Cookbook review: A ‘culinary genealogy’ told through food

‘The Woks of Life: Recipes to Know and Love from a Chinese American Family by Bill, Judy, Sarah and Kaitlin Leung (Potter, $35)

Meet the Leung family: Bill and Judy, a New Jersey couple who come from immigrant families, and their millennial daughters Sarah and Kaitlin. Each, they say, has a distinctive, strong-willed personality, but there’s one thing they all have in common: “Our family cares a lot about food. Like, a weird amount.”

That becomes clear in the opening pages of “The Woks of Life: Recipes to Know and Love from a Chinese American Family” (Potter, $35). Here, they confess to spending inordinate amounts of time in the kitchen together “deliberating shrimp placement and the correct temperature for chili oil.”

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Bill grew up in Liberty, New York. Judy moved to the nearby town of Monticello from Shanghai with her family as a teenager. Both helped run Bill’s Cantonese parents’ Chinese takeout restaurant when they were dating. After marrying, they brought those cooking skills into their home kitchen. From the time their daughters were old enough to hold chopsticks, they write, dinnertime has been “an all-hands-on-deck event.”

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After Sarah and Kaitlyn left home for college, Bill and Judy temporarily relocated to Beijing. Homesick for home cooking, the sisters frequently called upon their parents via Skype, and on occasional visits, to walk them through favorites like Red-Braised Pork Belly with Eggs and Classic Scallion Pancakes. In 2013, Sarah started a blog to record their recipes while documenting the family’s history, and enlisted the rest of the family to chip in. Described on its home page as “a culinary genealogy,” The Woks of Life is now recognized as the top online resource for Chinese cooking in English.

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Like the blog, the book’s chapters are filled with snapshots and heartwarming essays contributed by each family member, along with lusciously photographed recipes for takeout standbys, dim sum classics, quick weeknight stir-fries, and a handful of more ambitious feats accompanied by detailed tutorials, such as one for Cantonese Roast Duck reminiscent of those hanging in Chinatown restaurant windows.

The Chinese New Year on Jan. 22 would be an excellent time to give them a try. But if you can’t grab a copy before then, check out thewoksoflife.com, where you’ll find a collection of holiday favorites in one convenient place.

Susan Puckett is a cookbook author and former food editor of The Atlanta Journal-Constitution. Follow her at susanpuckett.com.

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