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How America Lost 'The Key to Chinese Cooking'

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In the fall of 1971, Judith Jones, the Knopf editor who had salvaged many a manuscript from the gallows of the rejection pile, was looking for a Chinese cookbook. She noticed a recent profusion of Chinese restaurants in major metropolitan areas, feeding an American fascination with the regional cuisines of China. Chinese cooking in that era had become synonymous with flamboyance, with foundational techniques that intimidated most American home cooks. Jones wanted someone who could bridge that perceived cultural chasm, to translate the dense aesthetic of Chinese cooking into a familiar culinary grammar for the American reader.

What landed on Jones’ desk one day that season was a weighty, ambitious proposal from Irene Kuo. Jones recognized the name: Kuo was the gregarious, esteemed proprietor of two restaurants in Manhattan, a woman raised in Shanghai before she fled to the United States upon Mao Zedong’s ascension to power. She was glamor typified, a woman of storybook beauty who projected elegance, maintaining a lithe, svelte figure well into her 50s. When photographed in public, which was often, she would wear a uniform of high-necked, satin cheongsams with deep, plunging slits and violent side slashes along with a pair of sky-high stilettos. She had a different ring to match the hue of each of her gowns.

Photo by Rocky Luten

For a period from the 1960s onward, Kuo’s restaurants gained such popularity that she became a fixture of American talk shows, from Johnny Carson to Mike Douglas, peddled as an expert voice on Chinese cooking. She began teaching cooking classes at the China Institute in those same years. Kuo spoke an argot of culinary knowledge that was calm and assured. It bled into this proposal letter.

But Jones recognized in Kuo something beyond the marvel of her prose: She was taken with the underlying sincerity of Kuo’s voice. This was a quality she was drawn to in the best of her writers. Homesickness was a prerequisite for Jones; to her, there was nothing more powerful than a memory anchored in childhood, and a constant, unwavering sense of place that had been taken from a writer uprooted by circumstance. Like some of Jones’ other proteges, the Madhur Jaffrey who missed India and Claudia Roden who missed Egypt, Irene Kuo longed for the pre-Mao China of her youth. Her memories survived transit, informing her desire to see the wonders of her culinary memory thrive in her new home. She made it her life's purpose to bring these glories to a wider, curious audience.

Jones would be as ruthless and exacting with her edits as she was with all of her writers, rearranging sections meticulously and finessing the design until it met her standards. The process took five years, and what emerged was nothing short of a masterpiece: This manuscript would turn into a 500-page book, 1977’s The Key to Chinese Cooking. The book broke the Richter Scale for existing literature on Chinese cooking in America; there were few books as expansive and exhaustive before Kuo's. For the next decade, it became the urtext for Chinese cooking in the United States, anticipating the wealth of literature on the subject that exists today. Techniques like stir-frying and pan-sticking have now become the assumed currency of Chinese cooking in the United States, seen in the books of Barbara Tropp and Eileen Yin-Fei Lo, but it was Kuo who first taught America what these words meant.

But Kuo is basically anonymous today. A writer-editor partnership with Jones confers an almost instant legitimacy, followed by eventual immortality. Look no further than Julia Child or Marcella Hazan. By formula, Kuo seemed destined for the same fate. That did not happen. Google her name and you’ll find very little about her, just short encomiums from scholars of Chinese cooking. Her book is out of print. She doesn’t even have a Wikipedia page.

Photo by Rocky Luten

Born into nobility as Irene Hsingnee Yuan in the Shanghai of June 1919, she descended from one of the oldest scholarly families in China. Her Uncle Yuan Li-jun was the tutor to Pu-Yi, the final Emperor of China. Her parents, Tien Yuan and Chin San, raised her in the comforts of a gloriously ostentatious home. They were a close-knit family, and food was considered its own theater in the Yuan household. These were meals like banquets, emphasizing the importance of the communality of eating. One was encouraged to draw from the center of the table rather than indulge in one dish, to stick foods on someone else’s plate and foster a culture of variety and participation.

