The Woks of Life
The Woks of Life is written by Bill, Judy, Sarah and Kaitlin a family that has been cooking and serving up meals for a combined 139 years. Their blog is for anyone looking to try their hand at grade A authentic Chinese cooking whatever their background may be. The Woks of Life were the 2015 Saveur Blog Awards winners in Readers’ Choice Best Special Interest Blog, as well as Editors’ Choice Best Special Interest Blog.
I’m so psyched to have Kaitlin Leung of The Woks of Life with me here today.
(*All photos are The Woks of Life’s.)
On Starting The Woks of Life:
Food blogs are not new obviously but there were a couple of big ones that we did follow, me and my sister mainly, which were The Pioneer Woman. So she kind of blew up and she has her own show and she is like a complete celebrity now and also Smitten Kitchen. So those were the two blogs mainly that we enjoyed looking at and that sparked the idea like, “Why can’t we start a food blog too?”
After she (Sarah) graduated she wasn’t really sure what she wanted to do and she had the whole summer to think about that. So she came up with this idea of starting a food blog. My mom and I were pretty excited to help out and start cooking things and take photos. So it organically became this family thing. She had the idea we could call it The Woks of Life, and we could be the four people at the center of it, and it could be a family thing.
At the time my parents were sort of transitioning into that idea of living in Beijing and then I think four months after the blog was started they actually did move. I’m getting my timing a little bit wrong but she graduated and they were moving to Beijing and everything was kind of in flux.
It was a good way for us to gather our family recipes and have a way to connect with each other across spaces. We communicated mainly through iMessage, Skype and emails. I would email my sister from the library at midnight being like, “Hey, I’m really bored what did you eat today?” That kind of little small talk, chit chat that you would normally have but you don’t really have when you are at two different schools and your parents are living in Beijing. It was all sending pictures of food that we made and we were almost already in the mindset. So to actually make it official was not that big of a job. It became a great family thing and a way for us to stay connected.
On Growing Up in a Family Where Food Played a Big Role:
Growing up it was always gathering around a big table full of food, and everybody reaching across loading up their plates. It was just a really great atmosphere. My dad was very active in the kitchen and his sisters loved to cook too. So from a young age we were like sponges just soaking up all this cooking knowledge and the Food Network. Those were the glory days of the Food Network, classics like Emeril Lagasse and Rachael Ray was just starting and Giada De Laurentiis, she was unmarried and without her baby so that was when she was starting out too. It was a really great time to be interested in food.
We would always just be in the kitchen like, “What are you doing? Why are you doing that,” it’s a passive and an active thing. You’re just watching but at some point you kind of have to roll up your sleeves and when me and my sister were teenagers my parents would have dinner parties and we were like catering staff. We knew so much and we could handle so much. All of my parents friends would be like, “Oh my God your daughters, they are so effective in the kitchen.”
It was kind of always growing up with that mentality of food is important and food is at the center and that’s the big reason why we get together, extended family too, it’s let’s get together and have a barbecue or let’s go get dim sum. It’s just an integral part of not just our family specifically but I feel like the Asian experience in general. You have a big extended family and what’s the best thing to do when you have all these huge amounts of people in the room? You eat.
On Learning About Chinese Cooking:
When we were younger you’re seeing Emeril and you’re seeing Rachel Ray and they’re not making Chinese food. So it kind of got to a point where it was… my grandma always loved saying this to her friends. She brags about us like, “Anything you want, they can make it,” it doesn’t necessarily apply to Chinese food. So when my parents moved to Beijing it was tough because I never ate Chinese food anymore.
You can’t go home and have a home cooked meal. That was another big part of why we wanted to start the blog, is documenting these recipes, which for years was like, “a little this, a little that,” like, “eyeball it, just pour it until it feels right.” You can’t really make that. So Chinese cooking has definitely taken on a bigger part of our repertoire, I guess for me and Sarah, but it was always within the expertise of my parents.
On What Authentic Chinese Food is to Her:
For me personally authentic Chinese food is the food that I grew up eating. It’s the Cantonese spread of salt and pepper pork chops and the pork bone soup and the big plate of green veggies with garlic and the steamed fish. It’s all that but I think that today when you think about traditional Chinese food it’s almost like it’s more about who made it for you.
The food itself is anything that tastes good that’s pretty traditional. I guess authentic is traditional. But I think that it’s almost more important who made it for you. Going into Queens to visit my grandparents and going to the restaurants around there, a lot of those places are owned by people that are technically Chinese citizens but they opened a restaurant in Flushing, Queens. It’s almost in my mind this set of dishes that my family makes most often and eats most often. So you could watch A Bite of China which is this documentary and there’s tons and tons of variety and dishes that you could have that are traditional and authentic, but to me it doesn’t resonate as much because I didn’t grow up eating it.
On Who in the Family is More Traditional and Who Likes to Experiment:
I would say my mother is definitely the most traditional which makes sense because she grew up China and she came over to the U.S. when she was 16. So she definitely has the most knowledge so therefore the most respect for those traditional dishes. I think my dad has a similar level of traditionalism but he grew up more on the Americanized Cantonese side of things. So he has more of an expertise in take-out dishes. He is the king of General Tso’s chicken and the pork fried rices and the lo meins, he can churn out anything.
In terms of who’s the most experimental? I think it’s probably a tie between me and my sister. I think we sort of alternate in our bolts of lightning moments of culinary brilliance. There’s one dish that she made that was so good. It was kimchi french fries and it’s this delicious kimchi mixture and then you put over french fries and then you put cheese on top and it’s 10 times better than chili cheese fries. But chili cheese fries are also good.
