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[Covet]: The Wokmakers

There's these guys, the Cen brothers. They make woks, by hand. They are the only ones in Shanghai doing so, and they sell their handmade woks for cheap. You should buy one, particularly because the ...
2010-02-02 12:02:00

There's these guys, the Cen brothers. They make woks, by hand. They are the only ones in Shanghai doing so, and they sell their handmade woks for cheap. You should buy one, particularly because the brothers are getting older and it's been said that their street is up for renewal (as of this week, they say it's still a neighborhood rumor). Their pops started in this thankless trade 70 years ago, when the old way –- the best way –- was the only way. Cen Sr. and Jr. are still hammering away up there in Zhabei, in a tiny outdoor workspace at the end of a tiny, lively street.

Their kids are grown and uninterested in carrying on the business. I don't blame them. I don't want to pound out two to three woks a day, seven days a week, for the next thirty-five years either, as these guys have. They sit silently, back to back, all day long, with plugs of cotton jammed in their ears. When it rains, they move indoors and attach the handles.

But I do enjoy the finished product. I have several, have taken many as gifts to numerous chefs in the US, and think about these guys every time I pull out the wok to cook Chinese food at home. They are gorgeous, with a smooth dappled finish showing every strike of the hammer, and though they sell for 90-110rmb, mass-produced throwaways they are not. As Grace Young, the author, says in her book Breath of a Wok (which features the Cens' woks on the cover, and from which I tracked them down a few years ago), treat a good wok well, and it'll last 20-25 years, or longer.

Here's a slideshow.

The woks start as those big sheets of carbon-steel in the top picture, are punched into the round circles (leaning against them, in the bottom-left corner of the frame), and then go through a rudimentary charcoal furnace, the hell of Cen Jr.'s first pounding, and then the finer finishing of Cen Sr. (Sr. is constantly holding the woks up to eye-level to inspect his work in a way that would make craft-fetishists swoon; perfect for wistful photos.)

Almost all of their sales are to restaurants and hotels. The chef of the Xiao Nan Guo chain is a big customer. They do have a stock of ready-made woks in their workshop, a cramped space in exquisitely artful disarray. Behind the spare blue workpants, under the award declaring Cen Jr. to be a Model Worker of the Communist Party, there are a couple of rusting stacks. But if you want more than one, you might have to wait. The boys say business is better than ever. They are –- today, right now –- in the middle of a new order for 70 woks for a hotel, including 15 of their extra-large size, which take a full day each. Get in line.

A few practical notes: The brothers' default setting is the Shanghai-style wok. That means shallow. They can also make deeper Guangdong-style woks, but you have to ask. For homecooks, it's mostly irrelevant. Go with the standard.

But why the difference? Cooking styles. Up here, at the mouth of Yangtze, cooks like to braise food for an extended period of time -- hongshao rou is a good example – and a shallow wok is more suited to doing that. In Guangdong, though, people prefer their food stir-fried as briefly as possible, to preserve the natural flavors of the ingredients, and that requires a very, very hot wok with deep sides – you don't want hot oil creeping up over the side and on to your arm. (There's an intangible taste that comes from an extremely hot wok, and disappears within a few minutes of the food being cooked. It's what the title of Grace Young's book refers to, and it's a very-prized component in Cantonese cooking.)

Though Cen Sr. says it's not necessary with their woks, most chefs recommend “seasoning” a new wok. It involves oil, or lard, and is essential to developing a proper and natural non-stick finish, which is one of the premier advantages to an old wok; the finish develops over time. There's a good explanation of the process, and continued wok care, here.

Their business is officially called Xinyi Iron Wok Shop, and you're probably going to think you're lost when the cab drops you off at Baoyuan Lu and Baotong Lu, the closest intersection. Follow the numbers. As Baoyuan Lu starts to curve and follow the overhead Line 3 metro, you'll hear them. They're at 214, the last shop on their side of the street. Here's a Google map. SmartShanghai's are too general. Have at it.

Again, here's a slideshow of the process.

Xinyi Iron Wok Shop, 214 Baoyuan Lu, near Baotong Lu, 130 4664 7226.