By Anu Sahota
It is impossible to turn on the television these days (granted, I only have the one channel, guess which) and not come across a maelstrom of cooking shows, along with cooking shows which bleed into unpoetic lifestyle shows (note to TV producers: the activity of shopping for ginger root does not require an Ennio Morricone soundtrack and montages of putting one's pashmina shawl on to shop for ginger root). Not so long ago, the genre's stars were limited to Julia Child and The Frugal Gourmet. In Canada there were even fewer. I don't think this is because Canada lacks a rich culinary history (pea soup and tourtieres, poutine and Old Dutch potato chips if you please), rather, it's because we have long been impaired when it comes to marrying any topic with, well, television pizazz.
Some great one once said that "only in Canada would passion be mistaken for asthma" - and this reserve would certainly hold for most Canadian television hosts of years gone by. There is wok notable exception, however. That wok be Hong-Kong born Stephen Yan of CBC Television's Wok with Yan. The afternoon cooking show aired from 1980 to 1995 (though throughout those years Yan also hosted the travel and variety show, Wok's Up?) and was syndicated in the U.S. and across Asia for years.
Wok with Yan is perhaps best remembered for its host's ebullience and propensity for the wok pun, delivered with a thick Cantonese accent. Each episode featured Yan clad in a new apron embellished with bubbly-lettered bon mots like: Wok Goes In Must Come Out; Don't Wok The Boat; Keep On Wokking In the Free World; Wokkey Night In Canada; On A Clear Day, You Can Wok Forever and Over Wok, Under Pay. Significantly, Yan introduced mainstream Canada to Asian cooking. While previous Canadian cooking show hosts might have confused turmeric with the yellow colouring once used to dye margarine, Yan reveled in Thai stir-fries, sweet and sour fish, chicken with pineapple and so on.
Wok with Yan would usually begin with a Polka Dot Door-style filmed vignette of the dish of the day's country of origin and would end with the opening of a fortune cookie (read in Cantonese, then English) and our host inviting a guest from the audience to sample the generous meal - no minimalist foodie presentation of sliced acorn garnished with chicory infused sprig of parsley for Yan. In the following clips from a March 1990 episode taped before a live studio audience in Vancouver, Yan prepared deep-fried salmon steaks and canned Salmon Egg Foo-Yung with tomato garnish. Also featured is a short montage shot in Malaysia at a rubber plantation and processing factory. Yan provides the narration, it's pretty wokky.