She Taught Generations How to Wield a Wok and a Cleaver

CHOP FRY WATCH LEARN: Fu Pei-mei and the Making of Modern Chinese Food, by Michelle T. King

Chinese cooking prioritizes two essential qualities: huohuo (“fire-time”) and daogong (“knife-skill”). The former is the precision with which a cook can control the heat of her stove, the latter the blade of her knife. Think of the perfectly sliced green scallions, thin and trembling like blades of grass, that accompany a Peking duck or the way beef sliced for a stir-fry instantly cooks on a heated wok, evenly seared on the outside, still juicy and tender within.

Both of these skills were broadcast live on Taiwan Television in 1962, when a housewife and cooking instructor named Fu Pei-mei was asked by the network to host a 20-minute cooking show. The set was makeshift, decorated by a cloth fish stapled to the wall. Fu had been asked to bring her own ingredients and equipment, which included her wok, cleaver and brazier.

Fu hastily sliced and chopped, narrating as she went, eventually producing tangcu songshu yu (sweet-and-sour “squirreled” fish), in which a whole fish is deboned, carved and then deep-fried so that it puffs up, resembling a bushy tail. Rushed and frazzled, Fu was surprised when she was asked to return the next week.

She would go on to spend the next four decades hosting cooking shows, becoming a household name in Taiwan and around the world, and teaching millions how to make the complicated and varied dishes of Chinese cooking. She published dozens of cookbooks, and even produced her own line of instant ramen. In 1971,The New York Times described Fu as “the Julia Child of Chinese cooking.”

But as the historian Michelle T. King writes in her fascinating biography of Fu, “Chop Fry Watch Learn,” Fu’s firstappearance aired a few months before Child’s. And if Child was exploring America’s preoccupation with France, Fu was mining China’s rich and vast cuisine, which is as wide-ranging and diverse as its geography.It would make more sense, King points out, “to call Child the ‘Fu Pei-mei of French Food.’”

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