Asian Heritage Month

You Are Wok You Eat

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.



Watch the first part of Wok with Yan (1990) (runs 7:31)

Watch Yan dig into the meal with audience member Betsy. One wok at Betsy's outfit and you'll swear it's 1986 - but trust, the episode is from 1990. (runs 2:06)

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Comments: (29)

Dick (Windsor_On) wrote:

I watched Stephens show on CBC in Windsor every chance I had.I also bought his cook books and wore them out.After moving across the country 3 times with my job I have lost the cookbooks.Is there a chance that they will be reissued again? I think they would sell quite well if they were available.
Thanks for the great recipes.

Posted May 19, 2009 10:10 AM

John C. () wrote:

I hope he comes back on television some day. Stephen holds a special place in Canadian TV history, I'm not sure he realizes just how popular he truly is. What an amazing presence he has.

I will give him a big hug if I ever meet him and thank him for the memories. :)

Posted May 2, 2009 12:50 AM

Chua Eok Keng (Malaysia) wrote:

When Stephen Yan came to Malaysia in the 1980s I had the privilege of appearing as a guest taster in an episode where he cooked Honeymoon Fried Rice in the Malysian series of Wok With Yan. I received a complimentary ccokbook from RTM (Radio Television Malaysia) then and I am still cooking up a storm using his recipes . They're simple and uncomplicated but so delicious. I often wondered whatever happened to him. I'm glad to hear he's well but retired. I wish I could get a DVD of the series and I wonder whether the Asian Food Channel would air the Wok With Yan series.

Posted April 20, 2009 12:12 PM

Colleen (Ottawa) wrote:

How old is Stephen Yan- was just watching the show and after trying to look it up I had no luck!

Thanks a bunch- keep on wokking!

Posted April 2, 2009 09:37 AM

john b (coquitlam_bc) wrote:

Stephen... glad to hear you're well and enjoying your retirement. Of course, if you get tired of it, you could always re-open your restaurant in Burnaby :-)

I was a great fan of your show when it first aired (I was in high school), and I was thrilled when I moved to BC in the early 90's and found that your restaurant was just a few minutes from our new home. Thanks for the good times (from your show) and the great food (from your restaurant)! (I haven't found a decent restaurant around here since you retired :-(

Posted February 19, 2009 01:40 AM

Scott (Quebec) wrote:

I was a big fan of the show. He use to sell a wok package with various utensiles AND his magic blend of spices. I still have the wok and use it every week. Wok on Yan

Posted January 19, 2009 05:20 PM

Stephen Yan (Vancouver_BC_Canada) wrote:

Haroo..... This is Stephen Yan. Thanks for all your kind words and generous comment on my shows. I had a tremendous amount of FUN doing it. Good to hear that we have brought you entertainment as well as laughs, which we all need to enjoy and to make our lives more meaningful.

I stayed out of the limelight because I felt that I did not want to run dried that might make me not enjoying any more. As a contented man with a wonderful family, I just want to share my time with them. I am well, healthy and happy particularly hearing from all of you about the enjoyment you had from our show. Thanks again and keep on WOKKING. Wok the heck !!!!!!!!

Posted December 20, 2008 12:04 AM

GJD (Toronto) wrote:

Glad to know that Stephen Yan is still around. Have many fond memories of wok with yan when I was a kid, watching him in 1980 and afterwards. Stange how an asian cooking show could appeal to such a mass audience, including kids. Probably has a lot to do with the genuine humour and fun atmosphere of the show, mixed in with those clips to exotic places. I think if anyone deserves an order of Canada, it is him, he embodies the Canadian spirit, the humour, accomplishment and friendliness which makes this nation a great place.

Posted November 29, 2008 08:31 AM

Anthony H. (TorontoOn_Canada) wrote:

Please keep me posted on the latest on Stephen Yan...An amzing happy soul...

Posted November 24, 2008 02:58 PM

Denislee (Paris_France) wrote:

This past Canada day I was listening to a radio talk show about great Canadians. Without knowing then about Mr Yan's accomplishments aside from his unforgetable show in the past, I should of called in to mention Stephen! But now I will also have these outstanding achievements to boast about one of my favorite Canadians! ( Do you mind if I initiate a nomination for the order of Canada? I love that guy!

Posted July 3, 2008 10:50 PM

Sean (Hong_Kong) wrote:

I'm very happy to here about your Father Arlene. There is an unfortunate assumption by many people that if one is not in the spotlight, one does not exist. Well, I'm sure that the spotlight followed your Father wherever he went, even if the public was not watching.

I can remember sitting there, looking at that delicious food, horrified that my Mother couldn't make any of it. It was sort of like torture.

If your Dad has an email or address, let us (or me) know. I would love to write him!

Happy to help out with a DVD, T-Shirt project or anything else. My company has the sourcing and distribution for some of that.


Posted June 6, 2008 05:36 PM

CindyB (Halifax) wrote:

Was just watching CBC's "The Hour" and George mentioned Stephen Yan and wondered what ever happened to him, so my search for the answer lead me here. So glad to hear your Dad is alive and well. I loved his show as a kid! In fact, when I moved into my first place I went right out and bought a meat cleaver like he used. No one could figure out why I was using such a big knife to cut up veggies!! Everytime I use a wok I think of him saying....... "2 tbsp of oyster flavour sauce."

