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Sarah Leung, writer and co-founder, The Woks of Life
Issue 56: On working with family, the vast canon of Chinese recipes, and how she thinks about authenticity.
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The Woks of Life is a nearly decade-old blog featuring a vast library of Chinese food recipes. From Chinese regional cuisine to Chinese-American takeout, The Woks of Life has become one of the leading authorities on Chinese cooking in English. The blog is run by a family of four: Parents Judy and Bill, and daughters Sarah and Kaitlin. I spoke with Sarah about what it’s like working with her family, the vast canon of Chinese recipes, and how she thinks about authenticity.
Brianna Plaza: Can you tell me a little bit about your background?
Sarah Leung: I grew up in a food family. Before starting the blog, we'd always really been a very food focused family. My parents care a lot about food, and a lot of our conversations growing up circled around food. I never actually thought about making food a career or food writing a career until my parents moved to China when I was in my senior year of college. In The Woks of Life lore, my sister and I realized that with my parents on the other side of the world, that we really didn't know how to make a lot of the dishes that we grew up with, and these were some of the things that we most wanted to eat. I think growing up, we took them for granted because we had them every night at dinner. The recipes that felt more special back then were the non-Chinese things that we were learning how to make from Food Network and cookbooks, because they felt different than what we were used to. The whole purpose was for them to relay this knowledge to my sister and I, so they had to be involved from the beginning.
Of course, when my parents went to China we were perfectly capable of making meatloaf and spaghetti, but had no idea how to make our childhood family recipes. That’s when we realized: wow, okay, there's this really big hole in our cooking repertoire, and we started the blog. I don't know whose idea it was, but it was definitely somewhat of a collective, “Hey, we should do this together.”
The timeline gets muddied because a lot of things happened back and forth, but we started it in June 2013. I graduated from college in May 2012, and it was one year after I graduated that we started the blog. I was the one who laid down the groundwork for choosing the domain, and getting the website set up and all that, because at the time I was unemployed, was having trouble finding a job, and had no idea what I really wanted to do.
My individual path was that I was interested in media and I thought about book publishing, I thought about film production, I thought about marketing, and I ended up working at a branding consulting agency in China after my parents had moved there, and it was around this time that we started the blog. The blog was mostly a side project at first — I wasn't really thinking about it necessarily as a career. But at some point the side project turned into the main thing. It grew to a point where I was able to start doing it full-time in 2019.
I think now all of us basically work on the blog full-time. My parents are semi-retired, and the blog is their hobby project, and then for my sister and I, it's a full-time job.
Brianna Plaza: What is it like working with your family? How do you develop recipes and shoot?
Sarah Leung: I think in the beginning we started running it more like a family and then realized we had to run it more like a business. Not only to keep things more organized, but also to maintain personal and professional boundaries, which can be very difficult when you are working with your immediate family. In the early years of the blog, it was more of a fun, creative outlet without a lot of structure to it. We were just running through recipes that we felt like, we want to document these for ourselves. But we didn't have a posting schedule, an editorial calendar, or anything like that.
And then a couple years in, we started getting readers and we started taking it more seriously, and at that point it felt like we were talking about the blog a lot when we were together. So we realized that it's actually very important to set boundaries. I think that treating it more like a business allows us to be in professional mode when we’re talking about the blog, and then revert back to family mode.
Everybody develops their recipes on their own. All four of us are authors, and we're constantly collaborating, but each recipe belongs to somebody. We develop our own recipes, test them on our own time, and then when we feel that they're ready, we'll bring it to the group. We get together probably a few times a month. We’ve actually recently instated this idea where each individual person gets their own day to focus on our own recipes. It’s so much better because in the old days, in the crazy days when my sister and I were doing this as a side project, we would have to do so much on the weekends. It would be maybe two weekends out of the month, and we’d get through 15 recipes in two days with all four of us cooking at the same time, and me just running around taking pictures.
Now that we are doing more video, that is not feasible at all, so we've started doing this individual blogging day thing. My sister and I live in our own apartments right outside of New York City, and my parents live about an hour away from New York, so we just go out to my parents' house and cook. Where it used to be eight recipes in one day, now it's more like three. We’ll do the photos and my sister will usually do video at the same time. Then after that, we'll taste the recipe and we'll give our comments.
Usually they’re pretty on point. But sometimes it's like, "Okay, you got to go back to the drawing board on this one.” Once the recipe is finalized, the person writes the post, drafts it, my sister and I go through a two-tiered editing process. I edit the photos, she's editing video. We have an editorial calendar now where everything has an assigned date and all of us have to make sure our deliverables are out by that date. It’s pretty organized at this point.
We've been doing that for a while, but of course you also have leeway when it's your family too, and we have to move stuff around. But generally we keep to a pretty strict three times a week posting schedule.
Brianna Plaza: Chinese food has a huge canon of recipes and regions. How do you figure out what you want to cook?
Sarah Leung: Not only is there a wide variety of Chinese regional cuisines, there are also different lenses on Chinese food, and everybody has a different experience of Chinese food, especially here in America. Maybe you're Chinese-American. You have certain dishes that you remember your parents or grandparents making for you. Maybe you aren't Chinese and your experience of Chinese food is Chinese takeout or eating at restaurants. Maybe you've traveled to China and you've actually gotten into some of the nuances of the different regional cuisines.
