//The Wok and “The Asian Way” of Cooking
Vietnamese Shaking Beef

The Wok and “The Asian Way” of Cooking

I sat at a booth table with David and Tina Nguyen from Ba Bellies, and Mia Orino and Carlo Gan from Kamayan ATL to talk about their food and influences.

Read our previous post about Tina and David’s Vietnamese parents and growing up in the restaurant industry HERE.

The Wok

wok work
Wok work: Staff at Ba Bellies using the wok to create the shaking beef dish.

Tina: In Asian cooking there’s a lot of woking. David is the only one in our kitchen who can do it correctly. Even the other kitchen staff don’t do it quite right. In fact, when he was in culinary school there was a wok program. But it’s completely wrong. The technique has to be learned from your family.

David: And it’s a very labor-intensive tool. So you don’t see a lot of women doing the wok.

Mia: That’s true, but my mom always has. Usually it’s passed on from generations. None of my siblings can do it, but my mom learned the technique from her mom.

Carlo: Every time I see it, it’s like a dance they do while they are cooking.

Mia: Mom actually had a wok made in Manila. It’s outside so we call it “the dirty kitchen.” There’s a stand of bricks, an opening for gas with a ring above, and the wok on top. Everyone has their own wok. My mom used to travel to America bringing her wok. She wouldn’t cook on anything, including the stove top, without her wok. It also has to be seasoned; it has it’s own patina. In my family’s region of the Philippines we use a lot of chilies. If you get up close to our wok you can smell it. They don’t wash it with soap. My mom would freak out! It’s like a cast iron the way you take care of it. My mom also has a special seasoning oil to take care of it. Woks last for years, decades. If it gets worn out, you can get them repaired. My mom used to go to Chinatown in Manila. There was this Chinese dude who repairs the wok, and she would bring it to him. One of her woks has a wooden handle that he can repair too. But traditionally Filipinos don’t really use woks, just the Chinese-background Filipinos like Carlo and I.

shaking beef
Vietnamese Bò lúc lắc – “Shaking Beef”

“The Asian Way”

David: One of our wok dishes at Ba Bellies is the Shaking Beef. In Vietnamese it’s Bò lúc lắc. You can definitely tell the origin is from my mom’s shaking beef that she serves at her restaurant. It’s in the sauce. But I’ve made some modifications to the cuts of beef, and use higher quality ingredients. To come up with the recipe I used “The Asian Way”: Start with a base, and just start throwing stuff in there using no measurements. Then I try to remember what I did if I liked it. Then I’ll do it repetitively until it’s ingrained. Even now I don’t use recipes. A recipe might tell you to use three limes, but those limes have different levels of acidity depending on the lime. So you have to taste it to know. I don’t measure anything but I taste it all.

Tina: It’s a secret sauce. David does not share it with anybody. So none of his kitchen guys know it. He makes it in batches before or after shifts because it’s a trade secret. So he’ll make the sauce, and then when the staff are cooking the dish, they will just take that sauce and add it to their beef. They don’t know what’s in the sauce. And I don’t know either!

mango mimosa
Ba Bellies’ Mango Mimosa

Local & Craft

Tina: “The culture of our restaurant is very different than that of our parents. They are serving traditional Vietnamese food – and that’s great, but it’s not our identity. We won’t ever do it as well as them, so we’re not going to compete.

We are getting involved in the craft beer scene – and that’s not something you see at other Asian restaurants! Craft beer is not a big part of Asian culture. Asians are just used to a specific flavor, and they aren’t looking for other things. I hear from my distributors that they can’t break into Asian restaurants because they only want their certain brands. If it’s a Japanese restaurant they want Sapporo and Singha. If it’s Vietnamese they want Heineken and 33 Export. If it’s a Chinese restaurant they want Tsingtao. So we’re one of the few Asian restaurants that appreciate craft beer, local craft beer at that. We don’t even carry Budweiser or Heineken. But it’s our job to make recommendations for other things our customers might like if they ask for those. So we don’t say that we carry domestic beer, but we say we carry local beer and craft cocktails.”