The family was so wealthy that they rarely cooked themselves, instead relying on hired help. The Yuan kitchen was staffed with cooks who came from all over mainland China. But as a child, she couldn’t get out of the kitchen. She befriended these cooks, who taught her their secrets. One was a chef from Fukien, the southeast coastal province in China known for its hearty stocks, soups, and broths. He taught her how to make stock in what he called his "grand style," equal parts ingredients and water. Another chef, Ar-Chang, relayed the basics of Shanghai cooking to a young Irene, like how to let a pan keep cooking even if the stove seemed at risk of catching fire. He told her to let it ride out the crest of heat.

These chefs would prepare dishes of elaborate, ritualistic intensity. Certain dishes became talismans for her, attached to strong memories. Her Szechuan grandmother treasured tangerine-peel chicken, which, to her, represented the ideal harmony of seasoning for a Chinese dish. One of her most scarring memories was of a small mountain-creek turtle she’d befriended after she observed it walking around the house, believing it had been adopted as a pet. But she cried bitterly when she learned what became of the turtle: It had been force-fed copious amounts of red wine in order to die, so it could form the base of a soup.

Food soaked into every crevice of her life. Mornings began with a cupful of walnut tea. It was gastronomic tradition made into a beauty regimen, passed on like a matrilineal hand-me-down. Her mother, a beautiful woman with dewy jade skin, treated this hot, creamy broth as a tonic to keep her skin from sagging. She had learned it from her own mother, Irene’s grandmother. Sips of walnut tea were followed by daily breakfasts of crisp, aromatic scallion egg pancakes alongside rice porridge. On some nights, she and her family would wander the streets of Shanghai for wonton bowls from night vendors who ladled tiny steamed dumplings into brisk, broiling broth with a touch of sesame oil.

On the weekends, the family traveled by train to other regions of China, expanding her palate and giving her a sense of the scope of China’s culinary identity. In train stations, the family reveled in glazed spare ribs and barrel chicken in soy sauce sold by vendors. When they ventured north, they would have roasted lamb-meat; lamb consumption was uncommon in Shanghai. Every year, they visited a Buddhist monastery on retreats, and monks would seek to satisfy the appetite of carnivores through fleshy, substantive vegetarian dishes crafted to resemble the make of meats.

There are few details in public record about her early adulthood, but this much is known: As she grew older, she traveled to New York City to attend Barnard for undergrad. She returned home upon graduation. As she would later tell Jones, she found that the idylls of her childhood were ruptured against the rising tide of communism. Ultimately, as Mao gained power, Irene decided home was no longer the one she knew. She boarded a boat bound for Honolulu, and, eventually, mainland United States in July of 1940, just after her 22nd birthday. She decided to flee China for good.

Photo by Rocky Luten

She met her husband against the backdrop of World War II in Washington, D.C. in 1943. A tall, patrician diplomat named Chi-Chih Kuo, he was born in Nanjing, seven years her senior. The two fell madly for each other and married a year later.

Together, the couple would lead a cosmopolitan existence, having two sons shortly after marriage. Their first years of marriage had Kuo itinerant between D.C. and Italy, as her husband was a former military attaché under Chiang Kai-shek who studied at the Italian Military Academy in Torino, before they eventually settled in New York. Though their precise impulses and intentions aren't exactly clear, the two opened up the Gingko Tree in 1958 on the corner of 69th and Amsterdam near Lincoln Center, living several floors above. The restaurant was a display of opulence, murals resembling the art of the Han Dynasty lining its walls; it had the size of an auditorium, its seating capacity 400. It achieved success early on, prompting the couple to open another restaurant on the opposite side of Manhattan in 1960, the Lichee Tree on E. 8th Street in Greenwich Village. This would demand Kuo to work 20-hour days, but she didn’t mind. "It is like having another child,” she would tell one reporter of opening a second restaurant. “Do it now or never."

The menu was relatively constant between the two restaurants, aping the extravagance of Kuo’s childhood heirloom recipes. There was a hierarchy of dishes with gradients of complexity and labor. Curried chicken in cellophane, shrimp medallions, and brandied banana crisps were considered standard fare. Kuo was a savvy businesswoman, but rather than bowing completely to American tastes, she sought to retain the essence of these dishes, to have them stay as true to her own experience as possible. With six hours of lead time, the restaurant’s chefs could produce Mandarin Ho Go, a hot pot of chicken, fish, or vegetables. If given one day’s notice, they could prep Empress Shrimp stuffed with walnuts. Four days, they could prepare a roasted suckling pig or royal shark’s fin. No delicacy was too daunting for the Kuos.

