How The Woks of Life Forever Shaped Chinese Cooking in America
Sarah and Kaitlin Leung are trying to explain luffa to me.
“Do you like luffa? Chinese luffa, do you eat it?” Kaitlin asks. It’s a sunny afternoon in September, and we’re crouching in their parents’ vegetable garden in New Jersey, near rows of asparagus, squash, tomatoes, and eggplants, the last of which we’ll pick for a meal we’ll cook later. The farm is part of the new headquarters for The Woks of Life, their nine-year-old blog that is arguably the internet authority on Chinese home cooking in America.
I have no idea what the Leung sisters are talking about. My mind reels as I try to recall food memories from childhood that might contain the vegetable. Is it in that cold jellyfish and meat dish at Cantonese banquets? (No.) Is it another word for bitter melon? (No.)
“So you know when you scrub yourself with a luffa? Literally, it’s that. But pre-dried. Chinese people will eat it,” Kaitlin says. “It’s in soups, or you’ll see it stir-fried with eggs,” Sarah, the oldest Leung sister, says. “It’s kind of squishy in texture, like really soft.”
“If your parents were here, they’d probably be like, ‘Whoa, yeah! Love it!’” Kaitlin says.
Later, I find out that luffa is also known as si gua, or Chinese okra. I think about how right Kaitlin is—how my father would have been able to identify the vegetable, and how he would have been thrilled to learn how easy it is to grow with enough bright sunlight.
This feeling of recognition—and the progression of it—is reminiscent of what it’s like to read recipes on The Woks of Life, which Kaitlin and Sarah run with their parents, Bill and Judy. Someone brings up a vegetable that seems familiar, if only you could form the word that’s on the tip of your tongue. Maybe your family has a nickname in English for it. And then, the revelation hits like a blast: The Leungs explain exactly what you’ve been grasping for. They share photos and context and recipes. Reading The Woks of Life, you finally understand this piece of your heritage in a way that you’ll hopefully remember and can impart later.
Since 2013, the Leungs have published hundreds of recipes that now receive millions of views every month, and they’ve solidified their reputation as a trusted resource with detailed guides that walk home cooks through the necessary equipment and ingredients to make their dishes. Over the years, they’ve garnered a cult-like following among chefs and Chinese cooking enthusiasts alike. The chef J. Kenji López-Alt says the Leungs’ recipes, both inspirational and functional, have helped him bring his own family around the dinner table. “The Leungs are as real as it gets,” he says. The cookbook author and restaurateur Molly Yeh writes in an email that the Leungs’ “knowledge of Chinese cooking is encyclopedic.” Friends tell me they and their relatives consult the blog all the time, which I can relate to—The Woks of Life is about the only site my entire family consults, including my father, who notoriously shirks recipes.
The Leungs have taken note of this loyal audience and bet big on The Woks of Life, entwining their lives with it. In the last year, Bill and Judy purchased this sprawling farm with plans to use the property’s historic barn to build a kitchen studio for filming recipes, and Sarah now works full-time on the blog. The payoffs of this type of effort are clear: They were recently featured in Family Meal, a digital miniseries produced by the Food Network, and now, with their debut cookbook, The Woks of Life, out this month, the Leungs—along with their charisma and approachability—are poised to reach even more people. The more time I spend with the family, the clearer it becomes that they’re on the precipice of something huge.
At the Leungs’ doorstep, I slip off my shoes and Judy hands me a pair of oversized slippers. As I shuffle inside, so begins a whirlwind of offerings: water, coffee, tea, soup, a mooncake that they’d made a couple weeks before for the Mid-Autumn Festival. Outside one of the kitchen windows, Bill strides across the paddock to tend to a motley crew of alpacas and goats (and one llama), as well as ducks and chickens, whose eggs they use in their cooking. Looking around their kitchen with its two islands and an enviable range meant for cooking with a commercial-size wok, I could see why a family documenting the details of their lives to millions would make a home here. It is a perfectly—overwhelmingly—idyllic backdrop for a cooking blog.
Nearly a decade earlier, long before the Leungs had to consider how to share their life and recipes with readers, they were simply trying to figure out how to navigate life’s various stages. In 2012, when Sarah graduated with a degree in media studies from Vassar College in upstate New York, job prospects were slim. Kaitlin was still attending the University of Pennsylvania, and Bill and Judy had relocated from New Jersey to Beijing for Bill’s job at Nokia, where he’d been tasked with creating a new software engineering team. After spending a year working abroad and then coming back home alone, Sarah, facing the distance from her parents, started posting recipes to The Woks of Life. In many ways, that humble blog became a solution to different problems.
“I was feeling like I didn’t have a lot of direction,” Sarah recalls. “I felt like the blog connected me to [my family] because they were far away—and also, I was tired of my own food that I was able to cook myself.” The Leung parents raised their children with food as a constant presence: the British cooking program Two Fat Ladies often played on their TV, and with Bill and Judy’s backgrounds at a relative’s restaurant, the daughters developed discerning tastes. Sarah often requested the family’s simple version of a roasted chicken stuffed with sticky rice, which requires deboning chicken thighs and wrapping them around sticky rice cooked with shiitake mushrooms, shallots, and thick chunks of lap cheong.