• Wed
  • Sep 3, 2014
  • Updated: 2:16pm

Film immortalises Cecilia Chiang, who gave America real Chinese food

Documentary tells story of woman who brought authentic Chinese cuisine to the United States

PUBLISHED : Wednesday, 26 February, 2014, 8:04pm
UPDATED : Wednesday, 26 February, 2014, 8:57pm

Cecilia Chiang is credited with introducing Americans to the taste of authentic Chinese food, though that wasn't her plan.

Chiang wasn't a chef and hadn't intended to be an American restaurateur. It was a case of an investment falling apart. As the story goes, in the early 1960s she loaned friends some money to open a restaurant in San Francisco, but they backed out at the last minute and in order to save the deal, Chiang decided to do it herself. "Maybe it was my destiny," she said.

This is something really ridiculous, so I thought if I'm going to open a restaurant, I really want to introduce Americans to real Chinese food

In time, that business grew into the city's famed Mandarin restaurant, forever changing Chinese food in America. It's a story few Americans know, but many more soon will. Chiang's life is the subject of a new documentary film, Soul of a Banquet, directed by Wayne Wang, director of The Joy Luck Club.

The film follows Chiang as she prepares a banquet to honour the 40th anniversary of Alice Waters' Chez Panisse restaurant. The film - an unfinished version of which was screened at the South Beach Wine and Food Festival in Florida - weaves in details of Chiang's life in China before she came to the United States, as well as her family's struggles while she was running the Mandarin.

When Chiang, 94, was growing up in China, servants did her family's cooking. She attended college in Beijing, but thought she'd never need to work. When the communists came to power, Chiang's family fled to Japan.

A few years later, around 1960, she visited her sister in the US. She had no plans to stay, but while there made the loan to friends looking to open a restaurant. When the deal fell apart, she couldn't get her money back on the lease, so she went into business on her own.

Meanwhile, she was eating at the restaurants in San Francisco's Chinatown neighbourhood and noticed something strange: they were serving dishes she had never heard of, like chop suey and egg foo young.

"I thought it was really funny. You call this Chinese food?" she said. "This is something really ridiculous, so I thought if I'm going to open a restaurant, I really want to introduce Americans to real Chinese food."

Chiang had never cooked professionally and she spoke Putonghua, not English or Cantonese, the language of most of her San Francisco suppliers.

And then there were the customers. She refused to serve American-style Chinese food, instead creating the menu from her memories of what she ate as a child. For many American diners at the time, her cooking was new and strange.

"It's not easy when I first opened the first year because all the dishes on the menu, people were not very familiar with that," said Chiang. "Hot and sour soup? All these funny names, but then they tasted and after years I educated them to eat my food."

Chiang retired and sold the restaurant in 1991. It closed down about 15 years later. But the legacy continues. Her son, Philip, is a co-founder of the restaurant chain P.F. Chang's. And Chiang still enjoys cooking authentic Chinese food for herself, as well as teaching young chefs.

"I just want to educate America about the Chinese food. And I think I did it," she said.


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I generally avoid Chinese food like the plague in the U.S. Recently I went to an area in Pittsburgh close to many universities with several Chinese restaurants. My friend took me to one of the most popular ones, frequented by lots of Chinese students. It was awful. I ordered Sichuan Dan Dan Noodles(担担麵)and an intriguing vegetable I had never heard of - Baby Bok Choi - described in Chinese as 白菜苗。My first suspicion came when the waitress asked if I wanted wheat or rice noodles. I've had Dan Dan noodles in Hong Kong, Taiwan, and various places in China including Sichuan and it is always wheat noodles, so that was my first sign that faith to the original food was going to be optional. As it turns out the noodles ended up being something closer to Zhajiang
of Hong Kong (炸醬麵)than Dan Dan noodles. The Baby Bok Choi was worse. It was just ordinary Bok Choi (小白菜) and not very well done. Maybe in the U.S. people call the big Bok Choi
大白菜, Bok Choi and don't know what to call the little Bok Choi, I don't know, but the fact that
even in Chinese the product was misrepresented made me feel cheated. Why is it that Chinese immigrant restaurant owners can't offer legitimate Chinese food?
It's not necessarily a great sign even if the restaurant has lots of Chinese customers. What do 20 year-olds know from restaurant food? Even if they do almost all Chinese restaurants are involved in the same scam so there is no choice.
Outside of greater China I recommend Vietnamese or Korean food.


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