The restaurants rose gingerly to fame, aided by Kuo’s ability to keep high-profile company. Barbra Streisand was an early fan who befriended Kuo, a woman nearly a quarter-century older than her. To celebrate Streisand's 20th Birthday, Kuo threw her a party at the Lichee Tree in 1962. Streisand was then the ascendant princess of Broadway, and the restaurant that night was mobbed with crowds who clamored for the lavish meals of Sizzling Go Ba with lobster chunks and filet mignon doused in lychee juice. In the China of Kuo’s childhood, she learned it was traditional to usher a woman into womanhood at the age of 20 through a feast of this size, and she had great affection for young Streisand. Kuo promised to foot the bill, believing it’d be good for publicity.

This paid off: Both restaurants were written about frequently in trade publications through to the mid-1970s. They found a champion in The New Yorker’s John McCarten, who wrote three Talk of the Town columns about the Kuos. McCarten would find himself returning to their Lunar New Year celebrations in the early 1960s. Kuo would orchestrate grand parades of magnificence on these holidays, like those she remembered from the kitchen of her childhood. Acting as the mistress of ceremonies, she would change costume multiple times throughout the night. In 1968, in observance of the year of the monkey, she commissioned composer Dick Hyman to lead a Concerto for Meat Cleavers featuring the Lichee Tree’s head chef, Ben Juock, in a leading role. As a cabal of musicians bopped along to xylophones, Juock, with his tall chef’s hat, whacked his chopping blocks with two cleavers to the beat.

Kuo was fiercely particular about her own eating habits. She would eat morsels and morsels of food, small portions many times a day. She didn’t like sweets. Her glamor, her image, and her weight became objects of tabloid-esque prurience, as if an aspect of her persona that some couldn’t reconcile with the fact that she had monetized this gospel of gluttony. “I do not eat just for the sake of eating,” she would tell The Pittsburgh Press in 1975 over lunch. “The dish has to be superb for me to eat a lot.”

She had standards, after all, and was precise about keeping to them. Kuo would eat parts of a fish’s head, including the eyes, unapologetically. If American diners expressed their horror, Kuo countered by saying that many Chinese people she knew thought Americans smelled distasteful because they consumed so much beef. This was the essence of her outlook: No one would denigrate Chinese cooking on her watch. Too often, she found, her people’s food, her own food, was cast in the realm of the gross and absurd. She would respond to that with a defiant, dazzling expression of Chinese cuisine’s splendor.

In the later part of that decade, she became the public face of Chinese cooking, frequenting the talk show circuit, from That Show with Joan Rivers in 1969 to The David Frost Show in 1970. In this same period, she began developing—or, really, codifying—her own philosophies of Chinese cooking as she became a teacher at the China Institute. These classes allowed her to put the theories impressed upon her by men like Ar-Chang to practice.

As she began teaching Chinese cooking to American students at the China Institute, she found herself assailed with questions from her students about the underlying techniques of Chinese cooking, the very approach and vocabulary she had taken for granted as a woman raised in Shanghai. What was the sound of a well-seasoned wok? Why did the Chinese technique of the stir-fry—which calls for a toss, a turn, a flip, a sweep, a poke, and swish—deviate so much from the American conception of a stir, which implied circular movement?

Kuo insisted the very act of cooking should be tension-free, an activity of leisure, but there were still more theoretical questions that vexed her students and eclipsed the possibilities of this pleasure. A book, she decided, would be her answer.

Photo by Rocky Luten

“Judith wanted me because I was an American neophyte,” Suzi Arensberg told me one day in February. “I would guide Irene away from anything that was really peculiar.”

Arensberg had been a copy editor at Knopf for years, but she was just about to take the freelance plunge when Jones approached her with the task of working with this manuscript. Though she possessed an adept command over recipe writing, Arensberg didn’t know a thing about Chinese cooking. Arensberg would be honest with Kuo about the book’s efficacy in meeting the directive Jones had set out for her: to make the inaccessible accessible.

