It was May [1945asoneofAmerica’smostubiquitoushome-cookingtechniquestothefirstMalindasEnglishlexiconmadeitintoyourcookbook[1945alseinederallgegenwärtigstenHausmannstechnikenAmerikaszumerstenMalindasenglischeLexikongelangteInihremKochbuchHow to cook and eat in Chinese, the 55-year-old Chinese immigrant Chao Yang Buwei described a common practice in her home country, in which chefs cut meat and vegetables into small pieces and quickly drum them together over the heat. The Mandarin term for technology, ch’ao“With its claim, its low pitched tone and everything, it cannot be translated exactly into English,” complained Chao. In short, she decided, “We’re going to call it stir-fry.”
The term soon made its way into American vernacular and has since developed a life of its own. Nowadays frying is not just a method – “stir-fry” has become a category of its own. But most home cooks have never heard of Chao, even though the way Americans talk about food made a lasting impression.
Chao came to a boil unexpectedly. A doctor by profession, she gave up her medical career to move to the United States in 1921 after her husband, famous linguist Chao Yuenren, was offered a position at Harvard. Bored at home and spoke little English, she turned to cooking dishes that reminded her of China: fluffy rice cooked as soft as in Zhangzhou; Soups with mushrooms and pork seasoned with soy sauce.
She eventually gave in when a friend begged her to write a cookbook. Chao’s eldest daughter helped her translate recipes from Chinese into English before her husband, who found the prose inactive, put his own gloss on the language, often adding phrases that even Chao found clumsy. This stylistic conflict resulted in a cookbook that Chao was “ashamed to have written,” as she explained in a note from an author.
The cookbook was successful despite its linguistic kinks and the tense family dynamics and was printed several times by the end of 1945, although the critics largely overlooked the anger in chaos words. English-language Chinese cookbooks were published in the United States as early as 1911, but Chao’s was the first to refuse to westernize Chinese cuisine. “I’ll show you how to cook crab dishes with real crabs,” Chao told readers in a passage where she forbade them to use sea crabs instead of the freshwater variety. Using the former, she argued, would lead to “caricature of the Chinese court”. During the Chao era, it might have been easier for immigrants in the culinary arena to please the American palate with substitutes. But she didn’t move.
The cookbook’s advertising campaign defended it as a document of hope. It came into being just two years after the United States repealed parts of the Chinese Exclusion Law of 1882, an ugly law that restricted Chinese immigration. Chao may have appeared to be an ideal cultural ambassador to those promoting her cookbook. In the 2015 book by historian Madeline Y. Hsu The good immigrants: How the yellow threat became a model minorityShe posits that Chao and her husband looked like “American model citizens”.
In truth, however, career chaos is teeming with tension. She opened America’s eyes to Chinese techniques, although she refused to flatter herself for them; She gave American English speakers a new word for a culinary method even though she wasn’t sure how to communicate in English. “The reason I’m Chinese through and through is because I only speak the Chinese language,” she wrote in her 1947 memoir: Autobiography of a Chinese Woman. “I’ve tried speaking Japanese, English, and German, but every language I speak is spiritually Chinese.” Chao understood that assimilation wasn’t the only route for immigrant chefs in America long before such a notion became popular . She may have given America a familiar phrase, but she knew that some aspects of immigrant experiences could not be translated.
Chao was ahead of her time in many ways. She carried her Chinese heritage with pride and avoided the impulse to compromise it. Chaos contribution to American food culture should have been enough to get it in the headlines, but the New York Times did not even honor her with an obituary for her death in 1981, and her name soon fell through the cracks of pop culture. How many other culinary pioneers like Chao, immigrants who did not silence their differences to gain broad approval, are waiting to be rediscovered?
This article was adapted by Flavor Maker: Seven Immigrant Women Who Revolutionized Food in America.