Book Buzz: The Wok: Recipes and Techniques

The Wok: Recipes and Techniques by J. Kenji López-Alt

The 2023 winner of the Washington State Book Award for General Nonfiction, J. Kenji López-Alt, is not a flash-in-the-pan.

His first book, “The Food Lab: Better Home Cooking Through Science,” was a New York Times bestseller and won a 2016 James Beard Foundation Award. In 2020, he wrote a children’s picture book, “Every Night is Pizza Night.”

His latest is a tribute to the wok, “the most versatile pan in your kitchen,” and it takes the science-meets-art approach he honed as a cook in “America’s Test Kitchen” and as an editor for Cook’s Illustrated.

Like the venerable magazine, “The Wok: Recipes and Techniques” includes copious how-tos with step-by-step instructions and full-color photographs. It also offers lengthy sidebars that get into the nitty-gritty of related topics such as “The Truth About MSG” and “Buying and Salting Eggplants for Stir-Fries.”

Finally, because finely sliced meats and veggies feature prominently in wok cuisine, there are multiple pages devoted to knife skills. For those who just want clear, easy-to-follow recipes, this book has many, with chapters on rice, noodles, frying and simmering, and “simple, no-cook sides.”

López-Alt grew up in Manhattan, the grandson of Japanese immigrants. After working as a cook and editor, he became the managing culinary director of the food blog, Serious Eats. He started a YouTube channel in 2006 (now boasting 1.43 million subscribers and 195 million views), opened a restaurant in San Mateo in 2007, became a New York Times columnist in 2019 and moved to Seattle in 2020.

He now has an Instagram account (618,000 followers) and posts regularly on TikTok, all of which led The Seattle Times to call him “maybe the most powerful food influencer this city has seen in the social media age.” His GoPro videos of late-night forays into the kitchen to cook Asian comfort food showcase his laid-back style.

López-Alt is not afraid to show a little personality in his books, with plenty of puns (wok on!) and not-so-serious asides. Take his investigation into what makes inexpensive Chinese-American takeout so beloved: “A little gloppiness is OK. It’s an essential part of the totally authentic inauthentic experience.”  

He’s all business when it comes to technique, however. He has thoroughly researched the best knives and woks to buy, the key pantry ingredients and tips on how to use electric burners when a gas range is not available. His recipes are no-nonsense with clear directions.

Two things to look out for: specialty ingredients and ambitious cooking times, which may be accurate for a practiced chef but not for a neophyte. The crispy chow mein noodle cake with shiitake and bok choy topping I made was savory and crunchy as advertised, although it could have been more piquant.

Sichuan smashed cucumber salad was a winner, fresh with a touch of heat. López-Alt’s pad thai came as close to “restaurant flavor” as any pad thai recipe I’ve tried so far. Palm sugar and tamarind pulp seem to be the secret, with dried small shrimp and shrimp paste for additional authenticity.

The recipes are primarily from Chinese, Japanese and Thai cuisines, although there are some Filipino, Korean, Malaysian, Taiwanese and Vietnamese dishes as well. If you’re craving quick and flavorful Asian food, grab a wok and a copy of “The Wok: Recipes and Techniques.”

Reviewed by WCLS Executive Director Christine Perkins

Originally published in Cascadia Daily News, Dec. 2, 2023