Food & Home

Fast, Hot, and Flavorful Meals from The Wok

Written by: Caitlin O’Malley


Updated on: September 26, 2023

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In his new cookbook, aptly titled The Wok, J. Kenji López-Alt writes, “When it comes to producing quick, flavorful, and versatile meals, the wok beats every other pan in the kitchen, hands down.” López-Alt has made a career out of decoding cooking techniques. His food-science-centric column on Serious Eats, The Food Lab (which is also the name of his debut cookbook), asks all the questions you’ve always wondered about, like: Does vodka sauce really need vodka? Do bones add flavor to meat? What’s the point of bay leaves? He approaches these questions with delightful curiosity and vigilant methodology. He digs deep—deeper than you think you’d care to go—but inevitably provides insight and context that make you a better, smarter cook.

The Wok focuses on both recipes and technique. There are textbook-style step-by-step photo guides for knife skills, food-science sidebars (including thermal images of the heat distribution of a wok), and several multipage charts that cover things like the cooking times for different types of seafood and the smoke points of oils. It’s a resource rich with thorough information.

  1. J. Kenji López-Alt
    The Wok: Recipes and Techniques
    Bookshop, $46.50SHOP NOW

There’s a particularly fascinating section about wok hei, or “the breath of a wok,” which is the deep, almost smoky flavor that you often get in good Cantonese-style stir-fries. It’s nearly impossible to achieve that flavor at home since industrial-grade burners and years of experience are key components to creating it. But López-Alt has come up with a few clever workarounds so home cooks can come very close. (See one workaround in the Cantonese pepper and salty shrimp recipe below.)

The wide variety of food showcased throughout the book—a staggering 200 recipes—is a testament to the wok’s utility. The recipes are mostly from East Asia. Some follow a traditional preparation from a specific region, and others are modern adaptations of takeout favorites. Sometimes López-Alt includes multiple versions of the same dish. You’ll find both a Chinese American version of kung pao chicken and a Sichuan version, called gong bao ji ding. There’s a sweet-and-salty Japanese-style mapo tofu based on his mom’s recipe alongside a Sichuan-inspired mapo tofu with the assertive flavors of fermented chili bean paste and the famously tingle-inducing Sichuan peppercorns.

Whether you’re looking to dive-deep into the science of wok cooking or trying to re-create your favorite takeout dishes at home: You will love everything you learn in The Wok.


  • Mapo Tofu

    Mapo Tofu

    “This is it. My favorite dish in the world and the grandmother of Sichuan cuisine. Translated literally as ‘pockmarked grandmother’s tofu,’ its totally apocryphal origin story is identical to a half dozen other food origin stories: it starts with hungry crowds and a cook with few ingredients but plenty of creativity. The result is an inexpensive stew that uses simple ingredients—soft tofu, ground meat (traditionally beef, but frequently pork), fermented chile bean paste, a handful of Sichuan peppercorns, and plenty of red-hot chile oil—to create simple, soul-satisfying fare.

    “You can find mapo tofu on the menu at almost any restaurant in China, especially in Sichuan, but this version, served in a screaming-hot cast iron bowl, was easily my favorite. Tender cubes of soft tofu laced with tender ground beef under a bubbling layer of chile oil, fragrant with toasted Sichuan peppercorn and fermented horse beans. It didn’t have the blast of chile heat you might expect from looking at it. Rather, it has a more subtle, layered heat with chiles that come through alternately as sweet and hot with the rich, almost raisin-like flavor of dried fruit.”


  • Cantonese Pepper and Salty Shrimp

    Cantonese Pepper and Salty Shrimp

    The secret to this dish is the toasted salt. López-Alt writes, “Toasting salt in a wok is a traditional technique for dishes like Cantonese salt and pepper shrimp. Tasted side by side, toasted salt acquires a lightly smoky aroma reminiscent of good wok hei. It also visibly changes color, acquiring a yellowish brown hue. The color and flavor of toasted salt comes from deposits from the oil/polymers vaporizing from the wok itself—the same stuff that contributes to the smoky flavor of wok hei. Given that the toasted salt has some of that wok hei flavor, this makes perfect sense. It’s also worth noting that using this toasted salt to season your food in place of regular will impart some smokiness to it, even if it hasn’t been cooked in a wok.”