They Built ‘The Woks of Life’ From Home. Now They’re Cooking Things Up From a New One
If their house was a person, Judy Leung tells me over dinner, it would probably be surprised to see her family living in it. Just imagine, she suggests, the sprawling 18th-century farmhouse peering down at us: five Chinese Americans flanking a long table, tucking into delicate stir fries and a vat of Cantonese soup. It’s probably not what the builders pictured either in 1785, when they constructed the colonial-style house atop what was then a quiet New Jersey peach orchard—which, after buying the property just about a year ago, the Leungs are now transforming into a bok choy farm.
Judy, Bill, Sarah, and Kaitlin Leung aren’t just any Chinese American family, but the team behind The Woks of Life, possibly the internet’s most popular English-language Chinese food blog. Since the site’s launch a decade ago, the Leungs have published over a thousand painstakingly researched recipes and general how-to guides, some of which can be found in a new cookbook they released this November. Like many of my millennial Chinese American friends, I’ve been enjoying the Leungs’ recipes for years now. Some bring me back to the years I spent working in Hong Kong, but my favorites remind me of my childhood in Seattle and the homey Cantonese dinners my mom and dad cooked on weeknights before I moved to New York at 18.
That, it turns out, is what the Leungs were going for. "There are so many variations to any dish, but the warmest, most ideal memory that you have of that dish is what we try to put on the page," says Kaitlin, the younger Leung daughter. The project, she explains, came out of an anxiety over forgetting: In 2012, Kaitlin and her sister Sarah were in college when their parents relocated to Beijing for work. The siblings—suddenly on their own in America—realized how much they missed their parents’ home cooking, something they had taken for granted growing up. They decided to start recording the recipes in a blog, starting with family favorites like roasted chicken with sticky rice and braised pork belly, for just a handful of readers. About a year in, after one of the recipes unexpectedly went viral, they decided to make The Woks of Life into a real thing. As the blog grew, all four Leungs began taking research trips across China to learn the secrets to regional specialties from the country’s far-flung corners. Since then, the site has built a massive following, with more than three million monthly visitors.
What sets The Woks of Life apart from many other Chinese food blogs is its attention to detail. Along with drool-worthy images, videos, and heartfelt essays explaining each dish’s origin, each recipe brims with wiki-style cross-links, so you can click the name of almost any ingredient—say, Chinese chives—for an in-depth explainer. (They "taste a bit more vegetal than herbal" and "turn up most often in our dumpling fillings," the Leungs write, adding that they grow easily in your garden: "Just cut them like you’re trimming grass, and you’ll have more within the week. It’s GREAT.")
In recent years, the close-knit family have switched to working on the blog full-time: cooking, photographing, and posting from their New Jersey home—what they call "The Woks of Life HQ." I wanted to get a real taste of their behind-the-scenes operations, so I took a long drive from my tiny Brooklyn studio apartment to the Leungs’ farmhouse to learn how the proverbial lap cheong (that’s Chinese sausage) gets made.
It turns out the HQ is in the midst of a huge upgrade. The site, covering 12 acres in quiet woodlands about an hour’s walk from the next town, represents the Leungs’ expanding aspirations. "At our old house"—about 20 minutes away—"we were comfortable," Sarah says. "But it was just like, either we stay there and don’t do anything different, or we move here and shake things up a lot."
The concept is to push The Woks of Life beyond home cooking and into the realm of organic farming, and to do that, the Leungs needed land. At their old house, they had a small veggie plot that was limited by partial shade; the new property boasts vast tracts of land that receive full sun. In addition to the 5,000-square-foot main house, there’s also an original, 2,500-square-foot post-and-beam barn, which "everybody fell in love with" when they realized they could turn it into a dedicated kitchen and blogging studio, Bill says. The property even came with a herd of adorable animals: two alpacas, two goats, and a llama (all of whom produce a convenient supply of manure).
