Shanghai and the Wok Man

Shanghai alley


We certainly did not have enough time to explore all of Shanghai. It would take years. Our main mission was to find the Shanghai Wok Man and purchase some of the last-known handmade and hand-hammered woks.

Famous skyline of Shanghai

Famous skyline of Shanghai

Shanghai is now a city of over 24 million. This makes it the largest city in China as well as the largest city, in population, in the world. It covers an area of land of over 2,448 square miles. This status could change in the near future as China is on track to move 60% of it’s rural population into cities by 2020 according to the South China Morning Post article.

It is an international city, and it has a very nice vibe. Not as frantic in feel as other big cities in China like Beijing and Shenzhen. Surprisingly, we did not have a lot of trouble moving around the city by taxi.  Thankfully, we did not get caught in the hour’s long traffic tie-ups that are common.

I learned about the wok man from my friend, Grace Young, author of Stir-Fry to The Sky’s Edge, The Breath of a Wok and Wisdom of the Chinese Kitchen. She met him doing research, and in fact, the lovely photo of the Wok on the cover of Breath of a Wok is one of the Shanghai Wok Man’s. I decided to try to find him and add one of his beautiful woks to my growing collection.

In Shanghai, and really all of cities in China, the older neighborhoods are under assault. Development is fast and furious. The wok man’s neighborhood was rumored to be on the short list of redevelopment. So, it could be a bit iffy to find him. I had recent reports from another of Grace’s friends that visited in early 2014 that he was still working at the same location. Then I found this great post on Jamjnr, an expat blog, confirming that he was in the same neighborhood, and the post gave terrific directions to his place.

Shanghai neighborhood street.

Shanghai neighborhood street.

We drew a lot of attention walking down the street which was bustling with activity. Wet markets, dentists, hair cutting stations and hardware stores lined the alleys. The buildings were old, but you could see the charm in the old architecture.

Wok man outside 1

We had a little bit of a hard time finding the Shanghai Wok Man, Mr. Cen. It was a rainy day and he was not outside working, so we could not follow the sound of the hammering to find his place. Thanks to Steve, he noticed a rusty wok hanging outside. It was a sure sign. We polked our head inside and and found Mr. Cen’s associate. Westerners turing up must be common, he did not speak any English, but knew right away what we wanted.

You know how sometimes your life is made up of soundtracks? Well, my beautiful Shanghai Wok will always have a country feel to it because Slim Whitman was singing the Tennassee Waltz over an old AM/FM transistor radio as we selected, discussed prices and wrapped up the woks.

Woks and ladles

Woks and ladles. Note the hammer tell-tail hammer marks

with Mr. Cen and our purchurse

with Mr. Cen and our purchurse

If you go:

Cen Rong Gen’s woks
214 Baoyuan Lu, near Baotong Lu
宝源路214号, 近宝通路

The wok man's neighborhood in Shanghai

The wok man’s neighborhood in Shanghai

To Mr. Cen’s knowledge, he belived himself to be the last know artisan of hand-hammered woks.  However while we were expoloring other areas of Shanghai, we found a book a little book titled  Shanghai Housewares recently published. It lists another artisan, Little Tao’s Handmade Wrought Iron Woks. His location is listed as Zhoushan Road, Houngkou District. We discussed it with a coup le local Shanghai people and determined that there was not really a shop location listed and he was probably working on the street. We did not have a chance to visit this street and find his location. If anyone does, please let me know!

The Kitchen God

Kitchen God for the Year of the Horse

Kitchen God for the Year of the Horse

As the year of the snake comes to a close, and preparations for the new year are in full swing, it is time to pay special attention to a very important member of the Chinese home, the Kitchen God.

The Kitchen God lives close to the stove or hearth in each home. Usually in the form of red and gold sign of his name or in a photo, his purpose is to observe the health of the family throughout the year and return to the Jade Emperor to report what has been said and done in the household over the past year. He is one of the most worshiped and respected of all gods that protect the home and family. Additionally, he can inspire the cook to make healthy and flavorful food for the family throughout the year.

Before the Kitchen God returns to heaven to make his report, offerings of liquor and delectable foods are offered to make him happy and maybe a bit tipsy. Additionally just prior to his return on New Year’s eve, his lips are smeared with honey to “sweeten” his words or to stick his lips together so he cannot report. The effigy is then burned, and a new one is put in its place. If you are lucky enough to have a statue of the Kitchen God, it is removed and cleaned to begin a new cycle.

My kitchen god is in Hong Kong awaiting my return. He oversaw my purchase and seasoning of two good and trusty woks that prepared many a delicious dish. He also inspired my cooking and kept all who entered our home well-fed and happy.

The Kitchen God has been invited into our Phoenix home, and he will preside over the health and happiness if this place. Also, a new flat-bottomed wok found is way here just in time to cook for the beginning of the year of the horse.

Wokk’n on the Wild Side

I bought a wok today. I bought it from a very nice man at Kam Lee Steel Product and Engineering Ltd. on Cleverly Street in Sheung Wan.  It is a traditional round bottom carbon steel wok.

Me and my brand new wok!

I am more excited to cook with this wok than I can express. One of the best things about our flat is that we have a great gas cook top with four burners and a fifth burner in the middle with a ring for a wok!I was given very specific instructions for preparing this wok for cooking. First, heat the wok until it turns blue or very dark. Then take a half an onion, soaked in water, and rub the inside of the wok with the onion.

Moving fast. This wok is hot!

You don’t want the onion to burn, so when you smell the onion burning you stop and re-soak the onion. You continue to rub the wok with the onion until you no longer smell any metal. Your nose plays a big part in this whole thing. Lucky for me. When you achieve the goal of no metal smell, you then reheat the wok and rub the inside with pork fat or pork skin, which is plentiful in the markets here. It will probably even be free. However, I did see Crisco in a specialty store and that could be used. I am committing to using this wok at least two times per week. My goal is for it to turn that great dark black and be non stick before I venture back to the US.

Sunchoke and Cashew Stir Fry with Egg, Basil and Asparagus. I am very happy with the results. Not greasy or oily at all.

Oh by the way, this was not an outrageous financial commitment. The whole deal set us back about $9 US.

There is another dark side of wok cooking. And that is the endless wok puns that Steve comes up with.  Here are just a few:

  • Always wok on the bright side of life
  • Just keep on Wokin.’
  • Wok like you mean it
  • Wok, wok, wok til you can’t wok no more
  • Wok baby, don’t run
  • Wok til you drop
  • Just wok away
  • I’m wokin’ here!  #@!!!