Every week, for five years, Arensberg would go have lunch with the Kuos at the Gingko Tree, scuttle away with their latest drafts, and come back a week later with them edited. The two developed an intensely close working relationship. After three years, they had completed a draft ready to show to Jones, but she wasn’t pleased: She deemed it too disorganized for the American reader to make sense of, and demanded it be restructured. “This was a time when cookbooks were still written on typewriters,” Arensberg recounted to me, her voice fraying with exhaustion.

The process was painstaking, but Arensberg and Kuo persisted. Kuo spent years drumming up publicity for it, going on such talk shows as Good Morning America in late 1975 to talk up her work. It was one of 1977’s most anticipated cookbooks, and, upon its release late in the year, the reviews were rapturous. Here was a book of 500 pages whose pages are enlivened by the vivid, lush pen-and-ink drawings that convey the gestural intensity of cooking. There are images of mallet-mashing and cleaver-slicing, the march-chopping of spinach, crabs being brushed. Kuo’s husband, a skilled and deft calligrapher, lent his expertise to the book, too, through the intricate seals that begin each chapter.

The book is quarantined into two sections, and the first is a set of techniques that swallows 120 pages. Kuo begins the book by outlining the cookware of the Chinese kitchen, instruments from the rim-collared, round-bottomed wok to the earthenware casserole. These foundational chapters give the book a patina of graciousness, consistently warm and reassuring. “Don’t despair if you can’t get the knack of using chopsticks right away,” she calms the reader in a passage about chopstick usage, a skill she deems nice to know but inessential for Chinese eating. “Keep practicing.”

After 120 pages, the book launches into recipes. There are 300, divided by type—meat; doughstuffs, noodles, and rice; soups. She reserves the longest chapter in the book for poultry and eggs, nearly 80 pages. Other devotions are to meats and vegetables. She is harsh on the dessert, which she deems matters of little consequence. In the Chinese meal, the sweet was an interlude, rather than having the implied finality of a dessert course in Western meals.

She speaks the voice of experience, as if she has nothing to prove. The book is short on the personal and anecdotal. But still, in spite of this mostly instructional preoccupation, the book breathes: Kuo, an immensely gifted stylist, renders the violent physicality of cooking with beauty. She displays an economy of language that is arresting in some passages. She writes of the marbled sinews of meat that gave them textures of resilience, the charred fragrance of foods once they are toasted. “To take foam off,” she writes, “take a large spoon wrapped in cheesecloth and move it in the motion of a bird gliding over a lake, darting and dipping in wherever the foam appears.” The acts of destruction integral to cooking—a smash, a whack, a mince—become marvels of human behavior.

Positioned as an initiation, the book maintains that Chinese cuisine is as worthy as any other cuisine that was once deemed too inaccessible to the American cook. And yet, rarely does she kowtow to the American predisposition for squeamishness. She describes in vivid detail the Chinese affection for the fine cheek meat of a fish with melting rich lips and a luscious, silky tongue. Kuo imagines an America in which a plateful of Szechuan eggplant would be as familiar as a French soufflé or Greek moussaka. She sees the American dinner as a site of possibility for cultural exchange. If Italian and French foods could gain a place in the diets of Americans, Chinese food would have a place at the table, too.

Retirement loomed heavily on Kuo’s mind as the book neared completion. She decided that funneling her creative energy into a book would be her way of leaving a mark of permanence that the closure of her two restaurants may have made impossible. Lately, she had grown weary of running both restaurants, and neither of her two biological sons was willing to take over the family business. In 1978, shortly after the book came out, Kuo, then nearing her 60s, closed both the Gingko and Lichee Tree, packed her belongings, and decamped for Glendale, California with her husband.

Photo by Rocky Luten

“I’m enclosing an outline for book number two,” Kuo wrote Jones in a letter postmarked January 2, 1982 from her new post in Los Angeles. “The subject of Chinese cooking is a timely one. While it is not exactly what we had discussed in our office last fall, it does cover almost all of the subject matter we had worked on.”

