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A new book traces the life of Fu Pei-mei, who brought Chinese food to the world

SCOTT SIMON, HOST:

Picture a woman who becomes a TV star in 1962, teaching people how to cook one of the world's great cuisines. Nope, not Julia Child. It's Fu Pei-mei.

(SOUNDBITE OF ARCHIVED RECORDING)

FU PEI-MEI: (Non-English language spoken).

SIMON: Fu Pei-mei appeared on Taiwan television for 40 years. Her 1969 cookbook published with recipes in Mandarin and English is still considered a classic of Chinese cookery. Michelle T. King as a new book about the life and the persisting influence of Fu Pei-mei. It's called "Chop Fry Watch Learn." And Michelle T. King, an associate professor at the University of North Carolina Chapel Hill, joins us now. Thanks so much for being with us.

MICHELLE T KING: Thanks for having me.

SIMON: You've known her cookbooks since you were a child, right?

KING: That's right. Yeah. I grew up with her cookbooks. My parents emigrated from Taiwan, and my grandmother sent copies of Fu Pei-mei's cookbooks to my mom. And as a kid, I'd look through them 'cause they have these great color photographs of dishes, and also, it's bilingual, so it's Chinese and English. So while I couldn't read the Chinese at the time, I could read the English.

SIMON: What kind of role did Fu Pei-mei's cookbooks play in the lives of some of your neighbors and friends, who were also Chinese immigrants, in Michigan?

KING: Well, I talked with my aunt, and I interviewed her. She's part of the interviews in the book. And she said, if you were a housewife at the time or you wanted to learn anything about Chinese cooking, you had her cookbooks. And in fact, there was a saying at the time that students from Taiwan going overseas would all bring the same two things - a Tatung electric rice cooker and a copy of Fu Pei-mei's cookbook.

SIMON: You've suggested we play an episode from her long-running television appearances of where Fu Pei-mei prepares squirreled fish, which was her way of talking about how fish puffs up like a squirrel's tail when it's cooked.

(SOUNDBITE OF ARCHIVED RECORDING)

FU: (Non-English language spoken).

SIMON: What she like on camera?

KING: She was a total professional because she would continue no matter what happened, you know? It was live television. At the time, there was no recording. And if she cut herself, if she burned herself, she just had to keep going, and she did that every single time. And the amazing thing was, was the way that she was able to talk and cook at the same time.

So in that clip that you just played, she is simultaneously telling you what kinds of fish to use in this dish, that this fish or this particular dish is from the Jiangsu region. And if you can't find a yellow croaker, you can use a brown croaker. And at the same time, she is using this huge cleaver to delicately score the fish all the way down to the skin, but not cutting through the skin, so that when she lifts up the fish and shakes it out, it is completely in this delicately cut pattern but still attached to the skin so that when you fry it, as you say, in a flowered batter, it puffs up and looks like a squirrel's tail. So that she's able to do that in five minutes on television is amazing.

SIMON: What drew her into food? You know, her family background wasn't a food background, and, of course, this was following China's Communist Revolution.

KING: That's right. Yeah. She started out her married life not knowing how to cook. And, in fact, her husband would criticize her all the time 'cause he would have mahjong buddies come over to play, and she was - as a housewife, was expected to make snacks and things for them. And he would complain and say things like, you know, you're making the same fried rice again. Can't you make anything different? And it was really embarrassing for her. But, you know, she did not know how to cook.

She had left mainland China as a teenager after the civil war. Her mother still lived in China. And there really wasn't a way - at that time, here weren't cooking schools. There weren't a lot of cookbooks. She didn't have a way to learn, so she actually hired a series of restaurant chefs to teach her their specialty dishes, and she used her dowry to do so. And over time, she got good enough that the mahjong players said to their own wives, hey, go learn from Fu Pei-mei, and that's how she got her start - teaching cooking classes in a tent in her backyard.

SIMON: How did she become a kind of ambassador of Chinese cuisine, especially in the U.S. - and Japan, interestingly?

KING: So she actually was fluent in Japanese because she grew up in Japanese-occupied China during World War II. Her father was a Japanophile. He had an import-export business, and he sent her purposely to a Japanese school, hoping that she would have some kind of international career. So her Japanese was entirely fluent. And in the late 1970s, early '80s, she had a program on Japanese television teaching Japanese housewives how to cook Chinese food, and she, you know, narrated it entirely in Japanese. So she's a, you know, pretty amazing woman.

But she also traveled around the world because the government on Taiwan recognized that they had a real talent in Fu Pei-mei. And they would encourage her to appear on morning shows in the United States or to go abroad to do food demonstrations, and so she herself called herself a culinary ambassador for Taiwan.

SIMON: I gather she welcomed modern improvements, but she kind of drew the line at the microwave?

KING: Yeah, that's right. So she collaborated with tons of food companies and China Airlines to work on their in-flight meals, and she's actually very well known for developing a particular instant ramen flavor packet for Uni-President food companies.

SIMON: Forgive me, which has the personal endorsement of our daughters.

KING: OK. Yes, that particular ramen brand was famous because they included not just dry ramen and a dry seasoning powder, but also a packet of actual meat that you would then include into the ramen. And so, yeah, she was totally into technological improvements. And she said something like, you know, for centuries, Chinese people have preserved foods by drying it, by pickling it, by fermenting it. Using things like cans and vacuum packaging and retort pouches is just the newest way to preserve food. She was very much interested in trying to keep Chinese food culture alive for a growing generation of people who just don't cook. But with the microwave, she drew the line, and she said, you know, just can't control the heat.

SIMON: Is there a dish that's made in kitchens all over the world today that even if we don't know it, we kind of owe to Fu Pei-mei?

KING: I think there's not probably one dish. One of the reasons people like her first volume cookbook from 1969 so much is that she really covers all the greatest hits. And with Chinese food, there is no one dish. That's part of the beauty of it, that you could eat your way from here to eternity and never eat all the wonderful Chinese dishes there are.

SIMON: What if I wanted to make something tonight?

KING: I would say, try one of the easier stir-fry recipes and start with that because that's going to be a basic, giving you some chopping experience and some quick frying experience. But I started with the beef and peppers, so that's what I would recommend to start with.

SIMON: Michelle T. King's new book about the enduring influence of Fu Pei-mei, "Chop Fry Watch Learn." Thank you so much for being with us.

KING: Thanks for having me. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.

NPR transcripts are created on a rush deadline by an NPR contractor. This text may not be in its final form and may be updated or revised in the future. Accuracy and availability may vary. The authoritative record of NPR’s programming is the audio record.

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Scott Simon is one of America's most admired writers and broadcasters. He is the host of Weekend Edition Saturday and is one of the hosts of NPR's morning news podcast Up First. He has reported from all fifty states, five continents, and ten wars, from El Salvador to Sarajevo to Afghanistan and Iraq. His books have chronicled character and characters, in war and peace, sports and art, tragedy and comedy.