The Grand Dame of Chinese Cuisine on the Year of the Rabbit
Cecilia Chiang, the 91-year-old author of The Seventh Daughter memoir and cookbook and former owner of the lauded Mandarin restaurant, is one of the city’s biggest food icons. The grand dame of Chinese cuisine—who grew up in an aristocratic Chinese family in Beijing and has lived a life worthy of an epic film—just moved to San Francisco from her Belvedere house after living there for some 40 years. I spoke to her about her Chinese New Year plans.
I know that last night was the big night in regards to Chinese New Year celebrations. What did you do?
My friends Chuck Williams [founder of Williams-Sonoma] and [former Gourmet wine writer] Gerald Asher came over to my apartment. We just had a little dinner. I cooked some Lion’s Head and I made some dumplings. I made a whole chicken soup and some vegetables and some whole fish. Fish in Chinese means good luck. So the dinner is supposed to end with the fish. But in my new apartment, I have an electric stove, so it’s very hard to cook Chinese food.
Did you stay up till midnight to usher in the Year of the Rabbit?
[laughs] No, because we’re all older people.
How did you celebrate growing up?
According to the Chinese custom, yesterday was the end of the Year of the Tiger. When we were kids, we stayed up late, past midnight. We had to say goodbye to the Year of the Tiger and welcome The Year of the Rabbit. It’s quite sentimental because you have to wait another 12 years, so the year of the tiger will come back. My father, who never gambled any other time of the year, used to play some dice. The kids—even the servants—would come to the table and make a bet. He always made everyone win.
Have things changed?
Right now, how you celebrate in China and outside China is quite different. A lot of kids—even my kids—don’t even remember which day is Chinese New Year. I have to remind them. Actually, it’s really not much fun to celebrate outside Chinese. In China they have all sorts of traditional foods. The end of the night is very serious. You put out your ancestors’ favorite dishes with a candle. That tradition is lost outside China. But even in China now—I just talked to my niece and nephew—they’re losing that tradition. The only thing is they do is eat some traditional things, like the dumplings. Dumplings are the shape of the way money used to look in China.
Did you make your own dumplings last night?
I made some with pork and napa cabbage. But I bought the wrappers. I don’t normally make dumplings by hand. But New Years is special.
If you buy them, where do you go?
I get them Kingdom of Dumpling out in the Sunset [where they make them by hand and sell them frozen]. I like the ones they make with chive and pork and another one they have a very unusual, it has celery with beef or something.
What are you doing for New Year’s Day?
Playing mah jong with some friends. I’ll see how’s the luck of the year is going! I think in The Year of the Tiger a lot of things have happened to our country and a lot of big changes have happened to me. I lived in Marin for 43 years and I just moved to the city. I hope the coming year will bring peace. The sign of the rabbit is more peaceful than the tiger, which can be be very wild and have a very strong charcter. A rabbit is very tender.
Image by Kfravon for Flickr