’s wok hei fixation and answering another one of my long-held questions.
While I’m glad to finally know where our obsession with wok hei comes from, and that achieving it at home is possible with the right equipment, these days I’ve made peace with my relationship to Chinese cooking. And I’m happy to leave wok hei as one part of the professional restaurant experience to keep returning as a customer for in order to get my fix. Although it’s been more than a year now, I can still fondly recall the last time I tasted restaurant-grade wok hei at China King, the unassuming little spot with the red awnings just inside Boston’s Chinatown gate. China King’s handmade vegetable chow mein, added to our order as an afterthought, stole my party’s heart that night. It was the first item to arrive, steam wafting from the fat, square-tubed noodles piled high on the ceramic plate, slivers of carrot, napa and mushroom peeking out, the whole deal dotted with telling black singe marks. Digging in, we savored that important first bite, its smoky essence overtaking our senses – the unmistakable taste of real wok hei. The noodles themselves were chewy, wheaty, devourable. I remember feeling like a robber making off with his loot, as I made my way home that night, leftovers bag in hand.
Chris Liberato lives in Massachusetts where he is currently pursuing an M.A. in English at Boston College. In addition to writing about food, he also likes to write about music and is a regular contributor to Dusted Magazine.
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