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.