Mr. Cen’s Hand-Hammered Wok

Mr. Cen, the Shanghainese wok artisan whose incredible hand-hammered woks grace the cover of “The Breath of a Wok” is slipping from me. For years I have dreaded this fate. Since 2004, I have sent friends and fans of my books to visit Mr. Cen in Shanghai. Inevitably, the experience would be the highlight of their China trips. Everyone brought home woks and gushed with stories of how extraordinary it was to witness Mr. Cen and his brother fashioning beautiful woks in their primitive little shop. Sometimes a few years passed between visits. With news of each encounter I was elated, for I always worried that Mr. Cen might have closed shop or moved away.

Mr. Cen's Cantonese-Style hand-hammered woks: my 16 year-old well used wok (left); new wok.
Mr. Cen’s Cantonese-style hand-hammered carbon-steel woks: my 16 year-old well used wok (left); new wok (right).

A few months ago I received an email from a Mr. Burgess who had found a photo of me in The New York Times holding one of Mr. Cen’s woks. Mr. Burgess wanted to know where could he find such a wok. I wrote back that the northern-style or pao wok in the picture was made by Mr. Cen Lian Gen and that the only way to procure one was via a trip to Shanghai. Mr. Burgess replied that a friend would be in Shanghai. Then, a few weeks ago, I received his email along with this devastating photo: “No luck on the wok hunt. That neighborhood was recently torn down. Old China is disappearing fast. We found only a few old people staying put in the middle of the demolition.”

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I immediately contacted my friend Jennifer Thomas who I had sent to meet Mr. Cen a few years ago. She had bought a large shipment of woks and had kindly sold them at cost to members of Wok Wednesdays. I knew she had Mr. Cen’s phone number. She reported back that for days she’d called the two numbers she has: one was disconnected and the other just rang. Then she wrote me that she found a blog post on chowhound regarding Mr. Cen. It reported that as of May 2016, Mr. Cen and his brother are still in the neighborhood making woks, but because of the city redevelopment plans, they expect a neighborhood relocation as early as June. Jennifer reminded me that Mr. Cen’s “shop” is hard to find in the best of circumstances. We surmised that with the demolition, Mr. Burgess’s friend must’ve gotten lost.

I first discovered Mr. Cen and his brother in 2000. I had taken my elderly parents back to Shanghai for what was to be their last trip to China. Since my father was 86-years old and no longer able to walk distances, we hired a driver to take us around the city. Late one afternoon, I asked the driver if he knew of a place where I could see woks being manufactured. He nodded his head and we headed to the Zhabei District. When we arrived, I got out of the car and followed the driver down a residential street, hearing a distinct pounding sound, loud and piercing. By the time we reached Mr. Cen’s outdoor work yard and saw the two Cen brothers making woks, I was in total disbelief. It had never occurred to me that anyone still made woks by hand. There we were, my parents and I, in modern Shanghai, yet it was as though we had completely stepped back in time. Mr Cen sat on a backless wooden stool in a concrete courtyard strewn with tools and metal. We watched as he took a disc of carbon-steel and then alternated between heating and hammering the hot metal until it was a perfect, useful, beautiful artifact. The woks he produced were also like nothing I’d ever seen before. Not sleek or shiny or perfectly manufactured. They had dull, pebbled finishes and their crafting was exquisite.

Mr. Cen working---notice the hand-pounded wok in the foreground. photo credit: Tom Koloski
Mr. Cen working—notice the hand-pounded wok in the foreground. photo credit: Tom Koloski

Mr. Cen explained to me the hand-hammering changes the structure of the metal, giving it greater strength and durability than a factory made one. Each wok requires at least five hours to produce, and he makes 100 woks in a month.

Two years later I traveled with Alan Richardson, my collaborator for “The Breath of a Wok,” to Shanghai just to photograph Mr. Cen. I was anxious if we’d find him, but the moment we emerged from the car, I was relieved to hear the same distinct, piercing sound of metal being pounded. That interview with Mr. Cen was the highlight of my research for “Breath,” a cookbook that is an ode to the wok as a way of life in China. I understood that I was witness to the crafting of a dying art form, one kept alive by two men who had learned their craft from their deceased father who started the business 70 years before. After an hour of watching them work my ears began to ring from the constant pounding of metal. That’s when I noticed the Cen brothers had little balls of cotton in their ears to diminish the sound. I was skeptical of how effective those balls of cotton were. The work conditions of their operation were primitive at best.

The Breath of a Wok

Shortly after “The Breath of a Wok” was published my friend Mary Johnson flew to Shanghai and I had her bring Mr. Cen a copy of the book. I never heard from Mr. Cen but in 2009, I read a CNN story about Mr. Cen which mentions: “Cen goes into his one-room workshop to pull out a book, in English, featuring Chinese woks and wok-style cooking. He can’t read it, but he fingers the glossy pages, turning to a photograph of his woks stacked in an iron tower.”

