A friend does a great impression of a former housemate. It’s at exactly the moment they realise it’s much quicker to make mashed potatoes by chopping it into smaller bits first, rather than boiling one giant potato and mashing it whole. We’ve all been there. A fizzle and a crack as old neurons make new connections, a deluge of endorphins, a brief moment of shame and eureka: a higher plane of consciousness.
Get used to this feeling reading The Wok, a book of such astonishing detail and craft that comparisons to other weighty tomes like encyclopaedias seem somehow derogatory. J. Kenji López-Alt has built his reputation on this meticulous, science-oriented approach to cooking and has seen him garner a huge online following with over a million subscribers to his excellent YouTube channel as well as regular contributions to major publications and a growing collection of cookbooks.
His latest is substantial in both size and scope. Physically, it’s the sort of thing that used to be compared to the Yellow Pages but now is probably more like a stack of iPads. Though the heft is a reward for the sheer breadth of information found on its pages, ranging from the basics of stir-frying and chopping all the way to Scoville units and the glutamic acid content of certain foods.
Woks are versatile creatures and the chapters reflect this, being summarised by either ways of cooking with a wok, like Stir-Frying, Braising or Deep Frying or cooking with wok-centric ingredients like Rice or Noodles. Each chapter mingles technique, scientific explanations and applicable recipes like in the section dedicated to stir-frying chicken for instance, you will find an explanation for velveting, the scientific reasoning behind it and then a recipe for Sweet and Sour Chicken.
If you’ve ever enjoyed something cooked with a wok whether from China, Japan, Thailand or even at your local takeaway, it’s likely to be here. There’s recipes for ramen, tempura, dumplings, curries, all types of noodles, classic takeaway meals, traditional dishes, oils, and condiments. The recipes are written with such exacting measurements and instructions it’s almost impossible to get wrong and are so precise, you’re often told exactly where to place the ingredients into the wok (swirl your sauce around the side!). Trust in the process and it’ll deliver probably the best homemade version of that particular dish you could hope for.
The book has elevated every part of my cooking with a wok. Dishes like Fried Rice, Dan Dan Noodles, Pad See Ew and Lo Mein that benefit from the turbocharged gas burners in restaurants were as good of an approximation I could have wished to achieve at home (I’ve yet to try the suggestion of using a blow torch to achieve more authentic results). Recipes less demanding of high heat like Kung Pao Chicken, Khai Jiao (Thai-Style Omelette), Mapo Tofu and Soy Glazed Mushrooms were all exceptional. Better still, The Wok has improved my cooking even when not following the book. Using the lessons learned like the specific size of the vegetables, the order of cooking the ingredients or how you heat the oil has meant the quick Tuesday night stir-fry is as good as it’s ever been.
There’s no avoiding The Wok is theory heavy, more a Cook’s Book than a cookbook. Scientific explanations are almost always lurking over the next page and how much you engage with these will depend on your appetite for it. They are tiny marvels in themselves, using a data and process driven approach to justify any conclusions though personally, I find overly academic accounts of kitchen alchemy can leave me a little cold, like gazing at a rainbow and being told it’s just water drops and light dispersion, actually.
This however, is a pocket-sized gripe. Much like López-Alt’s The Food Lab, Samin Nosrat’s Salt, Fat, Acid, Heat and Harold McGee’s On Food and Cooking, The Wok is a book that isn’t content with showing you how, it wants to show you why. Sure, you can teach a man to fish but you could also show him how salt interacts with protein on a molecular level until he makes the best Kung Pao Prawns this side of the river. For a little time and energy, this is a book that will change how you cook for a lifetime.
Suitable for: Confident home cooks/Professional chefs
Cookbook Review Rating: Five stars
Buy this book: The Wok by J. Kenji López-Alt
£36, WW Norton & Co
Review written by Nick Dodd a Leeds-based pianist, teacher and writer. Contact him at www.yorkshirepiano.co.uk