How to Host Potlucks with Wok Hay

April 26, 2013
By Holly Jennings

Wok portrait collage


Above (from top left, clockwise): Judy, with her Teflon-coated wok (Judy ordered a flat-bottomed, carbon-steel wok, but was unhappy with the construction and returned it); Melanie, with her beautifully seasoned carbon-steel wok (she’s had it for years); Bhakti, with her 2-month-old carbon-steel wok (that looks as if she’s had it for years); Me, with my 2-month-old-plus wok, looking not nearly as nice as Bhakti’s; Marianne with her skilletful of Spicy Garlic Eggplant—notice the handmade label (she does not own a wok); Judy, again.


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Most recipes in The Breath of a Wok are intended to be stir-fried rapidly over furiously hot heat and dispatched to diners will equal speed. If a finished stir-fry loiters on a kitchen counter even for a few moments, eaters may miss their chance of experiencing its wok hay. Make a dish ahead and reheat—the common MO of potlucks—and you can forget about wok hay or enjoying those just tender but still perky snow peas.


How then to host a potluck of recipes from The Breath of a Wok, or for that matter any stir-fry−themed potluck? The only thing to do is to break with potluck tradition and stir-fry on site. This is exactly what Grace Young’s family members did when they held a wok-themed reunion, as recounted in the story “The Family Wok-a-thon,” one of several lengthy and read-worthy sidebars in Breath that range in topic from “The Wok Warriors,” a story about professional Chinese chefs and the skill, training, and technique needed to become a head chef working in the number one wok position, to “The Wok as a Musical Instrument,” a story about the rhythm and sounds of wok cooking, which can verge on performance.


Judy pan-frying stuffed tofu

Judy pan-frying stuffed tofu

Following Young’s lead, we had our own wok-a-thon—DCCC style. As each member arrived, I steered them with wok in hand to a spot next to the large sliding glass door off our deck, the best possible place to catch the remaining early evening light. Everyone traded turns holding the white bounce card, giving me a chance to turn off the self-timer and its incessant beeping (the audio track to my usually go-it-alone photo shoots).

Our cook-and-wok portrait session concluded, the stove became the main focus. Soon things began to heat up with the sounds of stuffed tofu triangles sizzling in oil and Bhakti’s metal spatula (or wok “shovel”) softly clanging as mung bean sprouts and matchsticks of pork are lifted up in the air and turned in a searing hot wok. It’s nice to hear the din of food being cooked in the kitchen as a prelude to the inevitable din of chatter around the table—this time about just how good homemade Chinese food can be.


Steps for a Successful Stir-Fry Potluck

  1. To avoid a logjam at the stove, encourage some potluck goers to make a dish that is equally good served at room temperature. In The Breath of a Wok, Spicy Garlic Eggplant, Sweet and Sour Cabbage, and Virginia Yee’s Dry-Fried Sichuan String Beans fit this description. In fact, the latter improves with flavor when allowed to stand for several hours before serving.
  2. Have everyone who is cooking on site do as much prep work as possible at home before they arrive.
  3. Have everyone bring their wok and set up stations so that two people can stir-fry simultaneously.
  4. Decide which two or three dishes go best together, and then let the stir-frying begin.
  5. Eat the piping hot food right away, and then send the next stir-frying pair off to the kitchen to work their stir-fry magic. Repeat stir-frying and eating in rounds until there’s nothing left.


Our Menu

Round One: Henry Hugh’s Cantonese Stuffed Tofu (prepared by Judy), Spicy Garlic Eggplant (a make-ahead dish prepared by Marianne), Cousin Kathy’s Lion’s Head (prepared by Melanie)


Round Two: Virginia Yee’s Dry-Fried Sichuan String Beans (a make-ahead dish prepared by me), Walter Kei’s Shanghai-Style Pork and Bean Sprouts (prepared by Bhakti), and more Henry Hugh’s Cantonese Stuffed Tofu (since Judy prepped so many of these gorgeous triangular pockets, and because they are so good, we sent her back to the kitchen for round two)



0 Comments to “How to Host Potlucks with Wok Hay”

  1. As the images show, something about holding a wok feels so good that everyone is happy and smiling! That was a great dinner.

  2. And it shows that woks can be musical. It looks as if we’re playing air guitar with our woks–particularly me.

  3. Bev Morrow says:

    Enjoyed reading about your Wok night. Brought back good memories of our potluck last month. I love hosting the event, my house smelled delicious for a couple days after the “meeting”! And eventually, I’ll get the last speck of grease cleaned up.

  4. I know what you mean about the smells of Chinese food lingering for a couple of days. It’s some darn, good smelling stuff! I would guess that our next book, JERUSALEM, will have much less grease-flying potentional. (But then again, fried eggplant is popular . . .)


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