When I picked up “The Woks of Life,” a cookbook written by the Leung family, I felt a pang of envy. Inside is something many of us would be thrilled to have: mom-and-dad-approved recipes interspersed with stories and photos — even a timeline — of one family’s history.
The cookbook grew out of the family’s decade-old recipe blog of the same name, which began when the younger Leungs realized that while they had inherited their parents’ love of cooking, they did not know how to make the food they grew up eating.
“This book and our blog together are kind of like a family album,” said Sarah Leung, who co-wrote the book during the pandemic with her parents, Bill and Judy, and younger sister, Kaitlin. “We call our blog culinary genealogy. We wanted the blog to be our family’s story as told through food.
“We grew up in a food-obsessed family,” she said, noting that she and her sister learned to cook from TV hosts, such as Rachael Ray and Ina Garten, and cookbooks like “The Joy of Cooking.”
For home-cooked meals, the sisters might make rice or wash vegetables, but “my parents were at the wok, adding the ingredients. My sister and I didn’t really learn that aspect.”
“Honestly, my 22-year-old self had no idea how to make anything in this cookbook, and now I’m developing a quarter of these recipes myself,” Sarah said. “Over time, we’ve achieved our goal: My sister and I are competent Chinese cooks.”
They’ve also amassed more than 1,000 recipes on their website, which has attracted such a loyal following since it began in 2013 that, in 2019, Sarah began working for it full time.
Both the blog and the cookbook feature dishes as they might be made in a Chinese home and in restaurants throughout China as well as in Chinese American takeout restaurants.
“All have equal importance, but they are different,” Sarah said, adding that the family discussed how to be respectful of each perspective. Her own family reflects some of that variation in approach: The patriarch, Bill, was born in New York, while their mother, Judy, was born in Shanghai and immigrated in 1983. Bill’s father owned a Chinese takeout restaurant in New Jersey.
She said she hopes the recipes will appeal to Chinese Americans, like her family, but also those less familiar with Chinese cooking. For the uninitiated, Sarah suggests approaching the book this way: “First try a recipe you know. … Start with egg drop soup or beef with broccoli. You’ll be like, ‘Wow, I was able to make this dish that I know and I love, and it tastes like it is supposed to taste like.’ It will build confidence.” Then she suggests moving on to a dish you haven’t tried before.
I started my exploration with the Kung Pao Chicken, a familiar favorite, but, as I made it, I realized it was quite different from the milder, saucier versions I grew up eating.
There’s a reason for that, Sarah explained: Often in Chinese American restaurants, the food is made through a Cantonese lens, because many Chinese immigrants hailed from southern China.
“Kung pao is a dish you’ll find in Sichuan restaurants in China, and that sets it apart from sesame chicken and General Tso chicken. If you ask for those dishes in China, they’d say, ‘What is that?’”
Traditional kung pao should have an interplay of flavors and textures, with the chicken and scallions cut to be about the same size as the peanuts, so you get a little of each in every bite; the sauce must be a balance of heat and sweetness, “with no standing sauce” in the serving plate.
A light sprinkle of ground Sichuan peppercorns balances the heat from the chiles, she said.
The Kung Pao Chicken, like all the recipes in the cookbook, was tested and approved by all four family members before it was included.
How do the Leungs manage personalities and family hierarchies?
“In a nutshell: We’re used to it,” Sarah said. “After 10 years of doing this, we’ve found a good rhythm. We still argue and ruffle feathers, but we’ve learned to work together efficiently. Boundaries are really important. When we’re in work mode, it’s almost like we’re colleagues rather than being family.” For Sarah, the success of the cookbook is that it honors tradition as well as reflects modern interpretations, a blending of old and new. It also offers building blocks for home cooks who want to learn to cook Chinese food.
“I love the idea that Chinese cooking is becoming the domain of home cooks in the United States,” she said. For too long, “it was a cuisine that many people were used to only eating out.”