Mrs. Chiang's Szechwan Cookbook

A foundational text that reflected changing immigration flows, the globalization of Sichuan cuisine – and even the career paths of New York Times food critics.  

(The following story originally appeared in the Spring 2016 issue of The Cleaver Quarterly, a gloriously designed print magazine devoted to Chinese food that sadly only lasted eight issues. It has never before been available online. Some portions of it may feel repetitive to regular readers of The Cleaver and the Butterfly, but given how many times I have referenced Mrs Chiang’s Szechwan Cookbook in these pages, I thought it might be useful to republish my reporting on this crucial text!)

I can hardly believe what I am doing. I am sitting in a diner on the Upper West Side of Manhattan having coffee with Ellen Schrecker, the co-author of Mrs. Chiang’s Szechwan Cookbook. It is a weak-in-the-knees moment. Twenty years ago, Mrs. Chiang’s not only taught me how to cook authentic-tasting Sichuan dishes but gave me the confidence necessary to tackle cooking in any cuisine. I even ended up remodeling my entire kitchen so as to more efficiently stir-fry. I should be effusive in my thanks!

And yet, there I am, halfway through the interview, recklessly suggesting to Schrecker that Mrs. Chiang’s recipe for dry-fried string beans (ganbian sijidou) can be substantially improved if you substitute pickled mustard greens from the Sichuan city of Yibin (Yibin yacai) for the pickled mustard tuber (zhacai) that her recipe stipulates.

The sheer effrontery! The gall! Who am I to question the prescriptions of Mrs. Chiang as set forth by Ellen Schrecker? Chiang Jung-feng grew up on a farm near the city of Chengdu in Sichuan Province. She and her mother used to make their own soy sauce! I am not worthy.

But Schrecker doesn’t protest. She shrugs. While she is tickled that her long-out-of-print cookbook, first published in 1976, has become something of a “cult classic” with Sichuan-loving foodies in the US (“It’s cute!” she says, with a grin), her identity is hardly wrapped up in whether the cookbook is fully up to date with the latest Inter- net-facilitated ingredient availability.

The cookbook, after all, was a one-off, something she knocked out while simultaneously raising two small boys and writing her dissertation at Princeton. Now in her mid-seventies, Schrecker has enjoyed a distinguished career as an American historian specializing in McCarthyism. She still regularly cooks Sichuan in her own kitchen, but she doesn’t feel any particular need to keep up with newer, English-language Sichuan cookbooks, like Fuchsia Dunlop’s Land of Plenty (2001), or the massive, exquisitely illustrated, supposedly authoritative compendium published by the Sichuan Higher Institute of Cuisine in 2010: Sichuan Cuisine in Both English and Chinese.

Like myself, Ellen has never even visited Sichuan province, a fact we acknowledge to each other with a sigh. Because if you care about authenticity, about the zhen wer (“true taste”) of Sichuan food, the Upper West Side can seem like a long way from the original source. Shouldn’t we be having this conversation in Chengdu?

Maybe. But it’s not required. Because after spending 20 years trying to reproduce the most authentic Sichuan cuisine I can achieve in my home kitchen in Berkeley, California, I finally realized – just about at the time I interviewed Ellen Schrecker – that the pursuit of absolute authenticity is a hopeless quest to pin down a constantly moving target. Thanks to Mrs. Chiang and Ellen Schrecker and Fuchsia Dunlop, and, not least of all, years of my own ad hoc experimentation with cleaver and wok chasing the elusive ganbian sijidou memories of my youth, I no longer worry about whether whatever I’m stir-frying would make the grade in Chengdu. The true zhen wer isn’t frozen for all time in anyone’s recipe; it’s ultimately judged best by one’s own tastebuds.  

Ellen Schrecker’s breakthrough exposure to Sichuan food came during two stints in Taiwan, first in 1961 and then again in 1969. Both times she was accompanying her then-husband, John Schrecker, a Chinese historian, as he polished his Chinese language competence.

