How food blog the Woks of Life became a home for Chinese America

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If you’ve ever resorted to Google to answer pressing questions about what to do with all the Sichuan peppercorns in your pantry, you’ve probably come across the Woks of Life, a prolific food blog run by Chinese American sisters Sarah and Kaitlin Leung and their parents, Judy and Bill Leung. The blog garners an enviable 7 million page views a month from home cooks seeking the family’s well-tested recipes, and its upcoming cookbook, also called “The Woks of Life,” will likely expand the family’s reach even more.

As one among that 7 million, I don’t quite remember when I first came across the Leungs’ food blog, but their well-photographed and easy-to-follow guides to making chile crisp oil and Xian-style biang biang noodles have quickly become an indispensable resource for all my Chinese home cooking. Grounding the recipes are the honest perspectives of Kaitlin and Sarah, the millennial children who started the blog to document the trial-and-error process of learning to cook (and streamline) the food they grew up eating.

The New Jersey family’s new cookbook mimics the blog’s wide culinary reach with 80 original recipes and 20 updates on previously published ones, including family recipes from the parents’ Cantonese and Shanghainese backgrounds, takes on contemporary mainland Chinese street food and Chinese American dishes like crab rangoon. For longtime fans, it’ll feel like a seamless transition from web to print, especially since the book’s colorful and appealing photos are primarily by Sarah Leung, who also shoots images for the blog. 

It’s a practical book that you’ll actually want to cook from, with QR codes that link to bonus techniques; intelligent technical shortcuts; and recipes that range from blissfully easy char siu pork to Yunnan’s famous crossing the bridge noodles. Even if making your own XO sauce sounds daunting, you’ll still find plenty of reasons to cook out of this book.

The book also presents a distinctly multi-generational view on what it means to be Chinese American, incorporating Judy’s experiences as a teenage immigrant from Shanghai, Bill’s time frying egg rolls at his parents’ restaurant in New Jersey, and the kids’ imperfect attempts to connect with their heritage through food. 

The cover of

The cover of “The Woks of Life” (Clarkson Potter).

The Woks of Life

In a recent conversation about the book, Sarah and Kaitlin talked about their flexible, everyman take on Chinese food. This interview has been edited for length and clarity.

Soleil Ho: There aren’t a ton of specifically Chinese American cookbooks out there, but there are a few — like the Mister Jiu’s cookbook, Kristina Cho’s “Mooncakes and Milk Bread” and now yours — that are working out what it means to fit into that niche. The descriptor of Chinese American is front-and-center in the subtitle of the book, too. What does “Chinese American” mean to you in terms of cuisine? 

Sarah Leung: It definitely has evolved since, say, 20 years ago. I remember growing up and going to pretty authentic Shanghainese restaurants in Jersey strip malls as a kid to eat soup dumplings, but I would never think the kids at school would know what those were. But now, soup dumplings and biang biang noodles are in the American consciousness. There’s definitely been a widening of the picture of what Chinese food is in America. But also, Americanized Chinese is still a very specific cuisine that we are all familiar with here.

For me, as a Chinese American person, I feel I have all of these different entry points into my cuisine. I grew up going to my grandparents’ Chinese American restaurant as well as going to New York City’s Chinatown and experiencing that traditional, Cantonese food. We also experienced going back to China — the motherland — and experiencing what that food was. So there are all these different aspects of the Chinese American experience that we wanted to combine in this book. And that, I think, speaks to a wide swath of Americans as well, because Chinese food is so ingrained in American culture.

Kaitlin Leung: “Chinese American” is a unique phrase, and the choice to use it was deliberate. In our blog, we have four different perspectives, and they’re all unique takes on what Chinese Americans can look like. We definitely recognize that the definitions of what is Chinese and American are always evolving. And “traditional” Americanized Chinese food is included in that. I think a reason why people enjoy the blog is because we don’t discriminate against anything: We love General Tso’s chicken as much as the next person. So for us, it’s a phrase that encapsulates all those different perspectives.

SH: How did the design of the book fit into that? 

