I have said many times and in many different places, that I love to cook. One of the things that really get me excited about cooking is doing things that you can not find anywhere else, unless you do them yourself. Such as taking the time to pick the freshest ingredients, or using a technique that is not pratical for a restaurant to practice (either becuase of time, or is not economical).
Every so often, I get into a real frenzy about a specific type of cooking or food. I got interested in Chinese cooking from a historical interest. I wanted to know how people with such scarce resources did things on a daily basis. That is when I came across Grace Young’s cookbook “The Breath of a Wok.”
Recipes aside, this is one amazing book. There is lots of information in there about the history of the wok, cooking, wok culture and its drastic change even in recent years.
The beautiful, hand hammered wok on the cover is very intriguing. Once you get into the book, you learn more about that particular wok. As it turns out, there is a man named Cen Lian Gen still making these fire-iron woks by hand in the streets of Shanghai.
The author visits Cen Lian Gen’s shop and finds out more about his woks. I am going to quote the book directly.
“The woks are beautiful, with rich, dull, pebbled finishes and exquisite crafting. They are like nothing I have ever seen before. In Shanghainese Cen explains that his father started the business more than seventy years ago, and that he and his brother, Cen Rong Gen, have continued producing the famous hand-hammered carbon-steel woks, which they call fire-iron woks. Each one requires a least five hours to produce.”
“Cen and his brother work without a staff. Once they retire, the business will end. Again I feel a disappointment that yet another wok tradition is destined to vanish.”
I really thought it would be cool to own one of these things. Literally like owning a piece of history. I scoured the internet, doing all types of different searches and came up with nothing. It was looking like the only way to get one was to visit the shop in person and that didn’t look to be happening any time soon.
Here are a couple pictures of the book, showing Cen Lian Gen working on the woks.
And the man himself.
At work a couple years ago, I was working with a Chinese company, and got to be really good friends with our business contact. Even though I don’t work with him any more on the same project, when he is in town, we try to get together.
I got an e-mail from him about a month ago, saying that he was coming to the US, and would be going to Shanghai before he comes, and could potentially find Cen Lian Gen’s shop, and bring me a wok. Boy, was I excited!!!
Turns out “he got lucky” as he put it. He had no clue where the shop was located, but his driver did. Low and behold, he bought one for me. And here it is:
My friend had asked for a version with a long handle. But Cen Lian Gen told him that the Shanghai style is to have 2 ears. Little did my friend know, that the ears were my own personal preference. So, it worked out.
Finally, my friend had to use his camera phone to take a picture of the Cen Lian Gen and his shop to show me where my wok had come from : )
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