Wednesday, 18. January 2012 5:25
She has been called the Chinese Julia Child.
As Child is credited with introducing authentic French cuisine to Americans, Cecilia Chiang has done the same for Chinese food in this country.
At a time when Chinese restaurants were all run by men and serving gloppy chop suey, egg foo young and other so-called Cantonese specialties, Chiang — who had never owned a business before — dared to open the elegant Mandarin restaurant in San Francisco in 1961 to cook up the real flavors of her native Shanghai. Ethereal dumplings, spicy Sichuan shrimp, kung pao chicken, tea-smoked duck and minced squab in lettuce cups were novelties in the Bay Area then, but soon after became staples at Chinese restaurants trying to capitalize on Chiang’s runaway success.
The Mandarin closed in 2006, but not before becoming a culinary legend beloved by locals and such glitterati as Child, Alice Waters, Jeremiah Tower, John Lennon and Jackie Onassis.
At 92, Chiang still cuts an elegant figure with remarkable energy. She still travels to China annually with friends like Waters; remains a mentor to young Asian-American chefs such as Corey Lee at San Francisco’s Benu; dines at Betelnut in San Francisco regularly, wheres she was the opening consulting chef; cooks dinner parties at her penthouse abode in San Francisco; and only stopped driving a year and a half ago, when she got a speeding ticket and her license was taken away.
When I marveled at her stamina, she replied with a smile, “I never get tired. And I am interested in so many things. I love to cook, garden, and see movies. Just keep yourself busy — that’s the secret. I never take naps. I eat three meals a day, and I always eat well.”
If food is truly the fountain of youth, then you could hardly do better than to whip up a couple dishes from her classic, “The Seventh Daughter” (Ten Speed Press), a cookbook memoir she wrote in 2007. There’s no better time, too, what with Sunday marking the first day of the Lunar New Year.
The slightly spicy “Eggplant in Garlic Sauce” is perfect for what promises to be a fiery “Year of the Dragon.”