upper waypoint

How The Woks of Life Helped a New Generation of Chinese Americans Learn to Cook

Save ArticleSave Article
Failed to save article

Please try again

A Chinese American family prepares a shrimp dish on their kitchen counter.
The Woks of Life is the rare multi-generational food blog: It's written by Sarah and Kaitlin Leung along with their parents, Bill and Judy. (Courtesy of The Woks of Life)

F

or the first 18 years of my life, my mom cooked Chinese food every day — a couple of homey stir-fries, a whole steamed fish, a pot of white rice, all served family-style. She rarely even glanced at a recipe.

But when it came time for me to teach myself how to cook, I didn’t ask my mom for help. Instead, like so many young people who came of age in the ‘90s and early 2000s, I turned to the Food Network and the online recipes of the early internet. I bought three Jamie Oliver cookbooks. And by the time I started my own family, I was making coq au vin for fun on the weekends and could cook a mean risotto. What I didn’t really know how to cook at all, however, was Chinese food.

Part of the problem was that I only knew how to cook by following recipes. And up until maybe five or 10 years ago, the number of English-language recipes for Chinese dishes you could find in a cookbook or on the internet still felt extremely limited — at least when it came to homey, everyday recipes written with a younger Chinese American audience in mind.

That was the experience, too, for sisters Sarah and Kaitlin Leung, co-authors — along with their parents, Bill and Judy — of The Woks of Life, a new Chinese American cookbook published this past November, based on the Leungs’ popular blog of the same name. Their book tour will arrive in the Bay Area on Saturday, Feb. 11, with the two sisters appearing at events at Omnivore Books in San Francisco and the main branch of the Berkeley Public Library.

Cover of The Woks of Life cookbook shows a bowl of spicy wontons against a red backdrop.
The cookbook version of the blog was published by Clarkson Potter this past November. (Courtesy of Clarkson Potter/Penguin Random House)

“We learned to cook from Rachael Ray and Ina Garten and Giada DeLaurentiis,” Sarah recalls. “But we learned to eat from our parents.”

Sponsored

Like so many other ABCs (American-born Chinese) and younger first- and second-generation Chinese immigrants, the Leung sisters reached a point in their adult lives when they started to crave the food they’d grown up on, but found it really difficult to learn how to prepare it. There was such a “representation gap,” as Sarah puts it, in terms of what kinds of cuisines were prominently featured in those early days of TV celebrity chefs and the emerging food blogosphere.

As it turns out, though, the Leung sisters were uniquely positioned to do something about it: Bill, their father, had spent years cranking out beef and broccoli at his family’s Chinese American takeout restaurant in the Catskills in New York. Judy, their mom, was born and raised in Shanghai and had deep knowledge about traditional Shanghainese cooking. Meanwhile, the two sisters had grown up in the New Jersey suburbs, eating their parents’ food, but also immersed in America’s own food-obsessed culture.

So, in 2013, the Leungs did what so many young people did at that time: They started a food blog. What differentiated The Woks of Life from other blogs was that the intergenerational transfer of knowledge that the Leungs were so eager for was baked right into the concept: The four family members took turns posting recipes, each sharing their own favorites, tapping into their own areas of expertise. In that way, Sarah says, the blog reflected — and continues to reflect — the diversity of the Chinese diaspora.

A family photo of a Chinese American family taken during the 1990s. A father, mother and two daughters sit at the dinner table.
The Leungs at dinner time in a family photo taken during the 1990s. (Courtesy of The Woks of Life)

The Woks of Life was one of the forerunners of a new generation of food blogs that started around that time — along with Maangchi (for Korean food) and Just One Cookbook (Japanese) — all geared, to a large extent, toward Asian Americans looking to reconnect with the food of their heritage.

I was in that exact target demographic: I wanted to learn how to cook Chinese food like my mom, but she was never in the habit of writing down recipes or giving precise measurements. Then, four or five years ago, I started coming across Woks of Life recipes on the regular. Their recipe for steamed pork patty was the closest thing I found on the English-language internet to a dish my grandma always made for me when I was a kid. Their Instant Pot Taiwanese beef noodle soup recipe was such a resounding hit with my entire family, I basically gave up on trying to find an adequate restaurant version here in the Bay. (To show off the richness of regional Chinese cuisine, the blog has expanded far beyond just Shanghainese and Americanized Chinese dishes — and it now features dishes from Taiwan, Malaysia and Macau as well.)

Stories like mine are why the Leungs have kept the blog going for all these years. “We’re getting this incredible feedback,” Sarah says. “For us collectively, especially my mom, she feels like we’re doing this as a public service so that these recipes don’t get lost.”

A plate of boiled dumplings drizzled with red chili oil.
Dumplings drizzled with the now-famous Woks of Life chili oil. (Courtesy of The Woks of Life)

Kaitlin stresses that The Woks of Life follows a long line of trailblazers — folks like Joyce Chen, Martin Yan and Ming Tsai, who first started to bring Chinese home cooking into the mainstream in the U.S. “We feel proud that we have made a meaningful mark over the past decade, shedding a light that there’s a huge demand for these recipes,” she says. “It’s about representation, yes, but there’s also a huge demand.”

Five years ago, you wouldn’t have been able to find a ton of Chinese recipes in the New York Times food section, Kaitlin notes. Now you can. She says the clearest example of that shift is the popularity of the Woks of Life recipe for Chinese-style chili oil. In 2015, when Kaitlin first posted that recipe, if you Googled “chili oil,” the top search result was a Giada De Laurentiis recipe for Calabrian chili oil. Now, the Woks of Life recipe is the top result. And more than that, she says, the American public’s idea of chili oil has changed to the point that now, for a lot of Americans — maybe even most Americans — the first thing they think of is something you might use as a dipping sauce for dumplings.

“These dishes are becoming more part of the American consciousness,” Sarah says. “I think that’s a great thing. There’s a little bit more diversity out there on the internet.”

Sponsored

Kaitlin and Sarah Leung will give a presentation on the Woks of Life cookbook — and the blog’s role in cultivating Chinese cooking in America — at the main branch of the Berkeley Public Library (2090 Kittredge St.) on Saturday, Feb. 11, from 10:30 a.m.–12:30 p.m. On the same day, they’ll do a book talk and Q&A session at San Francisco’s Omnivore Books on Food (3885 Cesar Chavez St.) starting at 3 p.m. Both events are free and open to the public and will include book signings afterwards.

lower waypoint
next waypoint
‘Dolly Parton’s Pet Gala’ Is Like Taking Drugs That Never Leave Your SystemIs Bigfoot Real? A New Book Dives Deep Into the LegendZendaya Donates $100,000 to Bay Area Theater CompanyHow One Outfit Changed The Life of a Former Berkeley High TeacherOakland Chinatown Lantern Festival Embraces Tradition, Old and NewOakland’s couchdate Makes Room for Creatives to Hang and PlayWhen a Silicon Valley Taqueria Assembled the World’s Largest BurritoKorean Fried Chicken Is the Perfect Late-Night Bar SnackHilary Swank Gives Inspirational ‘Ordinary Angels’ Both the Heart and Heft it NeedsAt 102 Years Old, Betty Reid Soskin Revisits Her Music From the Civil Rights Era