Alice Waters said of Cecilia Chiang that she did for Chinese cuisine in America what Julia Child did for French. Each relished her role as ambassador of deliciousness, broadening the collective culinary horizons of America in the '60s. There are other similarities: Both worked for the OSS during World War II, both stumbled into their culinary careers, both did so at a relatively advanced age in an era when for a woman, being a homemaker was far more common than being an entrepreneur (Child was 37 when she started to cook and closer to 40 when she started to teach cooking; Chiang was 36 when she opened her first restaurant). But Child is a revered and well-known figure, whereas Chiang doesn't even show up in Wikipedia results. How is it that a woman this influential (she introduced America to high-end Chinese cuisine and continues to consult on restaurant menus at 87 years old) is so beneath the radar?
Chiang's memoir-cum-cookbook, The Seventh Daughter: My Culinary Journey from Beijing to San Francisco, may change that. Written with Lisa Weiss, the book opens with Chiang's arrival in the U.S., establishes her as a canny, classy businesswoman in jet-set San Francisco and recounts the success and growth of her restaurant, The Mandarin. It then backs up to tell the story of her life, touching on 20th century Chinese history at the same time illustrating how Chiang came to know and appreciate food.
Each chapter begins with a reflective essay that gives an account of her journey, proceeds to give shopping advice and background on main ingredients, and then presents well-crafted recipes for Chinese restaurant classics introduced at The Mandarin as well as some of Chiang's homier favorites.
The recipe introductions are particularly wonderful. They explain the foods Chiang loves as well as give a more impressionistic view of her biography. The result is a cross-section view of her entire experience, from her gracious childhood to her years of struggle to her success in America. An example of this brushstroke approach is the introduction to her Hot-and-Sour Cabbage recipe:
If you come to my house tomorrow and look in my refrigerator you'll be sure to find this Hot-and-Sour Cabbage. My mother made a version that was more sour than hot to help us get through the cold Beijing winters. Later on, during the Japanese occupation, cabbage, both dried and pickled as in this recipe, helped keep us fed. Then, when I lived in Sichuan, I discovered preserved cabbage that was similar to what my mother made, but bathed in chili oil. At the Mandarin we used to serve Hot-and-Sour Cabbage as a small dish or starter. It pairs nicely with Champagne.
The ring-a-ding-ding end note to this recipe introductionfor cabbagecracked me up, but after making it at home, I understood why this cabbage was a constant in her life. It is simple, keeps for a long time, and is a healthy snack option. And for the sake of research, I tried it: It does pair nicely with Champagne! Another recipe I made with tasty results was Clams in Black Bean Sauce.
From Chinese New Year buffets to wartime rations to Champagne, The Seventh Daughter is a good resource for familiarly exotic tastes as well as a charming read about a woman whose influence on American restaurant culture has yet to be fully appreciated.