“We Chinese like to think of cooking as a distinctive art form – and a very practical one at that.” – Grace Zia Chu
Grace Zia Chu was born into a prominent Chinese family as the oldest of nine children in 1899. Her father was notable Christian writer and teacher, Zia Hong-lai. In 1918, she graduated from the elite Shanghai girls school McTyeire School for Girls and won herself a scholarship to Boston’s Wellesley College. While in Boston she would go into the city’s Chinatown looking for familiar foods that she could cook on her hotplate in her dorm to give her a taste of home “in a world full of tall strangers and inedible food”. In 1924, Grace Chu graduated with a degree in Physical Education. She returned to China and Shanghai to teach at an all girls school. Soon after, she met and married her husband, Chu Shih-ming who was an army officer and a diplomat in the Nationalist Government.
In 1941 during World War II, her husband, as a military attache, was posted at the Chinese Embassy in Washington D.C.. This is where her culinary career had its first sparks. While staying at the embassy, it was Grace’s duty to give luncheons and parties. The military wives, after tasting the food, begged her to teach them how to make the dishes offering to pay for the classes. At first she did not feel comfortable teaching for money as Grace said “Chinese are funny. They won’t talk about money”. One student offered a solution by pointing out that Grace could donated the money earned to the Chinese Relief Fund, she then accepted. They continued until the end of World War II when many of the wives went back home as did Chu. Her stay in her home country was short lived choosing to return back to the United States due to the Chinese Communist Revolution happening in China. She became an official citizen in 1955.
It was during this period in the 1950s when she started officially teaching Chinese cooking first in her Manhattan home and then at the China Institute in New York City. Her cooking classes quickly became popular with her students affectionately calling her Madame Chu. Her training as a teacher helped when breaking down recipes into simple steps for her students to learn. She also went to great lengths to help Americans duplicate the dishes of Chinese cooking with ingredients that could be easily found in most grocery stores. Cecily Brownstone, a popular newspaper food columnists, was a student in one of her classes and in a 1963 article said she could “testify to her talent for preparing and presenting Chinese dishes” with a “sympathetic attitude to cooks who were interested in learning new skills”. When Grace was asked why she started teaching after moving to the United States she said, “I couldn’t teach my own people, since I could not return to my country, so I felt it was my duty to spread Chinese culture here through cooking”.
It was these students that convinced Grace to write her first cookbook, The Pleasures of Chinese Cooking (1962), as they felt other people outside of New York would be interested in learning how to cook the cuisine. They were not wrong as in the 1960s a zest for learning international cuisine was a growing interest to the American people. You see evidence of this with Julia Child and Mastering the Art of French cooking and the popularity of Fondue during this decade. It was the perfect opportunity for Chu as she already had recipes that had been tested over and over again by not only her but her students.
The Pleasures of Chinese Cooking is genius in the way that it is set up. Madame Chu knew perfectly well that the reason people first seek out learning to cook Chinese food was the urge to create what they had eaten in Chinese restaurants. This may come as a shock to a few people but not all dishes in American Chinese restaurants are authentic to China. Many were created to tempt the American palate. The first set of recipes given are how to make dishes like chop suey, chow mien and egg rolls. Then she slowly starts to introduce the reader to more authentic dishes ending with recipes for tea-steeped eggs and four regional ways of preparing duck. Along the way all recipes are giving the same thought and attention with breakdowns of what ingredients were and where to acquire them with very clear and thought out instruction. By 1973, this was still one of the best selling Chinese cookbooks on the market.
In 1975, Grace Zia Chu followed up the success of The Pleasures of Chinese Cooking with Madame Chu’s Chinese Cooking School. In the forward of this cookbook she writes about why she thought another book was necessary. She felt that in the 1970s, Americans were more sophisticated about Chinese cooking so the next logical step was delving into more authentic Chinese dishes and techniques. Then the cookbook goes into a 40 page section answering many common questions about Chinese cuisine. Grace answers every question with a patience of a natural teacher. Also every recipe starts with a brief description explaining the recipe and its relation to China and usually ends with extra tips to help with the preparation. My favorite part is the last section with recipes contributed by her twelve master students that went on to teach Chinese food themselves. You can tell she is very proud of what these students have accomplished. Don’t be fooled she does have high standards for the four qualities that these perspective students turned teachers must have:
⦁ They must love cooking in general.
⦁ They must have taken several Chinese cooking courses, with competent instructors.
⦁ They must be enthusiastic about spreading the gospel of Chinese food to their students.
⦁ The must be able teachers.
Grace felt strongly about the importance of teaching Chinese cooking. She thought food was an important gateway into the culture itself. In a 1973 article she explains further, “I have a missionary spirit about Chinese cooking. I want my students to become thoroughly absorbed with Chinese culture, history and philosophy as it relates to food.”
Grace Chu was one of the fundamental teachers in America’s quest to learning to cook Chinese. Craig Claiborne, famed New York Times food editor and cookbook author, in the foreward for The Pleasures of Chinese Cooking called Chinese cuisine among the most sophisticated on earth and that it is more varied than French or Italian. He also credited Grace Zia Chu for playing a crucial part in introducing the American people, especially New Yorkers, to the cuisine. In a tribute to Chu after her death in 1999, People Magazine editor Jacqueline Newman wrote, “Thanks to you Madame Grace Zia Chu for your interest and inspiration, and for your dedication to details. You led us on a journey to learn and love the sophisticated and the most varied cookery on earth. We bless you for that and offer tribute to you.”
Armstrong, Julian. “Julian Armstrong’s Cooking: Chinese Cooking Explained”. The Montreal Gazette. June 3, 1963.
Brownstone, Cecily. “Few Taste Treats Can Compare with Chinese Barbecued Ribs”. Lewingstone Morning Tribune. January 10, 1963.
Chu, Grace Zia. Madame Chu’s Chinese Cooking School. New York: Simon and Schuster, 1975.
Chu, Grace Zia. The Pleasures of Chinese Cooking. New York: Simon and Schuster, 1962.
Goodrick, Ann. “Ah So! You Can Have The Pleasure of Chinese Cooking at Home”. Reading Eagle. September 30, 1973.
Grimes, William. “Grace Zia Chu, 99, Guide to Chinese Cooking”. New York Times: April 19, 1999.
Newman, Jacqueline M. Culinary Biographies. Texas: Yes Press, Inc, 2006.
Newman, Jacqueline M. “Grace Chu: An Editor’s Tribute”. People Magazine. 1999 Issue: 6.
Volpe, Veronica. “Cookbook Interprets Chinese Food”. The Pittsburgh Press. August 20, 1963.