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This guy has wok hay.

This guy has wok hay.

I interviewed for an administrative gig at OrSU last week. After chatting amicably with the team for two hours, I wandered over to Professor X’s office so we could walk home together. A small brown bag pierced the landscape of empty coffee cups and junk mail on his conference table. I picked it up, along with the coffee cups, and noticed it was heavy.

“What’s in the bag?” I asked while opening it. (Why do humans do stuff like that? It’s akin to reflexively smelling the air after someone announces a fart.)

“CC gave it to me at lunch today,” Professor X replied. “It’s his wife’s tofu from the party.”

Indeed it was the very same life-enhancing tofu from the Corvallis Chinese School’s lunar new year party. I spied a blue post-it note as well. My heart skipped a few times as I scanned the recipe.

“That’s it?” I muttered to myself, turning the post-it to make sure nothing was on the back.

A vague sense of doom rolled over me. I had judged myself and been found wanting. Suddenly, the interview really didn’t go that that well, and I knew I wouldn’t be able to recreate the tofu recipe. I can in the most technical sense of the term, but it won’t be the same. Why? I don’t have wok hay.

Wok hay, “wok taste” or “breath of the wok” if the translator insists that everything Asian has to be all mystical and shit, is the result of cooking in a well-seasoned stainless steel vessel. In the same way a trusted cast-iron skillet develops its own essence over time and use, woks develop wok hay. My wok is non-stick. I should also probably get rid of it since the non-stick coating is visibly scratched. While old, it’s more likely to give us Alzheimer’s than impart a smokey je ne sais quois particular to our household.

My mood continued its descent as we made our way across Monroe. All the institutional acronyms that I couldn’t recall during the interview started bubbling up. I regretted not buying a good wok in Chinatown while we lived in Chicago. If I had when I first thought of it in 2009, we’d totally have some wok hay going on by now. As it stands, I could get an affordable one at Fred Meyer, but it would be a clean slate.

When we arrived home, Professor X found the blue post-it while storing the tofu in the fridge. “Hey! She included a recipe!”

I mustered a sigh in response.

“Oh shit,” he said from the kitchen. “That’s it?”

“Yup…that’s it,” I said.

“But where did all the other flavors come from,” he countered.

I pursed my lips and raised an eyebrow.

“Oh no! WOK TASTE!”

Guess we’ll just have to get cooking. I’ll report back on this matter when the new wok is seasoned.

Mrs. Chang’s Kick-Ass Tofu That I’ll Only Be Able to Recreate in a Few Years Because Wok Hay is Earned, Not Purchased

Get thee:
Tofu – I’m going to presume a 1 pound block of medium
Soy sauce – enough to turn it very lightly beige
Sugar – just a pinch from what I can tell
Minced garlic – I couldn’t find a single piece in the dish, so let’s assume a scant quantity
Oil – vegetable oil? maybe sesame…enough to cook the tofu in… 1-2 tbsp?

1) Cut tofu into bite-sized cubes.
2) Heat oil in your well-seasoned wok for a few minutes. Add tofu and saute for 2-3 minutes.
3) Add soy sauce and sugar, cover pan for another 2-3 minutes.
4) Add garlic and serve.
5) Try not to weep openly because it will take a long time to develop wok hay.


We received some happy news upon checking in to the Corvallis Holiday Inn. Basil could be left unattended in the room. This freed us to procure necessary things like cat litter, as well as wander around the city and check out the new apartment. We stepped out into the foggy morning with the GPS aimed at Timberhill Mall, a strip that houses many things useful such as Petco and Sears. As we pulled in, I noticed two things – a fresh Christmas tree lot and a Chinese restaurant. I figured we would be able to get a passable, Panda Express style lunch there after we were done. The smell on the wind confirmed that it would be pretty decent.