Here is the photo of the "woks stacked in an iron tower." My favorite detail in this shot is the soccer ball nearly hidden among the woks. photo credit: Alan Richardson
Here is the photo of the “woks stacked in an iron tower.” My favorite detail in this shot is the soccer ball nearly hidden among the woks. photo credit: Alan Richardson

My friend Tom who visited Mr. Cen in Shanghai in 2014, was so inspired by the visit that he learned to stir-fry. “The act of taking Mr. Cen’s wok off the hanging rack is about as close to a religious experience as I get. It’s such a beautiful, useful tool. After stir-frying “the ‘ceremony’ of cleaning, drying and hanging the wok back up always feels to me like a small nod of thanks for his fine craftsmanship.”

Mr. Cen's brother, Cen Rong Gen. photo credit: Leslie Oster
Mr. Cen’s brother, Cen Rong Gen. photo credit: Leslie Oster

My own Mr. Cen Cantonese-style wok, which is now 16-years old is a black beauty after years of stir-frying. Every time I use the wok I pause to admire it. Not only is it stunning but it has the right heft and it feels so good to run my hands around its belly. It’s such a pleasure to cook with the wok. The nonstick surface is like that of no other pan. I can fry an egg with a mere 1/4 teaspoon of oil and the egg slips and slides in the wok. But the best thing is to stir-fry because the wok truly imparts wok fragrance and flavor or the “breath of a wok” that makes a stir-fry so deliriously sublime.

My friend Bob Williams who bought several Mr. Cen woks wrote me, “I believe my woks are actually Mr. Cen’s woks, and they are only on loan to me.” I understand Bob’s sentiment. Unlike a factory-made wok, Mr Cen’s pans are infused with his spirit and life force. To cook with them is truly a privilege.

I hold the hope that Mr. Cen will relocate his business. Still, my heart is heavy with thoughts that the time has come to accept that Mr. Cen may be finally closing shop. I’ve been blessed to meet such an artist and to cook with his masterpieces. Betty Fussell the food historian wrote, “the wok symbolizes a craft, an art, a container of communal harmony and balance.” Mr. Cen’s woks are all that and more… Last night in honor of Mr. Cen, I stir-fried spring asparagus. The crisp stalks sparkled against the wok’s ebony finish. Over dinner my husband and I savored the pleasure of his artistry in every delicious bite.

I will post the stir-fried asparagus recipe in the next few days. I wanted this post to be just about Mr. Cen and his woks.
I will post the stir-fried asparagus recipe in the next few days. I wanted this piece to be just about Mr. Cen and his woks.

 

38 thoughts on “Mr. Cen’s Hand-Hammered Wok

  1. Grace,
    A beautifully written tribute to the Cen brothers, their work, and their woks.

    As well as the woks, the craftsmanship needed for making these woks is disappearing. It is the difference between the uniqueness of a nature scene hand-carved into the top of a wooden box, complete with human imperfection and the unique cutting strokes of that individual carver, versus the wooden box with the machine-perfect laser cut scene, mass produced, and seen for sale now in any National Park gift shop. Or, to put it another way, it is the difference between hand embroidery, and embroidery done on a computer-controlled sewing machine, whose owner points to the finished product and says, “Look what I made!”

    While the chowhound link mentions “another wokmaker named Tao”, it also states, “the most obvious difference is that his (Tao’s) woks are hammered cold, straight from the sheet of steel, while the Cen woks are shaped hot.” I don’t own a Tao wok, but I DO own cold pressed woks, and the Mr. Cen “firewoks” are light years ahead of any cold pressed (either by hand held hammer, or machine) wok when stir-frying.

    My Mr. Cen woks are actively used for stir-frying, but my Mr. Cen woks are not stored in a cupboard. I leave them out, on display, as if they were Ming Dynasty vases, so I can walk by and admire them, just as I would any other piece of art.

    Bob Williams

  2. What a beautiful ode to craftsmanship, traditional ways of life, and artistry this is…and what an ode it is to your own passion. Thank you for sharing this with us.

  3. Well said Bob! I too thought that the Tao wok cannot be as special if it’s shaped without heating the metal. The Cen “firewok” is extra special. The patina never flakes or peels off. Indeed it is a wok of art.

  4. Just lovely. Nice tribute to Mr. Cen. So glad to have had the experience and so grateful to you and all your wisdom of the wok.