At the time of writing, Kuo already developed 175 recipes, 75 tested and written up, 50 untested drafts, and 50 notes, though she was willing to provide as many additional recipes as Jones saw fit. She promised the book could be finished within the span of one year. Kuo and Jones had long been discussing what a second cookbook of Chinese recipes might look like, due to the enormity of the success of the first. Kuo insisted there was still so much wisdom to impart, still more people for her to teach, still words waiting to be written.

But this draft never made it to Jones. In retirement, Kuo lapsed into creative dormancy. She maintained sporadic contact with Jones in this time, but the two eventually fell out of touch. Eventually, for reasons unknown, Kuo stopped answering Jones’ queries.

She still retained a fascination with the culinary, as heartsick for home as ever. When her adult nephew visited mainland China for business in the late 1980s, aunt Irene asked him what he ate there, and if he ate at any restaurants comparable to those of her heyday. He responded that these meals were nothing like what she served at her restaurant, and paled in comparison to what the States had seen in Chinese food. She was disappointed, still, that her homeland had not caught up with Chinese food in the United States.

Kuo vanished into the smog of an intensely private life. It was the polar opposite of her life in New York. She was sequestered from the scrutiny of her outward-facing celebrity in New York that had her on the radar. Suddenly, she had fallen off that map, chipping away at a manuscript that never saw the light of day.

In the early months of 1993, she was diagnosed with pancreatic cancer. The disease was uncompromising and brutal, eating away at her swiftly: She died four months after her diagnosis, in July 1993, just weeks after her husband’s death. Survived by her two sons, both of whom still live in California, she was buried in a Los Angeles cemetery in Hollywood Hills not far from her Glendale home. She was 74.

Photo by Rocky Luten

Though Knopf has been trying to re-obtain the rights to the book from the family for a reissue, Kuo’s family retains rights to her cookbook, now long out of print. Both of Kuo’s sons still live in California, one not far from where she died in Glendale, the other in the Bay Area. Anyone who wants to learn from The Key to Chinese Cooking must now be reliant on used copies. What’s left of Kuo’s audience must find her.

The cheapest copy I can get is $7.79 on Amazon, with chafed sleeves the color of ripening tomatoes. It is a fortitudinous thing, its size as catholic as a college textbook. As I leaf through it, I remember that Arensberg told me she still cooks from it, 40 years later. When I asked her what recipes she liked best, she spouted off names in a way that was almost overwhelming: the scallion oil shrimp, spicy minced watercress, scallion-exploded lamb, the cream of yam with sugared walnuts. But she instructed me to begin with the egg fried rice, a simple dish of scallions and salt that her husband still loves.

Late one Saturday evening in March, I heed Arensberg’s advice. I bring home a bagful of scallions and prepare long grain white rice atop a stove. The recipe requires careful manipulation of oil and temperature, but, more importantly, handy wristwork. As I leave my rice idling on the stovetop, I coat my skillet with splashes of oil and swirl it just before it starts to smoke. I splay the surface with four whisked eggs dashed with salt, doing as Kuo’s two-page recipe instructs, lifting the skillet above the heat and rotating it along an imaginary axis, so the yolk dribbles towards me to the base. I engage in a careful, hurried rhythm of pushing the yolks up the skillet with my spatula before the eggs are fully cooked. I set them aside and spoon the rice onto the heated skillet, adding oil. She tells me to pay careful attention to how oil blankets the rice, and I do.

As I eat my dinner, I read Kuo’s book as I would a novel. The prose is immersive and unintimidating, and I’m like a child learning how to swim: I come to make sense of instruments and techniques I never knew, from the chrysanthemum pot to the slant-cut of an asparagus. There is an America for whom these words are still foreign, an America eager to know what they mean so long as they are guided by the proper hands.

I read and reread the book between the lines the rest of the night, looking for murmurs of a woman who has now become a mystery. Public during her time, Kuo was immensely guarded in the one lasting piece of work she gave to the world that is now, at 40, slouching towards extinction. “But to condense something with the depth and scope of Chinese cooking into one volume is impossible,” she would insist to the Washington Post in November 1977. The book was supposed to be her greeting; today, it reads like her goodbye.

If you have any memories of Irene Kuo's The Key to Chinese Cooking (1977) or her restaurants, share your memories below.

Tags: Long Reads, Food History, Books