KL: I really wanted to make sure from the get-go that we were working with someone who would understand that the design was going to be incredibly tricky. First of all, there’s the Chinese aspect of it, in which it’s so easy to fall into visual stereotypes likethe chopstick and the takeout container; just the same motifs that you see again and again. So that was actually a really big challenge. At the same time, it was important for the book to have the nostalgic sensibility of a family album. I think we were wary of it feeling too slick or too modernized — too watered down.

SL: We have never pigeonholed Chinese food into one particular avenue of it. We wanted that diversity to be represented in the book because one of my theories as to why the Woks of Life speaks to people is, like I said, that there are lots of different entry points. if the dishes that are most familiar to you are beef and broccoli and pork fried rice, we have that. If you’re looking for your grandmother’s congee recipe or something akin to a traditional mooncake, we have that too.

SH: Do you ever feel the pressure to be more prescriptive as online “authorities” on Chinese food? Because that’s the thing that can be really hard, isn’t it? When you are lauded as an experts, you’re asked all the time, is this right? Is this wrong? Is this authentic?

SL: Yes! I have a lot of thoughts on this and actually wrote an essay on this that didn’t make it into the book. We’ve definitely encountered a lot of criticism on the blog over the years that’s like, oh, this isn’t authentic or you should have done it this way. I’m not against that: It’s great when people feel passionate about something and they want to share that passion. But we did feel that pressure in the beginning because we were like, oh, our version of this has to be the version. 

Ironically, the thing that jolted us out of that mindset was going to China, living in China, working in China and eating in China because you realize how many different versions of one dish, even in the place of origin of that dish, there can be. Obviously, there are principles that Chinese chefs adhere to in certain ways. But for example, red-braised pork belly has multitudes of versions. Some have certain aromatics, some don’t. Some use certain additions: I’ve heard of adding cherries to it, for example, to add sweetness and to add color. There’s just a lot of creativity around those dishes and variety around each individual dish in the place of origin. 

And it took the pressure off us a little bit because we realized there is no one size fits all version of any dish: It’s just a matter of what tastes the best to us. And that’s why on our blog, we encourage experimentation among our readers. 

KL: We’re almost trying to say, this is about taste memory first. The whole reason why Chinese American food even exists as a genre is because of people making do with what they have, right? You’re always improvising, and things adapt and change: The world changes and people change with it. So it’d be ridiculous for us to be like, Oh, you don’t have this one ingredient, so you can’t make the recipe. It’s more rewarding when everybody’s a little bit less prescriptive and you can just see where things go in the kitchen.

SH: So what’s a good entry point in the book for someone who’s opening it up for the first time? What recipes would you recommend they start with? 

SL: I love my pork and shrimp siu mai recipe. You make the filling in a Kitchenaid stand mixer. It’s super easy actually putting together, and wrapping the dumplings is also really easy. And when you take your first bite, you’re like, this tastes like it came out of a restaurant! It’s a good confidence-boosting recipe because it’s really not that hard.

And then I think the other one would be my sister’s shortcut dan dan noodles. It involves basically mixing a sauce that can keep in the fridge for weeks so that basically you’re just whipping up the noodles and boiling some greens with your noodles and making a little relish, and then you’re just pouring your sauce and mixing it. You’re done. 

KL: And then I would add our sesame-crusted tofu, which is emerging as a favorite among the editorial folks who’ve been working on the cookbook. Basically, you can warm up with the recipes by Sarah and me and then you progress to my parent’s more challenging recipes, like the Cantonese roasted duck!

Soleil Ho is The San Francisco Chronicle’s restaurant critic. Email: Twitter: @hooleil

Pork and shrimp siu mai from

Pork and shrimp siu mai from “The Woks of Life” cookbook.

