The cookbook that brought Chinese cuisine to American kitchens

What are you cooking for dinner tonight? If the answer is stir-fry or steamed stickers, you can thank Chao Yang Buwei and her husband, Chao Yuen Ren, who coined these names for Chinese-American dishes. Charles W. Hayford explains how the 1945 Chaos Cookbook, How to cook and eat in Chinese, introduced Chinese cuisine to white American cooks.

Chinese food had a limited place in American culinary habits long before the Chaos. In the 1890s, writes Hayford, a “chop suey craze” drove white Americans to Chinese restaurants. Restaurants serving white customers in urban Chinatowns have developed a selection of southern Chinese dishes, including sweet and sour pork, chow mien, foo young eggs, and egg rolls. Meanwhile, “American chop suey” was popular enough that the US War Department included it in its 1916 Manual for army cooks.

Chao Yang Buwei’s book was originally published in 1945 by the John Day Company.

But even the small selection of dishes prepared for the American palate hasn’t been incorporated into many white family kitchens for decades. After World War I, American housewives spread to new urban territory learning to cook Italian dishes (often with tone down on the robust flavors). But even the internationally-themed American cookbooks barely touched East Asian cuisine. In his popular book of 1935, Recipes from all nations, Countess Morcelle Morphy has explicitly stated that the cuisines of India, China and Japan are “too far apart to be fully comprehensible” for American cooks.

Chaos thought otherwise. Chao Yan Buwei was one of China’s first female doctors, while Yuen Ren had spent a decade studying in the United States before meeting. Hayford places the couple in the movement of the new culture of 1916-1923, which envisioned a new Chinese society open to the world.

“These cosmopolitans were comfortable in Western clothes, read Ibsen and Nietzche, and aspired to bring China into the Wilsonian league of democracies,” he wrote.

John Day, the house that published How to cook and eat in Chinese, also embraced international cultural exchanges. Led by Pearl S. Buck’s husband Richard Walsh, it had published The good land in 1931, followed by a variety of books on Asia, by Asian authors. In a preface to the cookbook, Buck asked “what better way to universal peace than to gather around a table where new and delicious dishes are offered …”

After Pearl Harbor, the Americans found themselves allies with China, and many were eager to get to know the country better. The cookbook provided an accessible introduction. It included home cooking recipes from various parts of China, but avoided a lot of explanation of regional cuisines, instead conjuring up the idea of ​​a unified “Chinese food” that did not exist in China. Yuen Ren, who had previously translated Alice in Wonderland in Chinese, provided clever, sometimes wacky, explanations for the recipes. Some of its neologisms, like stir-fries and pot stickers, are still relevant today. Others – the “ramblings” for the won-tons, or the “leaky ladle” for the skimmers – have not caught on.

Always, How to cook and eat in Chinese has been instrumental in uplifting Chinese cuisine and culture in the eyes of an increasingly cosmopolitan American population.


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By: Charles W. HAYFORD

Journal of Oriental Studies, vol. 45, n ° 1/2 (2012), pp. 67-87

The School of Chinese, The University of Hong Kong and Center for Chinese Language and Cultural Studies, Stanford University

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