Even the biggest fans of Chinese food may not be familiar with Buwei Yang Chao, but you have her to thank (in part) for helping popularize Chinese food in America—and for coining the terms stir fry and potsticker. Since May is Asian and Pacific Islander American Heritage Month, there’s no time like the present to learn more about her legacy.
A Changing Culinary & Cultural Landscape
The 1940s were both an innovative and tumultuous time for cuisine in America. The country was in the middle of World War II, meaning food was rationed, but at the same time, Americans’ relationship with dining started to evolve. In 1941, Gourmet magazine launched, bringing sophisticated tastes into homes across the nation. Just two years prior, the 1939 New York World’s Fair showcased cuisine from all over the world, which prompted many more Americans to start experimenting with international cookery in their own kitchens.
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There were some Chinese cookbooks available in the U.S. before this period—the first English-language Chinese cookbook, authored by Jessie Louise Nolton, dates back to 1911, and a few others followed—but it must be noted that there was also a great deal of anti-Chinese sentiment in America at this time, including official Chinese Exclusion Acts. These were quickly repealed when China became an ally of the U.S. after the Pearl Harbor attack in 1941, and the general public was primed to be more accepting of Chinese culture and cuisine.
It was in this less hostile and more culinarily curious climate that Buwei Yang Chao changed the game with her first book, “How to Cook and Eat in Chinese.” Much more comprehensive than the English-language Chinese cookbooks that came before, and accessible to a wider American audience, it contributed to the spread in popularity of Chinese-American food across the country—and brought new terms and techniques to many kitchens.
A Journey That Began in Japan & Evolved in America
Born in Nanjing, China in 1889, Buwei originally had her sights set on medicine. She traveled to Japan to study at the Tokyo Women’s Medical College, which is where her cooking adventures began. Buwei wasn’t a fan of Japanese cuisine, so she started cooking her own meals while in Tokyo. Since Japan didn’t have all the ingredients she needed to make the traditional dishes she was used to, Buwei modified the recipes based on which elements were available to her, and focused on perfecting her native Chinese cuisine.
She finished her studies and returned to China in 1919, where she became a physician and opened the Sen Ren Hospital, which specialized in gynecology. A year later, she met her future husband, Yuen Ren Chao. Shortly after they married, Yuen Ren was offered an opportunity to teach at Harvard.
The two split their time between China and the United States for a few years before settling down in California. A linguist, Yuen Ren would interview Chinese Americans on phonetics and pronunciation and Buwei would accompany him to the interviews so she could ask the subjects how they prepared Chinese cuisine in America. She tested out the new tips and techniques and started incorporating them into her own cooking.
Writing the Book on “How to Cook and Eat in Chinese”
During World War II, Yuen Ren was chosen to do language training for the United States Army. Buwei found an outlet for her new cooking techniques and started preparing meals for the fellow instructors and American soldiers. She put together around 200 recipes that could be recreated for an American kitchen.
Buwei spent so much time on her recipes that a friend encouraged her to write a book. It became a family project, with Buwei providing the dishes and her daughter and husband working with her on the translations.
In 1945, the John Day Company published Buwei’s “How to Cook and Eat in Chinese,” which revolutionized the way we enjoy Chinese food in America. The book received revised and expanded editions in 1949 and 1956, with the final edition being released in 1968.
How to Cook and Eat in Chinese, price varies on Amazon
You can find used copies of various versions online, like this 1972 re-printing.
A side project, Buwei admitted she was “ashamed” to write the book because she should have been focusing on her medical studies.
She acknowledged the help from her husband and daughter at the beginning of the book, where she plainly states “I didn’t write the book.”
She goes on:
“The way I did it was like this. You know I speak little English and write less. So I cooked my dishes in Chinese, my daughter Rulan put my Chinese into English, and my husband finding the English dull, put much of it back into Chinese again.”
The recipes were built around what was available in American kitchens and stores at the time, but Buwei’s legacy revolves around two dishes Americans now know well by the names she and her family coined for them: stir-fry and pot stickers. Called “ch’ao,” and “guotie” respectively, there were no American equivalents to these Chinese terms at the time, making Buwei at least partly responsible for introducing them and cementing the terms in American public consciousness.
Buwei Yang Chao’s Legacy
Two years after “How to Cook and Eat in Chinese” was published, Buwei was featured in the New York Times. Her book performed so well in the United States that she wrote two more tomes: “How to Order and Eat in Chinese to Get the Best Meal in a Chinese Restaurant” and her autobiography, “An Autobiography of a Chinese Woman: Put Into English By Her Husband Yuenren Chao.”
Her contributions to Chinese-American cuisine opened up new culinary experiences to chefs and diners all across America, yet today she is largely forgotten.
So the next time you enjoy stir-fry or pot stickers (homemade or otherwise), think of Buwei Yang Chao and give thanks for her part in bringing those delicious dishes to American diners.
Header image courtesy of Emma Duckworth / RooM / Getty Images