Mother of Chinese Cuisine in America Cecilia Chiang Passes Away at 100

Cecilia Chiang, the culinary legend who brought authentic Chinese food to the U.S., has passed away at age 100. 

End of an era: Chiang died of natural causes at her home in San Francisco on Wednesday morning, as confirmed by her granddaughter Siena Chiang, the New York Times reported. 

  • In the early ’60s, she opened her renowned San Francisco restaurant, the Mandarin, where Chinese dishes such as potstickers, hot rice soup, and Chongqing-style spicy dry-shredded beef, and many others, were served to American diners for the first time.
  • Chiang’s efforts in introducing a variety of new authentic Chinese food to American taste buds have made her among the most influential figures in Bay Area food culture, according to SF Chronicle
  • Born from an affluent family in Shanghai and raised in a Ming-era palace in Beijing, Chiang brought with her the dishes she was accustomed to growing up.
  • The dining style of the affluent society in Beijing is called “Mandarin cooking” and includes local dishes and regional cuisines from Sichuan, Shanghai and Canton.
  • “They think chop suey is the only thing we have in China,” she was quoted by NPR as saying. “What a shame.”

 

Chiang’s journey: Her life’s work, which became an important part of the history of Chinese culture in San Francisco, has been documented in her book “The Seventh Daughter: My Culinary Journey from Beijing to San Francisco” and featured in filmmaker Wayne Wang’s documentary “Soul of a Banquet.”

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  • Before Chiang’s arrival in the U.S., she fled her home twice due to war and political turmoil.
  • In 1937, she and her older sister fled Shanghai to escape the Japanese during World War II and a decade later, Chiang and her family moved to Tokyo during the Chinese Communist Revolution.
  • When she ended up in the U.S. in 1959, she was surprised to learn that most Americans considered chop suey to be the epitome of Chinese cuisine.
  • Chiang was able to change that a couple of years later with the opening of the Mandarin on Polk Street before moving on to Ghirardelli Square, near Fisherman’s Wharf.
  • Through the years, Chiang became highly revered in the food community and was known as the matriarch of Chinese cuisine in America.

 

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There are people that come into your lives that leave a permanent mark. Those whose presence impact and influence you in quiet yet forceful ways. Cecilia Chiang was one of those people. Ever so elegant, she was mighty. In her later years, she took her place as a mentor and confidant to many and certainly one to me. She was never shy with her opinions, whether it be with feedback from a dining experience at one of our restaurants or about the culinary climate. As Chef Corey Lee introduced Asian influences to The French Laundry, she offered prescient guidance and advice (and continued when he went on to open Benu).  A favorite memory was when at age 96, she taught me how to make her minced squab in lettuce cups. “I always remember waking up to the sound of chopping,” she told us in the test kitchen of The French Laundry where she also recounted her childhood in China. She wielded a large cleaver while explaining the importance of soaking the lettuce in ice water to fully crisp the leaves. And then, chopped each ingredient with exquisite precision so that you can appreciate each distinct flavor and its unique contribution to the dish. Cecilia changed the way we thought about and enjoyed Asian cuisine. She loved to hold hands – hers, delicate and warm. I’m holding her hand today in this spirit. She will be missed by all of us. RIP dearest Cecilia.

A post shared by Chef Thomas Keller (@chefthomaskeller) on

 

Featured Image Screenshots via James Beard Foundation

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