We Wouldn’t Have Marcella Hazan Without Grace Zia Chu
Plus, a simple soup recipe from the woman who helped transform America’s understanding of Chinese cooking in the 1960s
The James Beard Award-winning writer Mayukh Sen’s debut book, Taste Makers: Seven Immigrant Women Who Revolutionized Food in America, is out from W.W. Norton & Company in November and is available for preorder now. In this column, Sen looks at the stories and recipes of some of the extraordinary women he didn't get to devote chapters to in the book, but whose stories stayed with him.
In 1969, the cooking teacher and food writer Grace Zia Chu, a 70-year-old woman whom a journalist would once call a “tiny tornado in the kitchen,” made a startling announcement to her students: She’d be leaving New York to return to her native China. She needed a break from teaching Chinese cooking. The news would turn out to be an unexpected blessing for one of the women in that crowd, an Italian immigrant named Marcella Hazan. Chu’s departure from New York inspired Hazan to take up the teaching mantle herself when some of her fellow students persuaded Hazan to show them the ins and outs of Italian cooking.
The rest, to put it inelegantly, is history. Hazan would parlay her stint as a teacher into a legendary career as a cookbook author, starting with The Classic Italian Cook Book in 1973. Hazan’s unlikely beginnings in food are now part of America’s culinary lore. But what about Chu, the woman who kindled that career?
Considering how many goalposts Chu moved in her lifetime, her name ought to be better known. She authored two cookbooks, The Pleasures of Chinese Cooking (1962) and Madame Chu's Chinese Cooking School (1975) — both marvels of clear instruction. With a repertoire that was spanned regions — her recipes belonged to Cantonese, Sichuan, Hunan cuisines — she found a passionate fan in The New York Times food editor Craig Claiborne, who wrote the foreword to her first book, surmising that it “may well be the finest, most lucid volume on Chinese cooking ever written.” Chu’s personality made her a popular figure for the food media of the era, too. In 1981, she was described in the Chicago Tribune food section as “that tough little woman with her broad face, jet-black hair, and granny glasses.”
That confident mien came through in Chu’s writing — marked by a tone that was both assured and reassuring, often in the same breath. “Perhaps no other cooking in the world lends itself more to the individual talents and ingenuity of the cook,” Chu, who died just before the turn of the millennium, wrote in The Pleasures of Chinese Cooking. “This is what makes Chinese cooking so rewarding. More than that, Chinese cooking is fun.” Some of the book’s recipes were for restaurant staples like chicken chow mein, while others emphasized Chu’s personality, like a “salad a la Chu,” a riot of salted radishes and celery dressed with soy sauce, MSG, sugar, and peanut oil. In fact, many of her recipes leaned heavily on MSG, well before it became a sullied ingredient in the eyes of white America.
Her cucumber-pork slice soup, which she taught in her cooking courses and then printed in her first cookbook, was among her more well-known offerings. Composed of a mere five ingredients, it’s nothing terribly complicated. Chu calls for two medium-sized pork chops cut into thin strips and cooked in salted stock; sliced cucumbers come in right after, turning translucent in the bath. (Be warned that the meat cooks quite quickly if the soup’s boil is too furious — though Chu suggests cooking the meat in stock for 8 minutes, excess heat will make the pork too tough.) The soup itself doesn’t look like much when it’s finished, just a beige bowl of stock with nubs of meat and rings of glassy cucumbers. Yet a splash of MSG at the very end — Ajinomoto might be your best bet — gives this soup some character that contrasts with its rather plain appearance. (The version of this recipe that Claiborne printed in the Times in 1961 also called for a tablespoon of light soy sauce, but Chu’s pared-down 1962 version of the recipe shines without it.)
Chu’s journey to food wasn’t exactly straightforward. The firstborn in a well-off family of nine children, she spent the early years of her life in Shanghai. A scholarship to Wellesley College would bring her to America in the 1920s, where she began dabbling in cooking. After graduating with a degree in physical education in 1924, she returned to her native country. Back home, she found work as a gym teacher; she met and married a Chinese government official whose duties as a military attaché took the couple to Washington, D.C. during World War II.
But her cooking career wouldn’t take off until the 1950s when her marriage ended and she found herself stranded in New York with her two sons. In 1955, the same year she became a naturalized citizen, a friend asked her to teach a cooking class at the China Institute, a nonprofit organization dedicated to Chinese culture. There, she became known to the public as Madame Chu. She taught cooking at the China Institute, the famed Mandarin House restaurant, and her home in the Manhattan neighborhood of Morningside Heights.