  5. Oh, Grace – what a lovely piece you wrote. My heart aches to look at that picture seeing the city being demolished, along with the craft of these wonderful woks. I hope Mr. Cen and his brother are able to relocate. I agree with Bob, these woks are pieces of art. I too store my Mr. Cen wok out in the open, in the center of my dining room table – it makes me smile each time I pass by. 🙂

  6. Thank you Jennifer for your kind praise and for making it possible for so many Wok Wednesdays members to have a Mr. Cen wok.

  7. Cathy, I know you understand. Mr Cen’s wok is a piece of art. That’s the wok you should put in your “wok frame!” 🙂

  8. Hello. I am just now learning of the possible closure. Can someone on the link, site that has knowledge of the contact phone number for a wok purchase? My email address is MilletteK@yahoo.com

  9. Militate, Unfortunately I don’t have Mr. Cen’s phone number. As I wrote in my piece Jennifer Thomas (who you can contact through Wok Wednesdays) has Mr. Cen’s phone numbers but one is disconnected and the other just rings with no one picking up. According to the chowhound link that I included in the article even if you go to see Mr. Cen in Shanghai right now he has no stock because he’s fulfilling a 1000 wok order.

  10. He’s still there! Just found him in his ‘workshop’, hammering away on a rainy Sunday afternoon. I’m not sure if he’s finished his huge order, but I was able to buy a wok from him for 150 rmb.

  11. Yes, several people have been to see him and let me know. I need to write an update. Thanks for letting me know. I hope you got a wok.

  12. Thank you Grace. I am planning a trip east next summer – I hope the shop is still around by then. May have to buy a ws just in case.

  13. August 6, 2016 – just bought 2 (more!) Cen woks today – the brothers are still there, still working, nothing much has changed on their street or neighborhood since our first visit in 2010 – but of course, all that could change quickly. (There is another handmade wok-maker in Shanghai, who used to do it as a hobby but has turned it into a one-man business – but haven’t tried him out yet! Soon.)

  14. Tina, Apologies for the delay in replying. Thanks for the update. Since my post others have told me Mr. Cen is still in business but that the threat of being moved by the government hangs over him. Glad you got 2 more woks. Lucky you!

  15. I got my wok from Mr. Cen today! He and his brother were working outside and I was able to stand and watch as they worked. So glad that I had a chance to see the artistry and make a purchase. Now I need to know how to cure the wok so I can use it.

  16. Craig, Thanks for the update. You’re lucky your friend took care of you. I’ve had several reports since my post that Mr. Cen is in fact still in his hood. Apparently the government is constantly threatening to demolish the neighborhood but for now he is fine. Do you know about Wok Wednesdays, my online stir-fry group on Facebook? We have just started cooking our way through The Breath of a Wok—the cookbook that features Mr. Cen’s woks on the cover.

  17. Kelley, First of all that’s so fantastic that you got to meet Mr. Cen and watch him and his brother hammering their woks. I’m so sorry I’m so late answering your question. If you get my book The Breath of a Wok from the library, you’ll see Mr Cen’s wok on the cover and read about him too. There are numerous recipes for how to season a wok. I also have 2 videos on how to season a wok that are very different. http://weightwatchers.com/util/art/index_art.aspx?tabnum=1&art_id=89791
    https://www.weightwatchers.com/util/art/index_art.aspx?tabnum=1&art_id=235910&sc=3022
    Let me know if you have any questions.

  18. Grace, I have been studying your “Stir frying To The Sky’s edge” and ‘Breath Of A Wok” to get all the tips and tricks down in anticipation of the wok’s arrival (cleared customs today). I will join Wok Wednesdays and start on the path to great food! Thank you so much for your recipes and inspiration. After a hectic day at work just reading about wok cooking and techniques calms me down!

  19. I’m brand new to wok cooking, striking up an interest due to a remodel / new range that has high-powered open burners and actually has an optional wok ring. So I picked up an inexpensive machined wok and seasoned it, and decided to try one of Mr. Cen’s woks ordered through Williams Sonoma.

    What is the difference about these that create the “patina” on one of his woks, fresh off being seasoned? I love the look, I love the slickness of the surface vs the machined, seasoned wok, but I’d like to understand why they are clearly so different.

  20. Hi Craig, Your wok “cleared customs!!!!” It’s got to be a Mr. Cen wok that’s arriving! Thanks for writing me. I’m delighted my work has inspired you to stir-fry. I look forward to seeing your posts on Wok Weds!

  21. Mike, Sorry for not getting back to you sooner. Mr. Cen explained to me that the hand-hammering changes the structure of the metal giving it greater strength and durability. Mr. Cen alternates between heating the metal and hammering. A machine produced wok is generally spun into its wok shape with no heating involved. Once the patina starts forming on a machine made wok it will sometimes flake off. Mr. Cen’s patina is like a cast-iron pan—there’s never any flaking. If you want to read more about Mr. Cen, I wrote there’s a section on him in my cookbook The Breath of a Wok. His wok is also on the cover.