Actually making the dream happen has been hard work. Judy, who grew up in China during the Cultural Revolution, bristles at the notion that they’ve purchased a "lifestyle" house. "This is a labor camp," she says. She’s kidding, but also not. When they first moved in, "the whole place was basically chest-high in weeds, and there were a lot of snakes," Bill recalls. The Leungs say they’ve spent the better part of the last year weeding—sometimes hours a day. That’s on top of removing dead trees (60 of them) and planting new ones, lining a streambed, building a pond wall, and constructing coops for their egg-laying chickens and ducks. Bill, an American-born former electrical engineer, is a skilled renovator but never satisfied, his daughters say.
The project isn’t complete, but the results are already stunning. Just like their website, every detail of the new Woks of Life HQ feels like part of a modern Chinese American fantasy. Walking through the Leungs’ upgraded vegetable garden, there are neat rows of leafy greens like bok choy, napa cabbage, and pea shoots—which are well-adapted to the brisk fall weather of New Jersey. "They like sort of cooler temperatures, and the cooler it is, the sweeter the vegetables are," Sarah says.
There are root vegetables as well, which Kaitlin invites me to yank out for dinner. I give one tuft of leaves a firm tug, and out pops one of the plumpest carrots I’ve ever seen in my life. We feed the alpacas, who I’m a little intimidated by, but Sarah says they’re friendly and even easier to care for than their dog. ("It’s like, who gets to look out their window and see an alpaca? It’s the best thing! It’s very stress relieving.") Even as a proud longtime resident of shoebox apartments in Hong Kong and New York, the Leungs’ farm fills me with a kind of longing I didn’t even realize I had—probably why it makes for such captivating content.
The sun wanes, and it’s time to make dinner. Sarah starts prepping the vegetables we just harvested and Judy readies the stove: an impressive Viking range with a large wok burner that they brought from their old house. It’s one of the few subtly Chinese touches in this traditional American farmhouse kitchen with French doors, brick floors, and a high ceiling with exposed wooden beams; Judy says they haven’t made any other updates, hoping to preserve the house’s original appeal. Wandering through the sunroom, I spot a Chinese painting of herd animals above the stone fireplace, and in the family room there’s a Chinese oil painting of two children sharing a bowl of soup. But virtually everything else—furniture, light fixtures, decor—is traditional or midcentury, and markedly by-the-book. The exception so far has been at Chinese New Year, when the Leungs decorated the house with red lanterns: "It felt a little comical," says Kaitlin, "But it didn’t feel, like, wrong."
Our dinner is humble by the Leungs’ standards, but the five dishes are delicious. There are three from their new cookbook—a tomato egg stir fry, a hand-torn cabbage stir fry, and homestyle tofu—and two from their website, the carrot daikon stir fry and a watercress pork bone soup. I instantly recognize the soup as something my parents made all the time, and think that maybe what The Woks of Life offers, beyond recipes, is an ideal of family togetherness that can feel hard to achieve in everyday life.
Because of their family business—and the fact that multigenerational homes are common in Asia, and research shows Asian Americans are the group most likely to live this way in the United States as well—I was a little surprised to learn that the Leungs don’t actually live under one roof. The sisters stay over at the farmhouse for a few nights every couple of weeks depending on the family’s workload, but otherwise they have apartments about an hour’s drive away, just distant enough to maintain their personal space. Kaitlin says they’re not interested in moving any farther: "As an American-born Chinese kid, it feels like I’d be abandoning something that I shouldn’t be abandoning." I wonder to myself what that says about me and my parents, who live three time zones away.
In the coming year, the Leungs hope to complete the HQ by renovating the three-story barn behind their house. The idea is to set up a full kitchen with fixed studio lighting—the cozy, soft white lights in the main house don’t look good on camera, Sarah explains. Next to the kitchen, they’ll build a workspace with desks for everyone. ("You should call it WeWok," I joke, and Kaitlin howls with approval.) It’s a huge undertaking to convert a colonial barn into a space like this, but after a decade of blogging, the Leungs have become masters of figuring it out as they go. There isn’t a single recipe to follow when you’re building your own Chinese American dream.
Top photo by Wilfred Chan.
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