Upon approaching Queen’s Chopsticks, I immediately noted that it was full of E. Asian students eating hotpot, thus confirming rule #1 of finding good international cuisine: go where the people from that country go. We were seated quickly and offered menus listing standard fare not just from China, but also Japan and Korea, with a few Pan-Asian mash-ups. Since it was our first time, we ordered a few litmus test items such as crab rangoon and pot stickers. They did not disappoint. The rangoon actually had crab in it (shock!) and were perfectly crispy little pinwheels. The rangoon dipping sauce was too sweet for my palate, but the Gentleman Scholar liked it. The dumplings arrived in a metal steamer and were also properly cooked through; something that so many places fail to do. The wrappers were perfect middle state where the filling doesn’t fall out, but you aren’t eating meat doughnuts. Also important to note – each appetizer was served in fours so you can share properly. Plating aesthetics be damned.

Our main courses were Szechuan Chicken and Udon Soup. I was hoping to get the hot pot everyone else was eating, but opted for udon when I couldn’t find it on the menu. Our entrees arrived quickly and were stellar. Queen’s Chopsticks orders their spice levels in ascending numbers from 1-5. The Gentleman Scholar ordered his Szechuan Chicken at 5, as is his preference. I agree with his approach and would recommend it to those who can tolerate chili heat. It’s a good way of saying “Give me all you got.” and discovering what that is. As it turns out, 5 is a very authentic szechuan peppercorn heat. Another pleasing discovery that seems to be status quo for Corvallis was a strong vegetable presence. Sure, Chinese food typically features that awful baby corn, onions, green peppers, and frozen crinkle cut carrots. They’re technically vegetables, but they are never fresh and they’re in every single dish. Queen’s Chopsticks eschewed that unholy quartet in their Szechuan Chicken; inserting instead fresh sauteed zucchini and onions. I could easily eat a plate of just the zucchini prepared that way. There were plenty of fresh veggies mingling with the usual verdant suspects in my Udon Soup as well. Another surprise from my dish – the seafood was delicious. It lacked the strange dirt flavor so much frozen seafood retains and was very tender. The other animals in my soup – beef, chicken, some BBQ pork – were similarly wonderful and tender. Overall, it was absolutely restorative. My only complaint is that the broth was a little thick as if fortified with cornstarch. Thankfully, it wasn’t gloppy and I finished the bowl.

As we ate, I also noticed that Queen’s Chopsticks offered a decent bar selection: sake, a few Asian beers, vodka, whiskey, and cognac. Upon visiting their website, it turns out they advertise and seem to do a decent happy hour. A sort of small plates and a cocktail before going out to a bigger dinner – theory of dim sum, but with booze. And that, dear readers, is highly appealing. So much so that we decided to go back. When we did, I wasn’t entirely in the mood for a cocktail. Something about all this laid back PNW living and responsible car driving has dampened my taste for booze. We still had dinner – Sizzling Mongolian Beef (spice level 5) and Shredded Peking Pork. Again, the meal was fantastic with the beef dish being the closest to “yak sizzler” that I’ve had since that transformative breakfast of yak meat, peppers, and onions seasoned simply with salt and served over rice in Sakya, Tibet. The Shredded Peking Pork was a perfect sweet and smokey foil to the Mongolian Beef. While very happy with the meal, I couldn’t help but wonder again about all the hotpot being served around me since I honestly could not find it on the menu after extensive reading. When our waiter returned with a soda, I caught his ear.

“What are they eating?” I asked, indicating a group of students at the next table.

“Hotpot,” he shyly smiled as if being caught with a secret.

“Where is that on the menu?”

He blushed again and admitted that they have another menu for Chinese nationals. The titles are in English, but the description aren’t. You’ll find the hot pot there, as well as something called “Ants Climbing Trees”. Since our palates, as well as those of my parents, are inquisitive, we’ll be getting both for our traditional Christmas Eve Chinese dinner.

Queen’s Chopsticks is located at 2329 NW Kings Blvd, Corvallis, OR 97330 in the Timberhill Mall, right next to Winestyles. They don’t deliver, but you can do take-out if you truly need to get home. I personally recommend eating in since the people watching is great. You just might discover new dishes.

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