  22. RE Post #25

    Yes indeed we did buy Cen Rong Woks in Shanghai as a group buy of 12 Woks ranging in size from 14 to 18 inches.

    In the wee hours of the morning on October 2, 2016 I stumbled over a discussion of CEN RONG woks on Chow Hound, which led to this article and others. At that time being a member on another discussion Board I asked if there was anybody in Shanghai that could help me procure a CEN wok. One of the other Board members had a contact in Shanghai which could and did help me and 5 other members of the Board including Mr Johnston buy 12 Woks ranging in size from 14 to 18 inches. Of those 12 Cen woks I bought 4 of them. We placed our order in early October where our agent was able to buy half from existing inventory and the other half was paid for, finished and picked up 2 weeks later. They arrived in the USA and were delivered to us in late November per Mr Johnston’s postings

    From the postings about Cen Rong woks I had a vague sense of urgency about getting one of their woks. As such I wasted no time in trying to put the project of getting one into motion. As it now stands it was lucky that I did as I had no idea that the end for their making them was so near. As a precursor of the end WS in late November posted on their Website that the “Artisan Woks” were “no longer available” So as it stands our group was able to get some of the last Cen Rong woks ever to be made. It truly is the end of an era of craftsmanship for which we are truly a little poorer for.

  23. You’re so lucky that you were able to obtain four Mr. Cen woks—the last ones! Treasure them.
    No wok compares—once you’ve used a Mr. Cen wok all others pale in comparison.

  24. Thank you Grace

    After washing I have seasoned one of the 14 inch Woks with Lard, Ginger and Green Onions per your video. Second go was with some bacon. I put some of the Lard on the bottom of the Wok as well. The Ginger, Green Onion mixture imparts a pleasant fragrance to the Wok.

    While being a rather adept cook, the one area that I was not able to obtain satisfactory results has been with Asian Wok cooking. The reason has been an inadequate heat source of a Home Gas Stove that puts out about 8k Btu. The food always turned out to be mushy as it was steamed rather than flash fried with high heat. (The way around this problem is to cook in very small batches and assemble all the batches at the end, too tedious). To remedy that problem I found a ostensibly 100K Btu Propane Wok Burner (outdoor only) for $85 out the door at a local Asian market. These are also available on E-bay for a bit more. What I am going to check into is converting it to Natural Gas? This dedicated Wok burner is where I am going to deploy the Cen Woks. Now comes a whole new area of experimentation and learning curve.

    What I have found to be key whether it be BBQ Smoking, Deep Frying, Pan Frying or Woking is the ability to retain and maintain an even heat. This is done either through using a cooking instrument that is able to retain heat or through having a high heat source that can recover quickly.

  25. It’s very dangerous using a 100K BTU burner if you’re not accustomed to it. All you need is
    18,000 BTUs for great stir-fries. I would advise that your heat setting should be set on low.
    Aromatics like ginger and garlic should be chopped rather than minced as they will singe if they’re too small.
    Let me know how it turns out.

  26. Hi Grace. Sadly I seem to have arrived to all this a little too late to order a Wok from Mr Cen now. I know its asking a lot but if you possibly know anyone who is parting with one I would be eternally grateful if you could pass on my email to them. ;petommycos@hotmail.com
    Im in the UK by the way. And your book is just fab! x

    Regards ..Pete

  27. A few members from my online cooking group Wok Wednesdays posted that they bought a Mr. Cen wok from Markus. I have no idea of the price and have not bought a Mr. Cen Wok from Markus. Here’s his email address. i can’t vouch for him but good luck: m4711id@aol.com

  28. Hi all, I am heading to Shanghai this weekend. Does anyone know if Mr Cen is still there/been evicted?

  29. Good news! I stopped by this afternoon and found Mr. Tao hammering away on his hand-made woks! He has relocated his “workshop” to the grass median next to a huge construction site. He works Monday-Friday in the afternoon, near the intersection of Tianhong Lu and Zhoujiazui Lu. Super-friendly, please stop by and say hi.

  30. Ryland, Thanks so much for the update. It’s great to know Mr Tao has found a new place to work. Please keep me posted on any other wok news.

  31. Went to see Mr Cen 15 Feb 2018. His shop is gone. All the buildings on His side of the street are gone, and there is indeed a construction site on premises now.
    Following other posts, I went to find the wok man near the intersection of Tianhong Lu and Zhoujiazui Lu. It is Mr Tao (as posted above) that lives at this address. Not Mr Cen. These are two different hand made wok makers in Shanghai.

  32. Yes, the Cen brothers are no longer in business. The only hand-hammered wok made in Shanghai that I know of is Mr. Tao’s. His technique for hand-pounding a wok is radically different from the Cen brothers.

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