Celebrating Lunar New Year With The Woman Who Changed Chinese Food In The U.S.

Jan 28, 2017
Originally published on June 14, 2017 9:45 am
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The 97-year-old woman who helped revolutionize what Americans think Chinese food is celebrates the Lunar New Year in San Francisco. Cecilia Chiang opened her influential restaurant, The Mandarin, in 1961 - a time when most U.S. Chinese restaurants served chop suey. The Mandarin attracted celebrities and food enthusiasts with dishes like tea-smoked duck and twice-cooked pork. Chiang told NPR's Neda Ulaby how she's ringing in the year of the rooster.

NEDA ULABY, BYLINE: First, though, I asked Cecilia Chiang what it's like to be 97 years old.

CECILIA CHIANG: Right now, I'm so busy.

ULABY: It's true. Scheduling our interview was hard because at this lunch or that dinner or plans with friends or great-grandkids. Still, this almost-centurian had 16 people over last night to celebrate her Chinese New Year.

CHIANG: People don't believe me. You're 97. You're going to cook a dinner for that many people. You're crazy. But I enjoy it. I do this for fun.

ULABY: Chiang's is a legend in the food world. Her DNA is all over Chinese food in this country. She taught Julia Child about Chinese cuisine. One of the first chefs she hired started Panda Express. Her son founded the chain P.F. Chang's. Even at age 97, she was excited to cook for her friends.

CHIANG: I just finished the menu. I show you. I have five-sliced beef. I have asparagus with ginkgo nuts.

ULABY: Roast pigeon, fish, red-cooked pork.

CHIANG: All different kind of mushroom in a oyster sauce.

ULABY: But as much as Chiang loves the Lunar New Year, she misses being in countries where everyone is celebrating it.

CHIANG: Here is really no fun.

(SOUNDBITE OF CHEERING)

ULABY: This 97-year-old is showing me on her phone a video from the other side of her world - crowds of people, fireworks shooting out of skyscrapers.

CHIANG: Taipei - New Year's Eve.

ULABY: Last year was the year of the monkey. Chiang says like the animal, it was crazy and chaotic. She thinks this year will be better.

CHIANG: Could not be worse than monkey.

ULABY: This is the year of the rooster, she says, and filled with portent, starting with the sound she remembers as a little girl back in 1920s Beijing.

CHIANG: (Imitating rooster) Wake up. Wake up. I hope this will wake up some people. That would be good, right?

ULABY: Cecilia Chiang then excused herself. She had to see her great-grandkids, advise some chefs she mentors, and she had plans with some old San Francisco friends - members of the band Jefferson Airplane.

(SOUNDBITE OF SONG, "COME UP THE YEARS")

JEFFERSON AIRPLANE: (Singing) I ought to get going. I shouldn't stay here and love you.

ULABY: Neda Ulaby, NPR News.

(SOUNDBITE OF SONG, "COME UP THE YEARS")

JEFFERSON AIRPLANE: (Singing) 'Cause you're so much younger than I am. Come up the years. Come up the years and love me. Love me.

[POST-BROADCAST CORRECTION: In this interview, it’s said that a chef once employed by Cecilia Chang went on to found the Panda Express restaurant chain. In fact, it was a son of that chef who founded the chain.] Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.