“Chop Fry Watch Learn: Fu Pei-mei and the Making of Modern Chinese Food” by Michelle T King

Fu Pei-Mei Fu Pei-Mei

The food of Taiwan has been the subject of a number of recent books, such as Frankie Gaw’s First Generation and Clarissa Wei’s Made in Taiwan. Chop Fry Watch Learn by Michelle King joins them, although it is a scholarly work, rather than providing recipes. While the first  two do also include cultural, historical, and personal background, Michelle King’s work delves deeper as it follows the journey of Fu Pei-Mei, one of the first TV presenters on food and author of bilingual Chinese cookbooks.

Chop Fry Watch Learn: Fu Pei-mei and the Making of Modern Chinese Food, Michelle T King (WW Norton, May 2024)
Chop Fry Watch Learn: Fu Pei-mei and the Making of Modern Chinese Food, Michelle T King (WW Norton, May 2024)

Like many others who left China during mid-20th century turmoil, Fu was learning to be a housewife and felt impelled to recreate the flavors of mainland China, without prior cooking experience. For those unfamiliar with 20th-century Taiwanese history, King deftly reviews the legacy of Japanese occupation, the interplay between more recent Chinese migrants and the native Taiwanese people and the eventual Nationalist government. The foodways of each group had been distinct, and the local climate and crops also differed from Japan and China. At the same time, the introduction of gas and electric stoves, canned goods, and other kitchen appliances also changed how food was cooked in the home. Fu was not unique in her struggles, as another cooking teacher Ye Man detailed her frustrations:


Frustrated by maids continually quitting or performing so badly they must be fired, after the tenth maid Ye Man decides to do all the housework herself. But the results are equally dismal. She doesn’t mind doing the hard work, it is instead the complete absence of any time to herself that suffocates her… She recalls wistfully the short time she lived in the United States with her husband, enjoying modern home appliances and kitchen conveniences. There, “if a housewife wants to be lazy, she doesn’t have to start a fire to make a meal, she can just open a can, and that can satisfy her daily’s stomachs.” She could just stuff dirty clothes into the washing machine, and in the time it would take to do a load of laundry, she could sometimes finish writing an essay of one to two thousand characters, and then hang the clothes up to dry.


Chinese migrants also missed the foods of their native regions, and with only “local” domestic help, they still needed to find someone who could either make or teach them how to make those foods. Fu set out to learn and actually paid local chefs to teach her their dishes, although some still held back what they thought were key or secret ingredients, as that was how they hoped to preserve their uniqueness. She did learn enough, and had the opportunity to practice for her family and friends, that she started offering local cooking classes. When the local television station started, and they were looking for content, she was invited to have a live cooking show—predating Julia Child—which as King notes, makes Julia Child, the Fu Pei-Wei of French food. For the first show,


she also had to bring along all her own cooking equipment, including a cutting board, wok, wok spatula, strainer, chopsticks, bowls, plates and spoons. Fu’s three children and her mother, who had by then arrived in Taiwan from the mainland, were pressed into service to help carry everything to the television studio. With no connections for gas, electricity, or running water, Fu even had to lug along her own brazier, the heating element upon which she would actually cook. The brazier, commonly used at the time by housewives in Taiway, was a heavy clay bucket with an opening on the side to tend to the lit charcoal while the wok sat on top—only a slight improvement on cooking over a campfire. At the last moment, as she was carrying her equipment into the studio, Fu realized that she had forgotten to bring her cleaver. Along with a wok, this was the most essential piece of equipment for any Chinese cook. There was no way to demonstrate how to debone or score the fish without it… When she got home, her husband, who had been watching her on the living room television, chided, “You were in such a rush! You really botched that one!”


The other choice she made which broadened her reach, was when she did write a cookbook, to have it translated in English in the same volume, so that each recipe had both languages attached to the photo. As a result, when migration continued outward from Taiwan and other parts of China, to Anglophone countries, the cookbooks were widely distributed and became a way for new immigrants to recreate the flavors of home, as well as sharing with new local acquaintances. King also details how Fu continued to be relevant as a consultant for prepared food companies, as pre-packaged, canned and frozen foods became more commonplace.

Her research and reflections illuminate the specific and unique role of Taiwan in both the 20th and 21st century global food culture, with delightful added personal anecdotes as a 21st century working mother of Chinese heritage.

Kristen Yee is an American writer of Chinese and Portuguese-Jamaican descent.