Stir-Frying to the Sky's Edge by Grace Young

   GRACE YOUNG, A RECIPE DEVELOPER and food stylist for many Western publications, had reached middle age before she realized how much she didn't know about her aging parents. Questions about Cantonese forebears met a wall of reticence. But asking about the family's culinary heritage - something that she'd partly absorbed in childhood, partly lost sight of - opened floodgates of memory. The attempt to better understand 'Baba' and 'Mama' by re-connecting with ancestral kitchen skills and knowledge before it was too late inspired Young's first book, The Wisdom of the Chinese Kitchen (1999).
   In a way, the same impulse permeates her two other books. It's hard to recommend one without remembering how it's complemented by the others. The Breath of a Wok (2004; a remarkable collaboration with photographer Alan Richardson) seized on wok cookery as the heart of the Chinese culinary identity. A tour de force of symbiotic verbal-visual exploration, it made Young's own belated struggle to master wok skills the launching pad for a glorious trans-Pacific quest involving (among others) the remaining breed of Chinese artisanal wok-makers and the remaining breed of stir-fry cooks in the extended Young family.
   Stir-Frying to the Sky's Edge is another sort of extended-family document. In it Young pursues what she calls "the humanity of stir-frying" across a still larger backdrop: the global diaspora that has brought numberless Han Chinese from China itself to many other parts of Planet Earth over some centuries. No other cookbook shows us the art of Chinese cookery flourishing bravely and inventively in Jamaica, Peru, Malaysia, the Mississippi Delta, and other adoptive homes of "the Chinese immigrant experience worldwide."
   This demanding subject necessitates a densely layered organization. Recipe chapters presenting menu categories from meats to rice and noodles are intricately studded with sidebars and supplementary essays on topics ranging from particular preparation tips to the personal stories of remarkable cooks around the globe. In addition, there's a long, wide-ranging introductory primer on wok and stir-fry essentials as well as important ingredients. It's always dumb to rush to the stove and start cooking from any Chinese cookbook without having first tried to grasp a great deal of context. It would be even dumber in this case. The more time you spend familiarizing yourself in advance with the unusually detailed table of contents and using it to trace different strata of Young's many overlapping intentions, the more you'll appreciate the actual cooking.
   People who already own several Chinese cookbooks will recognize that the perspective in Sky's Edge is distinctly American. Young has the viewpoint of a
native San Franciscan who may have unconsciously internalized some core principles of Chinese cooking from infancy on but had to arduously learn others as a Western-focused culinary pro. Far from being a drawback, this is a great qualification for negotiating dual identities with deep loyalty to both - the most important task of anyone trying to translate any culinary 'language' for people who grew up with another. Young isn't precisely in sync with every Chinese-born authority's opinion on the superiority of Chinese cleavers, the best way of keeping blades sharp, or the advantages of whacking poultry into chunks through the bone, Chinese-style. Japanese santoku knives, new-fangled sharpening gadgets, and chicken pieces separated at the joints are fine with her. It's a doughnut-not-the-hole approach. While letting hesitant Western tyros keep some useful everyday moorings, it leaves Young free to concentrate on the true essentials of the stovetop scenario that is honest stir-frying in Singapore, Beijing, or Brooklyn - a blitzkrieg procedure requiring all ingredients to be cut, sliced, minced, and/or marinated in just the right way and added to a proper carbon-steel wok in just the right sequence over high heat.
   More controversial will be her preference for American flat-bottomed woks (sometimes large Western-style skillets) over the round-bottomed original. For nearly all home cooks, the limitations of Western stoves - even gas stoves - dictate a choice between imperfect alternatives. Round woks must be uneasily set on rings a crucial inch too high above the heat source for ideal stir-frying. Flat ones are more stable but will never have that wonderful well of hot oil and savory juices in the bottom. I
usually like round woks, but recognize that despite some disadvantages, the flat models called for in all recipes can help people gain stir-frying confidence without the wobble factor.
   For prospective user-cooks, this book has two paramount virtues. First, Young's descriptions of caring for carbon-steel woks - the only kind worth having - impressively make the point that as the surface changes through repeated use, you form a relationship with the wok that's impossible with "the untarnished immutability of modern cookware." Even better, the selection of recipes really does light up the global-diaspora theme.
   Many of the roughly 100 dishes would be at home in any general-interest Chinese cookbook - mussels with ginger and scallions, beef or chicken chow fun, eggplant in garlic sauce, a dozen-plus simple vegetable stir-fries. But others show people from distant corners of the Chinese diaspora applying archetypal Chinese resourcefulness and skill to adoptive materials like lemongrass (Vietnam), Andean chiles and potatoes (Peru), jerk seasonings (Jamaica), pineapple (Malaysia), green cabbage and bacon (New Mexico), and diced bagels (of all places, Beijing, courtesy of a Brooklyn-raised transplant).
   Young's recipe-writing has the eye for detail that you'd expect from a veteran of U.S. food publishing. I had great fun and easy success making Singapore rice noodles with unexpected Nyonya (Straits Chinese) seasonings, fresh-tasting Albuquerque-style cabbage and bacon, lime-accented Trinidadian shrimp with a slug of dark rum, Mongolian-style lamb with scallions, and the vigorous melange that Indian-Chinese call 'Chicken Manchurian.' Even my one failure - 'sweet' (glutinous) rice with shiitakes and Chinese sausage - had a happy ending. When it turned out great-tasting but defiantly sticky despite my best precautions, I converted it into a panful of excellent fried rice croquettes that I'd take over Italian arancini any day. This 'sky's edge' thinking is contagious!   


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