Chu was not the first writer and teacher of Chinese cooking to catch on with the general public in America. In 1945, Buwei Yang Chao wrote the pathbreaking cookbook How to Cook and Eat in Chinese, which introduced phrases like “stir-fry” to the American lexicon. That book’s success carried over into the 1950s. That decade was otherwise devoid of many notable Chinese cookbooks published in America, according to the culinary historian Anne Mendelson’s Chow Chop Suey (2016), a comprehensive chronicle of Chinese cooking’s proliferation in the United States.
This paucity of Chinese cookbooks in the 1950s set the stage for Chu, whose talent was on full display in her buzzy 1962 debut, published by the bigwigs at Simon & Schuster. “Madame Chu knew how to put nervous non-Chinese beginners at ease,” Mendelson writes in her book. Mendelson goes on to note that Chu sanded off “difficult conceptual edges” in her effort, making it “a gentle, well-gauged pitch to just the sort of hobby-cooks who might have showed up for the China Institute’s first classes.”
Chu reached what Mendelson identifies as a white, middle-class American audience with her approachable writing. Nowadays, though, many American home cooks may have moved past some of the shortcuts she put forth. To cast as wide a net as she could, Chu offered replacements for the more casual cooks in her audience, ones who may have been unwilling to venture into specialty stores for ingredients. An example might be for what she called a chicken velvet corn soup, a lush dish that called for a can of creamed corn, a concession for American cooks in an era when they loved convenience in the kitchen.
Parts of that early book have aged, but Chu didn’t let such constraints guide her writing later in her career. That break she surprised Hazan with was temporary: She would return to America after her 1969 hiatus, publishing her even more expansive 1975 book, which included a chapter of recipes from her students. Chu had no interest in appealing to American squeamishness with this sophomore effort. As the writer Gish Jen pointed out in a 2000 remembrance of her in The New York Times Magazine, ingredients like pork kidneys, taro, and hog maws featured prominently in the book.
When Chu first emerged on the scene, America was on the precipice of what many might now recognize as a revolution in its understanding of Chinese cooking. More voices would appear on the horizon in the years that followed the publication of her first cookbook, many of them Chinese-born women. There was the restaurateur Joyce Chen of WGBH’s Joyce Chen Cooks (1966 -1967), the first nationally-syndicated cooking show hosted by a person of color; Cecilia Chiang of the Mandarin restaurant in San Francisco; the cooking teacher and cookbook author Florence Lin (who taught in Chu’s cooking classes at the China Institute); the cooking instructor Virginia Lee, who co-wrote The Chinese Cookbook with Claiborne in 1972; the restaurateur and cookbook author Irene Kuo of 1977’s The Key to Chinese Cooking. In 1982, America would meet a man named Martin Yan, whose public television show Yan Can Cook would bring China’s cooking to even wider audiences. Chu paved a path for these talents.
Chu lived long, dying in a nursing home in Columbus, Ohio when she was 99. Funnily enough, the Times ran her chicken velvet corn soup recipe — creamed corn and all —along with her obituary, a sign that its spirit endured so many decades later. In the dedication to her 2004 book Marcella Says…, her former student Hazan, by then a formidable establishment figure herself, paid tribute to both Chu and Claiborne. “In remembrance of those to whom I owe my beginnings,” she wrote, calling Chu a “pioneer and paragon of Chinese cooking instruction, in whose class I first saw how cooking could be taught.”
To put it one way, without Chu, America may never have met Marcella Hazan. But it may be more appropriate to say that the American home cook’s understanding of Chinese cooking would not be where it is today without Chu. It just took a can of creamed corn to get there.
Cucumber-Pork Slice Soup
Time: 25 minutes
2 medium-sized pork chops
4 cups meat stock
1 teaspoon salt
¼ teaspoon monosodium glutamate
1. Peel and cut the cucumbers into halves, length-wise. Remove seeds. Cut into ¼" slices.
2. Remove bones and excess fat from pork chops. Slice meat into strips about 1 inch by 1/2 inch by 1/4 inch. Use bones to enrich stock if desired.
3. Add salt to stock and bring to a boil. Add sliced pork and cook for 8 minutes.
4. Add cucumber slices and bring to boil again. Add monosodium glutamate and stir a few times. Serve hot.
Pork slices will be thoroughly cooked after boiling in the soup for 8 minutes.
Cook cucumbers briefly. As soon as they are transparent, the soup is ready.
Slices of shrimp, fish fillet, or steak can be substituted for pork. For all of these, the cooking time should be decreased to about 5 minutes.
— Recipe from The Pleasures of Chinese Cooking by Grace Zia Chu (1962, Simon & Schuster)