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  • Writer's pictureTina Brand

Cecilia Chiang: America's authentic Chinese food pioneer dies.

I had news today from a beloved friend that her ex mother-in-law had passed away. Annie had presented me with Cecilia's book The Seventh Daughter many years ago, and when my family met up in SanFrancisco while on a trip, we ate at places her foodie granddaughter Siena recommended. I never met the formidable Ms. Chiang, but have loved the stories of her amazing journey her family shared. Here is an excerpt from the New York Times today:

Cecilia Chiang, Who Brought Authentic Chinese Food to America, Dies at 100

With her famed Mandarin restaurant in San Francisco, she enticed diners with the dishes she grew up with, leaving the American chop suey and chow mein era far behind.

Cecilia Chiang at her home in San Francisco in 2019. As a daughter of wealth, she fled the Japanese during World War II, traveling nearly 700 miles on foot, before arriving in San Francisco. Credit...Erin Lubin for The New York Times

By William Grimes, New York Times

Cecilia Chiang, whose San Francisco restaurant, the Mandarin, introduced American diners in the 1960s to the richness and variety of authentic Chinese cuisine, died on Wednesday at her home in San Francisco. She was 100. Her granddaughter Siena Chiang confirmed the death. Ms. Chiang came to the United States from China as a daughter of wealth who had fled the Japanese during World War II, traveling nearly 700 miles on foot. Once in San Francisco, she proceeded, largely by happenstance and almost single-handedly, to bring Chinese cuisine from the chop suey and chow mein era into the more refined one of today, enticing diners with the dishes she ate growing up in her family’s converted Ming-era palace in Beijing. The Mandarin, which opened in 1962 as a 65-seat restaurant on Polk Street in the Russian Hill section and later operated on Ghirardelli Square, near Fisherman’s Wharf, offered patrons unheard-of specialties at the time, like potstickers, Chongqing-style spicy dry-shredded beef, peppery Sichuan eggplant, moo shu pork, sizzling rice soup and glacéed bananas.

This was traditional Mandarin cooking, a catchall term for the dining style of the well-to-do in Beijing, where family chefs prepared local dishes as well as regional specialties from Sichuan, Shanghai and Canton.

The restaurant became a shrine for such food-world luminaries as James Beard, Marion Cunningham and Alice Waters, who said that Ms. Chiang had done for Chinese cuisine what Julia Child had done for the cooking of France.

That sentiment was echoed by the food magazine Saveur in 2000, when it wrote that the Mandarin had “accomplished nothing less than introducing regional Chinese cooking to America.”

The food scholar Paul Freedman included the Mandarin in his historical survey ' Ten Restaurants That Changed America' .(2015)

In a profile of Ms. Chiang in 2007, The San Francisco Chronicle wrote that her restaurant “defined upscale Chinese dining, introducing customers to Sichuan dishes like kung pao chicken and twice-cooked pork, and to refined preparations like minced squab in lettuce cups; tea-smoked duck; and beggar’s chicken, a whole bird stuffed with dried mushrooms, water chestnuts and ham and baked in clay.”


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