I have been thinking a lot lately about the concept of “wok hay,” loosely translated as the soul or breath of the wok. The Chinese concept, that perfectly cooked food, right out of the wok, has a fleeting soul, a brief moment where the food is ideal and irresistible to eat, was brought to my consciousness by Grace Young‘s beautiful 2004 cookbook, The Breath of a Wok, but part of why I found it so intriguing is that I think lots of foods have a bit of this soul. Take a roasted meat: a perfect example of something that does NOT necessarily have it—you can eat it a few minutes out of the oven, but you can also eat it an hour later, and find it wonderful. Not much is lost in the time.
But then, think of a bowl of pasta, cooked right, like an Italian would do it. There is none of that politeness at an Italian table, of waiting until everyone is served before tucking in—at least not for the pasta course. Instead, you will hear a chorus of, “Mangia, che calda…” or, “Eat it while it’s hot,” even though I think that prizing its hotness is not exactly getting at the whole picture. Pasta cooked to that point of al dente, and sauced beautifully, truly has only a few minutes of perfection—let it sit too long, and the noodles go gummy, the balance between noodle and sauce gets thrown. Maybe this is why I idealize a bowl of pasta so much. Or maybe it’s just my Italian-American upbringing. Either way, this dish, done well, holds a magic for me that few others do.
Still, recently, I saw, on film, perhaps the most beautiful example I could think of, ironically with a food that had come nowhere near a wok, a food in general served at room temperature. In Jiro Dreams of Sushi, the most fascinating and delightful documentary I believe I have ever seen, the jewel-like bites are not delivered to their eaters twelve at a time on a wood plank, as we are so accustomed to; they are gracefully formed by hand and then immediately placed in front of their eaters, a piece at a time, and the eater is to take it—even as gravity is still easing the fish into position, the accompanying sauce just beginning to drip slightly down the side—and eat it immediately. The utter beauty of the process, of each piece, is simply stunning, practically enough to weep, although I am still not sure if that is over the art of the sushi or over the fact that I am not in a position at the moment to book a ticket to Japan and enjoy this for myself.