Woks of Life

Pork and shrimp siu mai

Makes 24 shumai

Make a batch of these classic Cantonese-style siu mai, and they’ll transport you to your favorite dim sum restaurant. The hallmark of quality siu mai is a well-emulsified pork and shrimp filling that has some “snap” when you bite into it. To achieve this, the old-school way is to whip the filling using chopsticks in one direction for a long time (like, halfway through an episode of “Jeopardy!”). It occurred to me that an electric mixer could do the job just as well — and faster too! (This technique also works for other dumpling and bao fillings.) The finishing touch? Instead of the recognizable (but hard-to-find) bright orange fish roe on the top, we use finely minced carrots for a pop of color. — Sarah Leung

For the filling

3 small or 1 to 2 large dried shiitake mushrooms

½ cup hot water

8 ounces peeled and deveined shrimp (any size)

1 teaspoon plus

1 tablespoon sugar

⅛ teaspoon baking soda 

2 tablespoons water

1 pound ground pork

1 tablespoon cornstarch

1 tablespoon Shaoxing wine

1 teaspoon fine sea salt

¼ teaspoon white pepper powder

1 tablespoon neutral oil

1 tablespoon oyster sauce

½ teaspoon toasted sesame oil

For assembling  

24 very thin yellow Hong Kong–style round dumpling wrappers or thin yellow square wonton


2 tablespoons very finely minced carrot

Chile oil or chile garlic sauce, for serving

Make the filling: Soak the shiitake mushrooms in the hot water for 2 hours (or overnight) until fully rehydrated. Squeeze any excess water out of the mushrooms. Trim away any tough stems, and very finely chop the mushrooms — you should have about ¼ cup.

Add the shrimp to a medium bowl, and toss them with 1 teaspoon of the sugar, the baking soda and the 2 tablespoons water. Set aside for 15 minutes, then rinse the shrimp in a colander under running water until the water runs clear. Drain.

Meanwhile, to the bowl of a stand mixer fitted with the paddle attachment (or just a large bowl, if mixing by hand), add the ground pork, the remaining tablespoon sugar, the cornstarch, Shaoxing wine, salt and white pepper. Mix on medium-low speed for 5 minutes, or until the mixture resembles a paste that sticks to the sides of the bowl. (Alternatively, mix vigorously in one direction with a pair of chopsticks by hand for 10 to 15 minutes until you get the same result.)

Scrape down the sides of the bowl, add the shrimp and beat on low speed for 2 minutes. Increase the speed to medium and beat until the shrimp is well incorporated into the pork, another 2 minutes. (If mixing by hand, roughly chop the shrimp, add them to the pork and mix in one direction for 10 minutes.)

Add the chopped mushrooms, the neutral oil, oyster sauce and sesame oil. Mix on medium speed for 1 minute (or by hand for 2 to 3 minutes).

Assemble the siu mai: Line a bamboo steamer with perforated parchment paper, damp cheesecloth or thin cabbage leaves. Take one wrapper and place a tablespoon of filling in the middle. Squeeze the sides of the wrapper up around the edges of the filling to create an open-topped pocket. Use a butter knife to continue filling the wrapper until it’s stuffed to the top with filling, and then scrape the top flat. (Each siu mai should weigh about 35 grams.) If using square wrappers, fold over any excess wrapper and squeeze the wrappers to the sides of the siu mai.

Continue until you’ve assembled all the siu mai, transferring them to the lined steamer basket as you go, placed 1 inch apart. (Place any siu mai that don’t fit in the steamer on a parchment-lined plate or sheet pan to cook in later batches or freeze; see “make ahead” below.) Top the center of each siu mai with a small amount of the minced carrot.

Cook the siu mai: Fill a wok with enough water to submerge the bottom rim of your bamboo steamer by ½ inch (you may need to add more boiling water during steaming to keep the water at this level). Bring the water to a simmer over medium-high heat. Place the covered steamer in the wok and steam each batch over medium heat for 9 minutes. Serve with the chile oil.

Make ahead: Place the assembled siu mai ½ inch apart on a parchment-lined sheet pan. Cover tightly with plastic wrap (or use a clean plastic grocery bag) and freeze overnight. Once frozen, transfer the siu mai to an airtight container. Cook the frozen siu mai directly (without thawing first). Steam for 11 minutes.

Reprinted with permission from The Woks of Life by Bill Leung, Kaitlin Leung, Judy Leung, and Sarah Leung, copyright © 2022. Photographs by Sarah Leung and Kaitlin Leung. Published by Clarkson Potter, a division of Penguin Random House, LLC.


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