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Wok Breath


Away in the remote cold larder chamber I could sense the excitement, the hectic Saturday night atmosphere of the real kitchen. While living in Singapore I was invited, as a guest ‘chef’, to provide entrée and dessert courses at a special function. My newly deputised kitchen hand and I created our private aura of plodding but capable constancy. He churned out a hundred prawn and asparagus with mango vinaigrette entrees, I persevered with unmoulding a hundred vanilla and chocolate Bavarian creams, soon to be embellished with whipped cream and berries. He embellished my less-than-exacting instructions with painstaking and finicky details of his own. Every plate became a work of art. Slim asparagus stalks were positioned just-so at the top a casual but perfectly placed bundle of greens, below that the prawns, delicately pink, sliced and fanned into curls. The creamy golden sauce formed a flawless sphere.

Out in the real kitchen tempo and temperature were mounting. The Chinese wok masters followed a pattern all their own. No light-hearted banter, no quick-tempered shouts at the waiters or kitchen hands – these artists worked skilfully and precisely, not speaking a word. Anything they might have said would be drowned in the howl of the exhaust fans, the roar of the gas and hiss of the woks. Ingredients were set out two paces away - huge bowls of sliced red chilli, crisp spring onions, coriander leaves, cucumber, soaked Shitake mushrooms, glistening leafy greens. Platters of fish and chicken, sliced, shredded, minced and whole. Jugs of soy sauce, fish sauce, oyster sauce, rice wine vinegar; bottles of oil – peanut, soya, sesame. Mountains of noodles, buckets of rice; smaller bowls of garlic, ginger, shallots, onion - whole, sliced, crushed - perfectly prepared and placed in position ready for start of service. Anxious kitchen hands watched over the contents, running to replenish before a chef’s hand could meet an empty bowl.

Meals were cooked at the kwali range, six enormous burners in a solid stainless steel bank, punctuated with vats of boiling stock and water. The gas roared as the chefs kicked at the control levers. Resplendent in western style jackets and tall hats, the master chefs performed a practised dance – two quick steps backward to the ingredients, forward to the woks. Their hands moved in a long-learnt pattern, reaching for ingredients, moving and tossing the contents of the woks, never letting the food rest until it reached the waiting plate. Nimble waiters partnered them, ducking and weaving, their arms laden with dishes, full to the tables, empty to the scullery, with miraculously never a collision.

I followed my creations as they began their hazardous trip past the kwali range, arriving safely, adding a western touch to the special banquet.


Steam billowed as the chefs ladled boiling water into red hot woks, plying the straw whisks, removing all trace of the previous creation. Over and over again, a hundred times a night. The hungry crowd sat calmly eager in the cool night air, far removed from the flushed faces in the kitchen and the urgent breath of the woks.


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