I think for us, we have all those experiences. My dad's parents ran a Chinese takeout restaurant and my dad's family is Cantonese, so there are a lot of traditional Cantonese home cooking knowledge on that side of the family. My mom is from Shanghai, so that region's food was part of our repertoire even before we started the blog. And then we lived in China — my parents for three years and me for two years. We traveled around and we got to know a lot of regional cuisines that even us as Chinese-Americans did not have comprehensive experience of.
I would say that the blog has evolved and it started with covering the thing that we knew — Chinese takeout food — which is great because for so many people, that has its own nostalgia. And then we added the Cantonese and Shanghainese home cooking that we grew up with.
We traveled to Northwest China to Xi’an, and tried food like biang biang noodles and roujiamo, which often gets translated to a Chinese hamburger, but it's not really that. There are more and more restaurants that are specializing in regional food here in the US and I think people here are becoming more aware of different aspects of Chinese cuisine.
Our goal is definitely to provide people with an entry point that they recognize and then expand their view of what Chinese food is. So in order to do that, we're definitely looking to explore more of these other cuisines and start with the most popular or famous dishes from each of those cuisines
I remember my dad, three years into the blog, was like, "Oh my God, we're going to run out of ideas, one day we're going to run out of recipes.” At the time I was like, "Maybe, but I don't think so." Now at this point that'll never happen because there are just so many things to cover.
We get a lot of requests for vegan recipes, so now we’re like, "Ok, let's look at Chinese Buddhist vegan recipes." These aren't vegan recipes that we're making up. This is coming from a vegetarian tradition in China of cooking at Buddhist temples.
There are just so many facets of Chinese cuisine that people aren't fully aware of. And I think in China they talk about the four great cuisines, and then sometimes they talk about the eight great cuisines, but really there's something like 32 distinct regional Chinese cooking traditions, and we've barely scratched the surface.
I think that we've covered a lot of the recipes that Americans are aware of, but there's a lot more to cover. And our goal is to travel back to China to learn more about these different cooking traditions.
Brianna Plaza: I think a lot of times, some Americans latch onto this idea of authenticity and try to eat in a certain way, but I think that is an ever evolving concept. How do you think about that as Chinese-Americans, but also as a leading voice in Chinese cooking?
Sarah Leung: Authentic is a really slippery word. We want to convey that we have “authentic recipes” or what somebody might think of as authentic, but I don't love the word because what is authentic is ever evolving. It puts a lot of pressure on us, especially as we've gained more of a following, to put out the most “authentic version” of some recipe. I think we would stress about that as we were gaining our following and people started to look for our version of something. We would be like, "Oh, is this right? Is it right to use this?" What is authentic? Is it based on what we had at such and such a restaurant? We haven't tried every version there is of a particular dish so we don’t know.
I think what snapped us out of that mentality was living in China and going to different restaurants, different Shanghainese restaurants, for example. They all have a version of a red braised pork belly that were really different, and we saw chefs wanting to put their stamp on that particular dish and do something that felt like a variation.
I feel like here in the US, because we are such a melting pot and we live with so many different cultures all in the same place, it sometimes means that the nuance of a particular cuisine can get glazed over. People sometimes think, "Oh, that dish should taste like this, because generally at restaurants in America they make it like this, and I want it to taste just like how a particular restaurant down the street makes it." Whereas in China, you don't go to a Chinese restaurant, you go to a Shanghainese restaurant, you go to a Yunnan hot pot restaurant, you go to a place that only specializes in this one bowl of noodle soup. Because there's so much nuance and variation in the place of origin where these dishes came from, we were just like, "There really is no one way to make it, and it would be disingenuous to say that this is the way."
So while we have used the word authentic in the past, I think it generally conveys: This is authentic to us and our experience and what we feel is the most nostalgic flavor. I think it's great when people recognize those flavors and are like, "Oh yeah, this tastes like my grandma made it.” But at the same time, sometimes this tastes better than I remember. Or maybe the recipe doesn't taste like your grandma's, and it's a little bit different. So I think we've taken the pressure off ourselves just based on our experience living, working, traveling, and eating in China.
Brianna Plaza: I noticed that there are a few non-Chinese dishes on the site. Is that more of a fun side project or is that a conscious effort to add in some other content?
Sarah Leung: I would say that the non-Chinese recipes are there for us. They're there for us because we want to record them and we want to go back to them. That's why I think that people don't pay attention to those because they're not in our wheelhouse. But every chance I get, I take note of those non-Chinese recipes because the only reason we're posting those is so that we can make them on a regular basis and have them to go back to.
Our neighbor makes these fruit squares that are really good, and the recipe is super simple, and we were like, "I want to put this here." She gave us this little photocopy of her recipe card that she uses, but I don't have that, and it's somewhere in my mom's kitchen, but I don't know where it is, so I recorded it on the blog so that I could get to it anytime I want.
I think it's also an acknowledgement that, yeah, we're Chinese, but we're also Chinese-Americans — we enjoy these recipes as much as anybody else who grew up here, and want to speak to that as well.
The Woks of Life has a lot of recipes. Here are some favorite recipes to get you started: