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Cecilia Chiang's Epic Journey
Type: 
Press Coverage

Cecilia Chiang answers the door of her Belvedere home in a traditional, plum-colored silk tunic and pants. Her lips glisten in matching plum, while diamonds shimmer at her ears, on her hand and from a brooch at her neck. She wears her inky black hair in a chin-length bob now, not the swept-back, lacquered pompadour she favored when she was running the Mandarin, her now-shuttered restaurant in Ghirardelli Square.

She looks at least a decade younger than the calendar says she is - 88 - and every inch the elegant Madame Chiang who, for 30 years, welcomed guests nightly to the most sophisticated Chinese restaurant in San Francisco.

In a new memoir-cookbook, "The Seventh Daughter," (Ten Speed Press, 256 pages, $35), written with Lisa Weiss, Chiang recounts a life filled with enough trauma, tragedy and triumph for a Ken Burns epic.

Born into a wealthy family near Shanghai and raised in a Beijing mansion, Chiang faced down bayonet-wielding Japanese soldiers during the occupation of China and barely made it out of Shanghai before the city fell to the Communists in 1949. This petite woman, who hosted the cream of San Francisco society at her restaurant and hobnobbed with stars, long ago knew hunger herself.

But if Bay Area diners know little of Chiang's turbulent personal story, they have probably experienced her culinary impact. Anyone who has savored a platter of pot stickers or a hissing tureen of sizzling rice soup has Chiang to thank for introducing these Northern Chinese dishes - and many others - to a city familiar only with faux Cantonese.
The Mandarin restaurant during her reign - from 1961 to 1991, - convinced San Franciscans and the many tourists who dined there that real Chinese food had little in common with the egg foo yung served on Grant Avenue.

Chiang sold the restaurant in 1991 and in the years that followed, it lost some of its luster. It closed for good in 2006.

Arriving in San Francisco in 1960 to visit her recently widowed sister, Chiang had no intention of staying in America. She had left a husband and two young children in Tokyo.
Walking through Chinatown one day, Chiang ran into two women she knew from Tokyo, who told her they were planning to open a restaurant on Polk Street. Chiang agreed to help them negotiate the lease because she spoke better English.

"The landlord was an old Italian with a heavy accent, but we managed to understand each other," recalls Chiang. He told her that he had other offers, and that her friends needed to secure the lease with a deposit. Chiang wrote out a $10,000 check on the spot.

Chiang's friends got cold feet, and the landlord refused to return the check. In Chiang's mind, she had only two options: to return to Tokyo and confess her foolishness, or to tough it out and open the restaurant.

So she spruced up the place, had the front door painted red for good luck, and hired a married couple from Northern China to run the kitchen. They knew how to make the pot stickers, hot-and-sour soup and other Northern specialties she craved and couldn't find in San Francisco. From her privileged upbringing, Chiang had "a large Chinese culinary vocabulary," says Weiss. The opening menu listed 200 dishes because she wasn't sure what Americans would like.

The first six months "were no fun at all," recalls Chiang. "Every day, only 10 or 15 people." The kitchen was throwing out cases of food, and she was rapidly running through her funds.
"I had a hard time at first because I was a woman and non-Cantonese," says Chiang. As a Mandarin speaker, she couldn't communicate with the merchants in Chinatown. They wouldn't accept her checks or extend her credit, and they refused to deliver her orders.

In Chinatown's bustling markets, she couldn't find Asian eggplant, preserved vegetables, dried wood-ear mushrooms, chiles, sesame oil - ingredients essential to northern-style cooking but little used in the Cantonese kitchen. She bought Mexican chiles and made her own chile oil and found the right eggplant in Japantown.

Despite these difficulties, the restaurant slowly built a following. Journalist C.Y. Lee, who had skyrocketed to fame with the success of his 1957 novel, "Flower Drum Song," brought in many friends. And on one auspicious day, frequent patron Vic Bergeron of Trader Vic's came in with Chronicle columnist Herb Caen. Within days, Caen was writing about the Polk Street hole-in-the-wall with the red door, and the phone began ringing.

Returning to Tokyo was no longer an option, or even desirable. Chiang split amicably with her husband, whom she never divorced, and the two children, by then teenagers, were sent to San Francisco to live with her. She bought a home in St. Francis Wood, becoming the first non-Caucasian in that affluent enclave, admitted only after the homeowners' association learned of her upper-class background.

By 1968, the business had outgrown its small Polk Street venue and Chiang was eyeing a 300-seat spot in Ghirardelli Square - a move that would require a million-dollar investment. But the other Ghirardelli tenants opposed leasing to her. Wasn't a Chinese restaurant sure to be filthy? Chiang told the leasing agent to drop by her Polk Street establishment anytime and inspect her kitchen.

On June 23, 1968, the new Mandarin opened in Ghirardelli Square with a black-tie benefit for the San Francisco Opera Guild and Chiang in a custom-made emerald-green cheongsam. For the next 23 years, the Mandarin 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.

"I was fascinated with that beggar's chicken," says Chuck Williams of Williams-Sonoma, who introduced James Beard to the restaurant. Beard became a friend and fan of Chiang's, and she would woo him with the offbeat dishes he loved - pig's feet, pork kidneys, and a curious pairing of chicken gizzards and pork stomach known as "Two Crispiness."

The Mandarin "was so glamorous for a Chinese restaurant," recalls Jerry di Vecchio, then the food editor at Sunset magazine. "Everyone was used to the old Grant Avenue stuff, but this was sophisticated."

In a restaurant world dominated by men, Chiang made an impression. George Chen, now a partner in Betelenut and Shanghai 1930 in San Francisco, was a waiter at the Mandarin in the late 1970s. "She knew everyone by name," says Chen. "She would make the rounds of the dining room in her beautiful gowns and jewelry and would flash her big diamonds. You always wanted her to visit your tables, because you knew the check average was going up."

In 1972, the San Francisco Culinary Workers' Union began targeting the Mandarin - an ironic choice, says Weiss, because Chiang compensated her employees well. Chiang battled the union for seven years, eventually winning a libel suit against the union for calling the Mandarin a sweatshop. "They didn't realize I'm very stubborn," says Chiang.

In the early 1970s, a novice restaurateur named Alice Waters attended several cooking classes that Chiang and her chefs taught in the Mandarin kitchen. "Marion (Cunningham) had told me all about her, so I was prepared to be impressed," says Waters, "but I was amazed by that look into Chinese cooking. It was the beginning of many trips to the Mandarin." Chiang and Waters became close friends, eventually traveling together in China and sharing Thanksgivings.

When Chiang goes to the famous Berkeley restaurateur's house for dinner, Waters can't restrain her guest from doing the dishes.

For the first 20 years of her life, Chiang hardly knew where her home's kitchen was, much less how to clean it. Surrounded by cooks and nannies, she grew up in a 52-room former palace, one of 12 children born to prosperous and well-educated parents.

Her progressive father refused to allow his daughters' feet to be bound, having witnessed the pain the procedure inflicted on his wife, who could barely walk.

By 1939, when Chiang was 20, the family's circumstances began to deteriorate rapidly. The Japanese had taken over Shanghai and were ransacking the homes of the wealthy, taking all the valuables and food. By 1942, Chiang had decided that she and her Number Five sister, Teresa, should leave for Chongqing, in Free China, where they had a relative.

Thus in January 1942, these two young women, who had hardly ventured beyond their front gate, set off for Chongqing, 1,000 miles away. They wore fur-lined cheongsams with gold coins stitched into them and hauled their belongings in two large suitcases. They walked for most of the next six months, relieved of their luggage early on by Japanese soldiers with bayonets. They depended on the gold coins and the kindness of strangers for food and shelter.

Eventually, and amazingly, the sisters made it to the safety of their relative's home. Within a month, Chiang had met the successful businessman who would become her husband. They settled in Shanghai at war's end and had begun to build a comfortable life there when the Communists came to power, forcing the family's escape to Japan.

Although Chiang wrote a previous memoir, "The Mandarin Way," in 1974, she had omitted material about life under the Communists because she still had family in China. She can write and speak more freely now, and she does.

Her cultured parents lived in squalor at the end of their lives, Chiang writes. One brother died in a labor camp; her Number Three sister, unable to cope with the changes, committed suicide. "They humiliated you," says Chiang of the Mao-era Communists, "and that's something you cannot take."

Retired since 1991, Chiang has hardly slowed her pace. At Chen's invitation, she consulted on the menus for Betelnut and Shanghai 1930. She raises funds for her favorite cause, the Chinese American International School in San Francisco, where students of all backgrounds study her beloved Mandarin language. She still entertains at home, doing most of the cooking, "and it's always wonderful, elaborate, hard-worked food," says cooking teacher Mary Risley. And she travels widely, often in the company of Sacramento food and wine merchant Darrell Corti.

When at home, Chiang dines out frequently, preferring restaurants such as Quince, Scott Howard, Coco500 and Delfina. As for the Bay Area's Chinese restaurants, she is dismissive. "They never change anything," complains Chiang. If they're profitable, the owners feel no compulsion to improve, she says. "I think they're getting worse, not better. It makes me sick inside."

If Bay Area diners are now among the most knowledgeable Chinese food enthusiasts in the country - familiar with Sichuan, Hunan, Cantonese, Shanghainese and other regional cooking styles - Chiang surely deserves some of the credit.

"I think I changed what average people know about Chinese food," she says, when asked about her legacy. "They didn't know China was such a big country."

Hot & Sour Cabbage (Suan La Bai Cai)

Makes 4 cups

Adapted from Cecilia Chiang's "The Seventh Daughter" (Ten Speed Press, 256 pages, $35), written with Lisa Weiss. At the Mandarin restaurant, this marinated cabbage dish was served as a small dish or starter. It pairs nicely with Champagne.

• 1 large head napa cabbage, about 2 pounds
• 2 tablespoons kosher salt
• 1/2 cup white vinegar
• 1/2 cup sugar
• 1/3 cup peanut or vegetable oil
• 12 to 15 dried red chile peppers
• 1/4 cup Chinese chili oil

Instructions: Quarter the cabbage lengthwise and remove the core. Cut crosswise into shreds a little wider than 1/4 inch. Put the cabbage in a large colander and sprinkle with 1 tablespoon of the salt. Toss well and let drain for 30 minutes.

In a small bowl, stir together the vinegar and sugar until the sugar dissolves.
Heat half of the peanut oil in a large wok or skillet over high heat until the oil just begins to shimmer. Add the remaining 1 tablespoon of salt and toss in half of the chiles, stirring about 10 seconds. Add half of the cabbage, tossing and stirring for about 1 minute, or until the cabbage has just begun to wilt and is combined with the hot oil. Stir in half of the vinegar mixture and half of the chili oil and cook for 30 seconds. The whole process should take no longer than 2 minutes.

Turn the cabbage out into a large bowl. Return the wok or skillet to the heat. Repeat the cooking process with the remaining cabbage and add it to the bowl with the first batch.
Put the cabbage in 1 large or several smaller containers that will hold it snugly and keep it submerged in the liquid. Refrigerate for up to 2 weeks. Bring to room temperature before serving.

The calories and other nutrients absorbed from marinades vary and are difficult to estimate. Variables include the type of food, marinating time and amount of surface area. Therefore, this recipe contains no analysis.

Steamed Rice-Powder Ribs (Mi Fen Zhen Pai Gu)

Serves 6-8 as part of a Chinese meal or 3 to 4 as a Western-style entree
Adapted from Cecilia Chiang's "The Seventh Daughter" (Ten Speed Press, 256 pages, $35), written with Lisa Weiss. Chiang recalls purchasing this succulent Sichuan dish from street vendors after her "long walk" from Beijing to Chongqing.

• 1 small slab baby back ribs, about 1 1/4 pounds, halved lengthwise on the butcher's saw
• 2 tablespoons soy sauce
• 1 tablespoon Shaoxing wine (Chinese rice wine) or dry sherry
• 1/2 teaspoon finely grated fresh ginger, including any juice
• 1/4 teaspoon freshly ground white pepper, plus more for finishing
• 1/4 cup toasted rice powder (seasoned rice crumb, see Note)
• 2 teaspoons kosher salt
• 1 pound carrots, peeled, cut on the diagonal into 1/4-inch-thick slices
• -- Boiling water as needed
• -- Finely sliced green onions, for garnish

Instructions: Trim the ribs of excess fat. Cut between the ribs to make small riblets. In a large bowl, toss the riblets with the soy sauce, wine, ginger and white pepper. Cover and marinate in the refrigerator for at least 1 hour or overnight. When you are ready to cook the ribs, add the rice powder and salt and stir to coat the ribs well.

Cover the bottom of a steamer basket with the carrot slices. Arrange the ribs on top of the carrots and place the basket over a saucepan or wok filled with a generous amount of boiling water. Cover and steam until the ribs are tender, about 40-50 minutes, maintaining a vigorous boil and adding boiling water to the saucepan or wok as needed.

Transfer the ribs and vegetables to a large serving platter, sprinkle with green onions, and grind over some additional white pepper.

Note: Toasted rice powder (also labeled as seasoned rice crumb) is coarsely cracked rice mixed with spices. It is not a fine powder. Look for it in markets that cater to a Chinese clientele.

Source: 
The San Francisco Chronicle
Date: 
Oct.24.2007
Interviewer: 
Janet Fletcher
City: 
Belvedere
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