HILLSBOROUGH, Calif. — Martin Yan is at the stove with a sizzling wok in hand, tossing baby bok choy with a deft flick of the wrist.
"Try some," he says, chopstick-ing a helping of tender-crisp vegetables that sing with flavor.
Now in his 30th year on television, Yan is still cooking — and spreading the message of honest food cooked fresh the Asian way.
"I think it's passion," says Yan of a career that spans more than 2,000 episodes broadcast worldwide. "If you're not passionate, if you don't like what you do — you don't even last for three years."
This year, that passion expresses itself in a new public television series, Martin Yan's China
, an exploration of the different schools of Chinese cooking that is part travelogue, part cooking instruction.
The show — as well as the companion book Yan wrote — covers material that would have been impossible to introduce to Americans when Yan launched his television career. At the time, soy sauce was exotic and a wok was a funny shaped frying pan you had to look hard to find.
"People didn't have chopsticks in their homes, people didn't go out for dim sum," says Tina Ujlaki, executive food editor of Food & Wine
magazine, who calls Yan "an amazing teacher."
Now, "everybody has a bottle of soy sauce, guaranteed. Everybody has a wok at home," says Yan.
So as his audience has become more sophisticated, Yan has branched out, too, traveling to southeast Asia and beyond and exploring the cultural heritage behind the dishes he presents.
"Every time I go back to China I try to go to different restaurants, learn new things," he says. "I learn new things every day so then I incorporate. Today the dishes that I do are very unique."
Born in Guangzhou in southern China, Yan, 59, started his career in food as a 13-year-old apprentice at a Hong Kong restaurant. He studied at the Overseas Institute of Cookery in Hong Kong, then took up food science at the University of California, Davis. He started teaching in the university's extension program and in the late '70s began the TV cooking career that led to Yan Can Cook
In some ways, he has returned to his roots. Late last year, Yan opened Martin Yan's Culinary Arts Center in Shenzhen, a city near Hong Kong. The center offers a variety of cooking programs that range from intensive courses for Chinese and Western professional chefs to more relaxed programs for home cooks and food lovers.
In person and on screen, Yan presents his recipes in an upbeat and engaging manner that still allows the food to be the star.
"I'm not a talk show person," says Yan. "Basically, my whole goal is to teach people how to enjoy cooking at home."
His goal is to inspire viewers "and encourage them and excite them to get in the kitchen right away and do things," he says. "The whole slogan is Yan can, so can you."
In his shows, Yan likes to joke around some — he's fond of puns — but "there's such an unbelievable foundation to everything he does," Ujlaki says. "He loves to be busy and active and on. I think that's what he thrives on. He's just totally in touch with our craving to learn more."
To would-be chefs he has this caveat: Culinary school costs a lot; starter kitchen jobs pay a little. So, if you don't like what you do, "don't bother because this is a tough business."
The secret is realizing "you can never be somebody else," he says. "Just be yourself."
On a recent rainy day, Yan was practicing what he preaches as he put together a meal in his large, bright kitchen. He started with shrimp "tulips" — shrimp purée nestled in the trimmed bases of baby bok choy, then steamed. He used a food processor to purée most of the shrimp, but whipped out a cleaver to show he's perfectly capable of pulverizing shrimp, old-school style.
Once the tulips were in the steamer, he had a colander full of extra bok choy leaves on his hands, which inspired a quick stir-fry with garlic, ginger and some dried chilies.
The result — delicious.
Or, as he put it, with a broad smile, "Simple!"
RecipeThis simple stir-fry of bok choy from television chef Martin Yan is light, but full of flavor.
GINGER-GARLIC BABY BOK CHOY
1 pound baby bok choy
1-1/4 teaspoons salt, divided
2 tablespoons rice wine or dry sherry
2 teaspoons oyster sauce
1 teaspoon soy sauce
1 tablespoon vegetable oil
1 tablespoon minced garlic
1 tablespoon minced ginger
3 small dried red chiles
Bring a medium saucepan of water to a boil. Fill a large bowl with cold water.
Trim the ends of the bok choy, separating and rinsing the leaves.
Add 1 teaspoon of salt and the bok choy to the water in the saucepan. Blanch the bok choy for 1 minute, or until bright green. Use a slotted spoon to transfer the bok choy to the cold water. Let them cool briefly, then drain and set aside.
In a small bowl, whisk together the rice wine, oyster sauce, soy sauce and remaining salt. Set aside.
In a large skillet, heat the oil over high, swirling the pan to coat the sides. Add the garlic, ginger and chilies and sauté until fragrant, about 10 seconds.
Add the bok choy and sauce and sauté until the liquid has reduced by half, about 1 to 2 minutes.
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