Every week, we’re spotlighting a different food blogger who’s shaking up the blogosphere with tempting recipes and knockout photography. Today, we chat with Sarah Leung, who with her family runs the Chinese-inspired food blog The Woks of Life. Swing back all week for a new recipe from the blog every day.
All photos courtesy of Woks of Life
When Bill and Judy Leung moved to China in 2011 after raising a family in the United States, they left behind their two college-aged daughters, Sarah and Kaitlin. Staying in touch meant relying on a cobbled-together system of email and Skype, the latter which proved to be an endless source of pixelated frustration.
“The Internet connection would always go out in the middle of a conversation,” the elder Leung daughter Sarah recalled. “You’re talking for 15 minutes, and then you realize the other person can’t hear you. That kind of communication really led us to basically ask, ‘What else can we do?’”
In 2013, the foursome reached a breaking point. Nostalgic for the days when they’d all crowd into the kitchen over a plate of steaming noodles or dumplings, they decided on an unconventional means of bridging the thousands of miles between them: a food blog called The Woks of Life.
Bill’s take on egg fried rice.
“We were a family growing up that would cook together, [but] my sister and I really didn’t know how to make a lot of the traditional Chinese stuff,” Sarah said, though she did learn “how to make dumplings when I was 7.” Even so, her parents took the helm on traditional dishes while she and Kaitlin tackled Western ones like pizza, casseroles, and spaghetti and meatballs. With their parents M.I.A., the Leung daughters were forced to fend for themselves if they wanted the Chinese food they grew up with. And they needed help.
“We came up with the blog as a way to share these recipes with each other, so my parents could pass them down to us,” Sarah said. “And it was a way for us all to be connected.”
All four members of the Leung clan contribute to the blog, though each has an area of expertise: Bill is a first-generation Chinese American, the child of Cantonese immigrants who settled in upstate New York. His cooking is highly influenced by his own father, who for years helmed the kitchen at a local Holiday Inn. “Oddly enough, the [hotel’s restaurant] had a Chinese menu and an American continental menu,” Sarah said. Bill assisted his father in the restaurant, working up the kitchen ranks from bus boy to line cook. “My dad was cooking the surf-and-turf steak and lobster, orange chicken, and whatever other Americanized Chinese food that they offered.”
Sarah’s sweet coconut buns.
Judy’s culinary expertise tilts more toward traditional Chinese. "My mother grew up in Shanghai and came to the West at 16, and she has her own food point of view,” Sarah said. One of her signature dishes, taught to her by her own mother, is red braised pork: “It’s basically a dish of pork belly that’s braised in a mixture of light soy sauce, dark sauce sauce, wine, sugar [and a handful of other ingredients]. It’s an incredibly simple recipe, but it’s so well loved by so many people.”
As for Sarah and Kaitlin? The blog has helped to expand their Chinese repertoire, though they also contribute the odd Italian, French, or American-inspired recipes. “We don’t always cook Asian food — we do pastas and a lot of different things,” Sarah said. The common denominator? “It’s all food that my family likes to eat.”
These days, the blog is going stronger than ever. Bill and Judy moved back to the U.S. in late 2014, which allowed cooking to ramp up considerably. Several Saturdays a month, the Leungs descend on Bill and Judy’s New Jersey home to cook and photograph the recipes slated to appear on The Woks of Life the following week — sometimes as many as 12 dishes in a single day.
"Sometimes it gets crazy; we get really ambitious and do a lot in one day,” Sarah said. “We all have our own jobs and lives and stuff, so to do them all in these big bursts works best… We step on each others’ toes in the kitchen sometimes, but our family dynamic is funny. Each person has their own recipes, but everyone has their hands in every single one. We’re constantly tasting each others’ recipes.”
That dedication has clearly paid off: The blog’s devoted readership chose The Woks of Life as “Best Special Interest Blog” in Saveur’s annual blog awards.
“It’s been really rewarding to see all the comments of people who are so appreciative that someone took the time to write all this stuff down,” Sarah said. So many traditional Chinese recipes are passed down orally, which means they’re more easily forgotten over time. But The Woks of Life is doing its part to prevent that from happening. “That was the main driving force of the blog,” Sarah concluded. “We don’t want these recipes to go away.”
More Asian-inspired recipes:
Circle back to Yahoo Food for a new recipe from The Woks of Life every day this week.