I caught up with John Schrecker a week after talking to Ellen. My own memories of living in Taipei in the 1980s summon up a frenetic, chaotic metropolis, where seemingly everyone drove a motorcycle and was on a fast-track escalator to a better life. So it was amusing to hear him reminisce about a peaceful “small-town atmosphere” where the bicycle was the primary mode of transportation. But one thing we agreed on: The food was astonishing, a happy accidental result of the Chinese Civil War. The millions of mainlanders that Generalissimo Chiang Kai-shek brought with him to Taiwan had few obvious ways of making a living, outside of starting their own restaurants, or, in Mrs. Chiang’s case, working as a cook for visiting American families. (Mrs. Chiang, via an email from her grandson, declined to be interviewed for this story.)

When the Schreckers returned to the United States, they brought Mrs. Chiang with them to serve as cook and nanny to the Schreckers’ two young boys. They immediately confronted a sad reality shared by generations of Americans who have had their tastebuds radicalized by a stint in East Asia. Up until that moment, the vast majority of Chinese immigrants to the United States had come from a small region of southern China. So if you didn’t like Cantonese food or the Americanized oddity of “chop suey,” you were out of luck.

The Schreckers, however, had Mrs. Chiang, and they were quick to introduce their friends to her handiwork. They also performed yeoman work as avant-garde Chinese foodies. A major change in US immigration law in 1965 opened the door to a new wave of Chinese immigration. Some of the same cooks who had moved from the mainland to Taiwan in the 1940s moved again to New York in the 1970s. The Schreckers led groups of their friends on regular trips to whatever restaurant was rumored to feature the work of one of those new arrivals.

One such friend, dating back to their days together at Harvard, was Ray Sokolov, an aspiring critic who had gone straight from the Harvard Crimson to Newsweek. The Schreckers introduced him to one of their favorite new restaurants, a place called “A Kitchen” tucked away in a gas station in Princeton. Solokov wrote about the restaurant as a “tryout piece” when he auditioned for – and won – the job of top New York Times food critic, replacing Craig Claiborne. He then did his part popularizing Sichuan food to the larger general public.

So how did the cookbook fit in?

“Ray said, ‘You should do a cookbook. Here’s my agent,’” said Ellen Schrecker.

This origin story was a revelation. Mrs. Chiang’s Szechwan Cookbook occupies a huge, but very personal, psychic space in my head, as a key connecting point between my present in California and my past in Taiwan. But who knew that when placed in the proper context, the cookbook also reflected changing global immigration flows and the globalization of Sichuan cuisine – and even the career paths of New York Times food critics?  

There are moments in your life that stay ever-present in your memory in surround-sound hi-definition, even as the years between them fade into foggy incoherence. One such flashpoint was my first meal on my first day in Taipei in 1984, when a couple of more experienced expats took me to a hole-in-the-wall restaurant called Emei and introduced me to Old Lady Ma’s Doufu (mapo doufu), Pork in the Style of Fish (yuxiang rousi) and Dry-Fried Stringbeans (ganbian sijidou). Having never eaten Sichuan food before, I was overwhelmed – in the best possible way. The mala shock of hot chilli peppers and numbing Sichuan pepper. The garlic-ginger-scallion-soy-chili explosion of flavor that defines yuxiang. The limp, exquisite texture of those fried string beans! Yeah, no wonder I stayed four years.

Another such moment came almost 15 years later, after I had lived in Berkeley for a decade. I had long since left behind my passion for China studies in exchange for a career as a technology reporter. I had also, tragically, given up hope I would ever find anything comparable to the food I had loved in Taipei. The New York Sichuan scene might have been hopping, but the same was not true of the San Francisco Bay Area, where Cantonese still ruled supreme. I was particularly disgruntled by my inability to find anything close to an authentic ganbian sijidou. Those beans weren’t supposed to be bright green and crisp – they should be brown and limp to exhaustion!

And where were my cherished tiny dried shrimp, with their little bursts of umami flavor hidden among the kernels of pork, swathed in their marinade of rice wine and soy sauce?

Then, one evening in 1998, my friend, mentor, and boss at Salon, Scott Rosenberg, invited me to dinner at his house and served up a dish of noodles with pork sauce. I took one bite and was instantly transported back to my favorite night market near Shida University, where, late at night, if you were lucky, a married couple would set up a bare-bones stand and make fresh noodles with pork sauce for the crowds exiting the local bars and nightclubs. (I say “lucky,” because for weeks at a time the couple would vanish. It turned out they preferred gambling at mahjong in the south of Taiwan to serving up noodles in the big city. But when they gambled all their money away, they had no choice! It was time to head back to Taipei and earn some cash.)