Posted May 8, 2008 11:10 PM

Edward H (Thunder_Bay) wrote:

My father who was Japanese Canadian loved to cook and he loved your father's show and trying the recipes that were showcased. He also liked the jokes. This brings back pleasant memories and good luck to your father he seems to be enjoying life.

Posted May 3, 2008 07:49 PM

arlene () wrote:

There was mass confusion as there are two Yan's out there, Stephen (Wok
With Yan) & Martin (aka. Yan Can Cook).

Fact: Stephen has always been based in Vancouver, BC.
Fact: Martin Yan (who used to work for Stephen long ago), was the one who
went onwards with the show idea and has himself become a huge success.

Since retiring his show, Stephen has accomplished many things including:
Boston Marathon (won 1st place for his age group at 57 & 58)
Summitted Mt. Everest (on his 3rd attempt)
And many more adventures that are amazing. These are things he did for
himself which is why he "disappeared".

He is my dad and I was just checking the Net, so thank for this. I will forward
it onwards to him. I will also see what he thinks about DVD's & T-shirts.
That would be cool!

Posted April 4, 2008 11:55 AM

Iman Nugroho () wrote:

I remember watching his show back in 1995. I watched it on RCTI, one of TV station owned by private company in Indonesia. It was a very funny cooking show and I guess it still is, especially when he quote "oh wok the heck..". Mr Yan, I do hope everything's going well with you, wherever you may be. I love your show and would love to see you again on TV.

Posted January 7, 2008 08:23 AM

Anu Sahota () wrote:

This is truly a great Canadian mystery. Apparently he now lives in the US - thats' all I got.

Posted December 6, 2007 05:54 PM

Dave Crawford () wrote:

Does anybody have a clue of what happened to Stephen Yan?
It seems very strange that a man of his popularity can just disappear and know one knows what he is doing.
Why did he close his resteraunt and where is he now?
A few people have mentioned that he should put his shows on DVD, are they available? I hope that someone has some answers!

Posted December 6, 2007 05:07 PM

joshua yeung () wrote:

ur funny. in my opion, my 2 favourite episodes are the one when u cook the pork butt and the one where u dump all the ingredients in the garbage for ur brother. u ar so funy. u make me laugh whenever i watch wok with yan. my mom always ask me wat so funny and tells me to be quiet because i am a preety quiet boy for a 9 year old but the only time im not is when i watch wok with yan. keep it up! dont worry, when i grow up, i will wok in your path.

Posted November 18, 2007 08:05 PM

fatsochef () wrote:

i love this show. it reminds me of my childhood and he inspired me to become a chef.
yes, somebody should try to make it in dvd series. i'm sure lots of people are willing to buy. it's a collector's item!!

Posted October 29, 2007 11:16 PM

jose () wrote:

where can I get a video or dvd of this? anyone can tell me? email me

Posted October 28, 2007 12:48 PM

icerise () wrote:


Posted September 30, 2007 10:02 PM

Johnny () wrote:

I was too young when this show was around but I did happen to see it on OMNI 2 when they re-aired them not too long ago. The jokes are a little cheesy but I love this show. Someone should invest in selling Wok t-shirts with his little catch phrases on them.

Posted September 24, 2007 08:50 PM

Tony () wrote:

This is my favourite show ever! OMNI 2 showed an episode or two a few weeks back and has since pulled them. Stop playing with my emotions OMNI, I want to see this weekly.

Also, anyone have any information on Stephen Yan's whereabouts?

Posted September 24, 2007 11:38 AM

g george () wrote:

I have used Wok Before You Run in my high school cooking class for years but the library I borrowed it from has destroyed the copy. Any chance you know
how I can get a copy?

Posted September 17, 2007 08:15 AM

greentreee () wrote:

i remember as a kid, loving this show. With all the afternoon programming
that i don't watch now, it would be a real treat to re-air these shows. There is
nothing like a free cooking lesson, with some good humor.

i would have to say, if there is any old cbc show that should be on the air
again, this is one. Yan, has more humor than the host of the Hour, and all of
its writers could ever have.

thanks for the this little tease.

Posted September 7, 2007 03:35 PM

egfdccmetz () wrote:

Hello! Good Site! Thanks you!

Posted June 13, 2007 02:08 AM

Sean () wrote:

They should really put these on DVD. They were wonderful and gave such a wide and varied view of the joy of food along with how it applied to life. Stephen also broached multiple cultural barriers by showing that Chinese were more than what they were traditionally portrayed as on TV. He was witty, politically incorrect, a fantastic cook and a lover of life. Thanks Stephen and good fortune to you wherever you may be.

Posted June 2, 2007 09:11 AM

Anu () wrote:

I have heard that he is in the United States. I can't believe he blew the chance, during the inflation of the condom bit, to say "make wok, not war."

Posted May 24, 2007 01:54 PM

K C () wrote:

Whatever happened to Stephen Yan?

The rubber plantation documentary was odd.

Posted May 24, 2007 02:20 AM

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