And then I’ll make something like Sichuan peppercorn Cacio e Pepe. Which is just cheese and black peppercorns but I wanted to incorporate an Asian spin so I used Sichuan peppercorns and white peppercorns and black peppercorns. It can become hard honestly to come up with those interesting ideas. You can’t fully hang your hat on just traditional Chinese food because that’s good but sometimes you just want something more interesting. We’re definitely always watching and seeing what the food world is doing and trying to get ideas.
The Pressure Cooker:
Which food shows or cooking shows do you watch?
I do watch The Pioneer Woman just because it’s a wonderful escape from real life. She’s got this amazing ranch and she makes all this delicious, comforting, fatty food, it’s great. I love that show and Jamie at Home. That was a short lived show but that was a really good show by Jamie Oliver. He has a beautiful garden, he sits outside with a little cutting board and just cuts and reaches over and plucks fresh herbs, it’s great.
What are some food blogs or food websites we have to know about?
So the sense that we get in the food blog world is that there’s just so many blogs out there and I think a lot of them don’t get enough credit because everybody’s really passionate about food and just telling their story. A couple that we like, one of them would be, Omnivore’s Cookbook which is this girl named Maggie and she actually was living in Beijing at the same time as we were and my sister and her actually met up and talked about food. She has a great blog that has authentic recipes. She makes them a little bit easier and more approachable but they still have that good authentic taste of Chinese food. So we really like her blog.
Another blog would be Little Cooking Tips which is a really cute, really friendly couple in Greece named Panos and Mirella, and they are so nice. They have really good Greek recipes. I just was on their website today and they had a finger licking feta and sausage mac and cheese. That sounds really good. They have a lot of good fusion Greek recipes. So we definitely like them. Hummingbird High, I think she was one of your most recent podcast guest. Her photography is gorgeous and her cakes look so good. Every time I want cake I just go to her Instagram and then I visually eat it.
Who do you follow on Pinterest, Instagram, or Facebook or Snapchat that make you happy?
I’m not sure about Pinterest because that’s my mother’s domain. She is the Pinterest master but on Instagram we follow a bunch of people. But I would say a couple of really good accounts are…there’s one by Dennis The Prescott, his photography is gorgeous and all of his food just looks so freakin yummy. He’s just one of those people that I go to time and time again.
Another one that I really like is Symmetry Breakfast. I think it’s a couple and they just take pictures of breakfasts that they have together and it’s perfectly symmetrical. It’s just so perfect for somebody who’s a little OCD like me. It’s just beautiful, I love it. They’ve got really great stuff. They have like a bagette that’s cut open and baked with eggs inside. They know how to live. They eat good for breakfast. I just roll out of bed and I’m lucky if I have a piece of toast. So those are just a couple that I like but there are so many people on Instagram that have just amazing photography. It can be hard to keep up because so many people are just putting out amazing content but those are two that I love.
What is the most unusual or treasured item in your kitchen?
I would say unusual for a nonChinese audience that is actually very useful is a tong device for picking up plates. If you put a hot dish in a steamer you don’t want to grab it and it kind of goes like this and then you can grab the plate and lift it out. That’s a really amazing underrated and not that well known tool. So for anybody listening, you should go buy one.
Most treasured I would say is probably my grandfather’s cleavers from my dad’s side. He was a chef and they actually had a Chinese restaurant for a number of years. We have his old cleaver that actually has his initials carved in the side. Because there are a bunch of chefs in the kitchen and you want to differentiate which one’s yours. We don’t use that one often but it’s still very sharp. It’s interesting. It’s years and years old but it’s still really good.
Name one ingredient you used to dislike but now you love.
Cilantro. I didn’t hate it. There are some people out there that hate cilantro, I never hated it but I never really liked it maybe until I was 14. It adds so much flavor. If you have a guacamole that has no cilantro, I’m sorry, but that’s not real guacamole. You need it. When you’re putting it on steamed fish with soy sauce and scallions and ginger, you need the cilantro, it adds a little something.
What are a few cookbooks that make your life better?
Ina Garten has a cookbook that is… I don’t know exactly what it’s called but it’s the pink one so people that know Ina Garten’s cookbook, there’s a blue one and there’s an orange one. But the orange one is Barefoot in Paris and there’s a pink one which is her basics cookbook. There is a chocolate cake recipe in that cookbook called Beatty’s Chocolate Cake it changed my life. This chocolate cake recipe is the only one you will ever need. It’s so moist and the frosting is perfect. It’s kind of sad actually because if you flip through the whole book, almost every page is totally pristine, and then when you go to this chocolate cake recipe, there’s just schmutz all over it. There are stains and drips of buttermilk because that’s how often I make that cake. This is more of a PSA than an interview question I feel because that cake is truly the best. We make it for friends and they rave. They love it.
What song or album just makes you want to cook?
For my sister it would definitely be Nat King Cole. For me, I would say, if anybody’s ever seen the movie Something’s Gotta Give with Diane Keaton and Jack Nicholson, that soundtrack is our favorite for cooking. It’s all French bistro music and whets your appetite and you feel so jazzy walking around the kitchen.
On Keeping Posted with The Woks of Life:
The best way to keep posted is to follow us on Facebook or Instagram. If you use Twitter, definitely follow us on Twitter, and I would say subscribe to our email list because we send out an email noon everyday when we have a new recipe.