How was it possible that my friend, who spoke no Chinese and had never been to any part of China, could pull off this mouth-watering tour de force?

He showed me a well-worn copy of Mrs. Chiang’s Szechwan Cookbook, given to him by his college girlfriend. He lent it to me. A glorious new stage in my life started. Up until that point, I could roast a chicken and boil some pasta and was reasonably handy with a BBQ grill, but I was not a cook. Cooking involved too much subjective judgment! There were too many questions, too many points of failure. Mrs. Chiang’s Szechwan Cookbook turned out to be the perfect gateway drug for a fearful adventurer. The recipes recorded by Ellen Schrecker were a set of operating instructions as precise as any computer program. Nothing was left to chance. All you had to do was follow the obsessively documented steps. Chop the water chestnuts “into tiny pieces the size of a match head.” “Stir-fry the ginger and garlic for 30 seconds.” And so on. Each successful dish generated greater confidence. I learned how to make my own mapo dofu, my own yuxiang rousi. My scallion pancakes (congyou bing) became sought-after at family gatherings. I even mastered the Crispy Fragrant Duck (xiangsu ya), a job that required a minimum of 36 hours to execute, but paid off, as Ellen Schrecker wrote with utterly justified grandiosity, by delivering “the greatest eating pleasure in the world.”

I grew bolder and started exploring other cuisines. I expanded my Sichuan library, adding Robert Delfs’ The Good Food of Szechwan, and of course, Fuchsia Dunlop’s magnificent Land of Plenty.

I threw dinner party after dinner party. But for years, there was one dish I just couldn’t get to work: that frustratingly unavailable ganbian sijidou. The zhacai called for by Mrs. Chiang didn’t taste right to me. Fuchsia’s recipe didn’t even include shrimp. And when I followed Delfs’ instruction to soak the dried shrimp in water and then chop it up, there was none of the aesthetic pleasure I remembered (or the flavor) of the intact shrimp that my ever-receding memories still clung to.

One day, I combined the Yibin pickled mustard greens recommended by Fuchsia with a marinade suggested by Delfs. I quickly deep-fried the beans instead of slow-cooking them per Mrs. Chiang. And then I looked at my bag of tiny dried shrimp and wondered: What would happen if I just flash-fry these in peanut oil without soaking them at all? They’d keep their shape, they’d be pleasingly crispy ...

I threw it all together, and I loved it. And my son loved it. And my next batch of dinner guests. Was it authentic? Did anyone flash-fry dried shrimp? I decided I didn’t care. If I loved it, that sufficed.

Ellen Schrecker listened to my story with amusement. Mrs. Chiang, she told me, never cooked from a recipe. Indeed, to write the cookbook, Schrecker had to chase Mrs. Chiang “around the kitchen with a measuring cup and measuring spoons, and try to intercept the ingredients between her and the wok.” Occasionally, when Schrecker tested a recipe and it didn’t seem to work, she’d do it over with Mrs. Chiang and discover the proportions were quite different. Mrs. Chiang never cooked a dish the same exact way twice!

The point was further hammered home when I returned to California after interviewing Ellen Schrecker. My copy of Sichuan Cuisine in Both Chinese and English, purchased at an exorbitant price from a Chinese online retailer had finally arrived. I was ecstatic. I scrolled through the illustrations, oohing and ahhing, but I couldn’t restrain myself from quickly flipping through to the ganbian sijidou recipe. Finally, I would find true authenticity!

But I stopped short as soon as I reviewed the recipe. The seasonings were listed as: 2 grams salt, 1 gram MSG, 3 grams sesame oil. There was no marinade of rice wine and soy sauce, nor a whisper of shrimp. And the picture looked nothing at all like either my memories or my current practice. I suppose, in judging what is truly authentic as it applies to Sichuan food, the pronouncements of the Sichuan Higher Institute of Cuisine must be considered authoritative. But in my kitchen, MSG as the all-purpose flavor-enhancer is just never going to happen. In my kitchen, I’m going to make it taste like I want it to taste.

And that’s exactly, I’m pretty sure, how Mrs. Chiang would go about it.