Buwei Yang Chao and the Invention of ‘Stir-Frying’

Ingredients for Stir-Fry Chicken and Mushrooms

Also check out the accompanying recipe post for Stir-Fried Chicken with Mushrooms!

In 1945, the John Day Company released the first edition of Buwei Yang Chao’s How to Cook and Eat in Chinese. Known by few today, it was a landmark publication – the first of it’s kind to offer authentic recipes of Chinese cuisine to English-speaking American audiences.

The preface, written by noted American novelist and essayist Pearl Buck, lavishes accolades on Chao’s accomplishment in publishing the cookbook, proclaiming her wish to nominate Chao for a the Nobel Peace Prize, “for what better road to universal peace is there than to gather around the table where new and delicious dishes are set forth, dishes which, though yet untasted by us, we are destined to enjoy and love?” Indeed, when asked to read the proofs of the book, Buck reportedly stopped reading half-way – so overcome with the urge to try out the recipes that she made a rush to the kitchen to cook up a feast.

How to Cook and Eat in Chinese, CoverBuwei Yang was born in the Jiangsu province in eastern China in 1889. At a young age, she was sent to Tokyo to study to become a medical doctor. Prior to this, she never had any interest in cooking – and only came to it, she claimed, after finding Japanese cuisine “uneatable.” After graduating, she returned to China where she was a well-respected physician in her community. It was there that Buwei met the noted linguist Yuen Ren Chao, and the two were married in 1921. The couple moved to Cambridge, Massachusetts in 1938, where Yuen Ren offered his skills in translating and language instruction for the military.

Buwei often followed her husband on his research interviews conducted both in China and among the Chinese expatriate community in the United States. While he was asking people about pronunciation and phonetics, she was asking how dishes were prepared and with what methods and ingredients. And so, without really ever intending to publish a cookbook, she had amassed an incredible repertoire of Chinese cuisine.

After being urged to compile her knowledge into a book by her friends, Buwei began the arduous process of formally documenting her knowledge. Putting her medical research and practice on hold for a period, and with a limited grasp on the English language, she would methodically test each recipe and write it out in Chinese. Then, her husband and her daughter Rulan would take turns editing and translating into English. Describing the making of the book, Buwei wrote “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. Thus, when I call a dish ‘Mushrooms Stir Shrimps,’ Rulan says that that’s not English and that it ought to be ‘Shrimps Fried with Mushrooms.’ But Yuen Ren argues that if Mr. Smith can Go to Town in a movie, why can’t Mushrooms Stir Shrimps in a dish?”

How to Hold ChopsticksApparently, the family argued so much about the phrasing of certain recipes and techniques that the frequent quarrels nearly caused permanent rifts between mother and daughter. “I don’t know how many scoldings and answerings-back and quarrels Rulan and I went through,” Buwei recalled, “and if kind friends… had not come to our rescue to get the book done in a last midnight rush, the strained relations between mother and daughter would certainly have been broken.”

It is then that, hopefully with a hint of sarcasm, Buwei writes “all the credit for the good points of the book is mine and all the blame for the bad points is Rulan’s.” Then she turns to her husband for whom she “must blame for all the negative contributions he has made toward the making of the book,” particularly for retranslating Rulan’s English into something which he thought Americans would like better.

Of the hundreds of recipes in the book, only one is attributed directly to Yuen Ren Chao in its entirety – Stirred Eggs. In fact, the few people in the world who are at all familiar with this cookbook today, are unfortunately familiar with it because of this one particular recipe, which – because of his verbose methodical, precision – is taught in some schools as an example of comic timing.

Here it is, including Buwei’s disclaimer:

13.1. Stirred Eggs

Stirred eggs may be said to be the most everyday dish made by applying the most everyday method to the most everyday material. Learning to stir-fry eggs is the ABC of cooking. As this is the only dish my husband cooks well, and he says that he either cooks a thing well or not at all, I shall let him tell how it is done:

6 average-sized fresh eggs (for this is the maximum number of eggs I have cooked at one time)
3 grammes of cooking salt (or, as an alternative, 4 grammes of table salt)
50 c.c. fresh lard, which will approximately equal the content of 4 level tablespoons
1 plant of Chinese ts’ung (substitute with scallion if ts’ung is unobtainable) about 30 cm. long by 7 mm. in average diameter. (This ingredient is optional.)

Either shell or unshell the eggs by knocking one against another in any order. * (Footnote: Since, when two eggs collide, only one of them will break, it will be necessary to use a seventh egg with which to break the sixth. If, as it may very well happen, the seventh egg breaks first instead of the sixth, an expedient will be simply to use the seventh one and put away the sixth. An alternate procedure is to delay your numbering system and define that egg as the sixth egg which breaks after the fifth egg.) Be sure to have a bowl below to catch the contents. With a pair of chopsticks, strike the same with a quick, vigorous motion known as ‘beating the eggs.’ This motion should, however, be made repeatedly and not just once. Automatic machines, aptly named ‘egg-beaters,’ have been invented for this purpose.

Make cross sections of the ts’ung at intervals of about 7.5mm, making 40 sections all together. Throw in the ts’ung and the measured amount of salt during the final phase of the ‘beating.’

Heat the lard in a large flat-bottomed pan over a brisk fire until it (the lard) begins to give off a faint trace of smoke. Pour the contents of the bowl into the oil at once.

The next phase of the operation is the most critical for the successful stir-frying of eggs. When the bottom part of the mixture becomes a puffed-up soft mass on contact with the heat, the upper part will remain quite liquid. Preferably using a thin flat piece of metal attached to a handle, the operator should push the mixture to one side so as to allow the uncooked liquid portion to flow onto the hot fat on the now exposed portion of the bottom. (Sometimes this may be facilitated by slightly tipping the pan.) Quickly repeat this until about 90 per cent of the liquid has come in contact with the hot fat and becomes puffed. Then, still using the flat piece of metal, make the entire content of the pan revolve through 180 degrees about a horizontal axis. This delicate operation is known as ‘turning it over,’ which in the hands of a beginner may easily become a flop. It can be done neatly and without waste only after repeated practice with different sets of eggs.

If the turning over has been successfully carried out, wait for 5 seconds, which is about the time it takes to count from 1 to 12, then transfer the contents to the bowl or a platter, when the dish is said to be done.

To test whether the cooking has been done properly, observe the person served. If he utters a voiced bilabial nasal consonant with a slow falling intonation, it is good. If he utters the syllable yum in reduplicated form, it is very good.

In the years after, the book would undergo numerous revisions and republications, often revising the translation into Rulan’s more ‘proper’ English vernacular. I’m grateful that my local library had a first edition of the book in its collection, as the original captures the struggle to translate complex techniques and terms from Chinese to English. In fact, at the time, many terms were untranslatable and Buwei turned to her husband’s linguistic skills to invent knew words in English to describe a Chinese equivalent.

And so, it is from the Chao’s and this cookbook that we get terms like ‘stir-fry’ (which was only used as a verb in the book, rather than a noun or adjective as it is today) and ‘pot sticker.’ In addition to these canonical contributions to the English language, the book instructed the typical American cook on the fine points of preparing Chinese cuisine. And so it can be said that what Julia Child did for French cooking in the United States, Buwei Yang Chao did for Chinese cooking.

In honor of the publication and with hopes more will discover the work, I try out her recipe for ‘Mushrooms Stir Chicken Slices’ or, as Rulan would have had it, Stir-Fried Chicken with Mushrooms.