Joyce Chen was a mid-20th-century Boston-area restaurateur, television cooking show host and cookbook author who sought to provide Americans with genuine Chinese food in an age when soy sauce was an exotic ingredient found on the gourmet shelf in markets.
Chen died in 1994 at age 76, but her influence lingers on store shelves and in kitchen cabinets. Her name is used on a well-regarded line of Asian cookware, tools and accessories marketed by Columbian Home Products. There is also Joyce Chen Foods, owned by her son Stephen, producing cooking sauces, condiments and frozen foods.
“She is the Chinese Julia Child,” said Ming Tsai, chef, restaurateur, cookbook author and television personality. “Joyce Chen helped elevate what Chinese food was about. She didn’t dumb it down. She opened people’s eyes to what good Chinese could taste like.”
Chen moved to the United States from China in 1949. She opened her first restaurant in 1958 in Cambridge, Mass. From the start, it was a departure from the norm, as her daughter vividly remembers.
“When we opened the restaurant, there was one menu for everybody. Chinese restaurants often had two menus, one in English and one only in Chinese,” said Helen Chen, who has written a number of cookbooks and has her own eponymous line of Chinese cooking tools and equipment. “My mother disliked it. She disliked the feeling non-Chinese people were left out.”
Yet Chen still had to persuade Westerners to try her dishes. Two ideas were marketing pot-sticker dumplings as Peking Ravioli and having buffet tables feature authentic dishes so guests could sample new foods.
“People were realizing there was more to Chinese food than chow mein and chop suey,” Helen Chen said.
Jasper White, a restaurateur and cookbook author, wrote in an email that it took Chen’s success to convince other Chinese restaurant owners “there was an emerging market in America for authentic Chinese food – and all this coincided with the birth of the ‘new American Cuisine’ and the explosion of the American hunger for good food of all varieties.”
While Joyce Chen was a “catalyst” for change, to use White’s word, the charge was being led by another Cambridge resident, Julia Child. The success of her public TV series, “The French Chef,” got the folks at WGBH, the Boston public TV channel producing Child’s series, to wonder whether there were other cuisines that could translate well on television.
“Joyce Chen Cooks” resulted. The 26-episode series was shot in black and white in 1966 and aired nationally. The programs, said food historian Barbara Haber of Winchester, Mass., were as “eye-opening” as Chen’s restaurants had been.
For Tsai, Chen’s biggest impact on American culture has to be introducing the flat-bottomed wok, which worked better on American ranges than the traditional round-bottomed pan.
“That invention put her on the map,” he said.
1 pound lean pork
1 teaspoon dry sherry
3 slices fresh ginger root
1/4 cup cooking oil
1/2 teaspoon salt
1/4 pound regular cabbage, cut in 2-by-2-inch pieces, about 2-3 cups
2 cloves garlic, crushed
1/4 cup fermented black beans, minced
1 teaspoon hot pepper flakes or powder
2 tablespoons soy sauce
1/4 cup stock from cooking pork
1/4 teaspoon MSG, optional
Note: This recipe for a Sichuan-style dish appeared in the “Joyce Chen Cook Book” nearly a decade before this type of Chinese cuisine became popular in the West. She suggests using Boston butt, a pork cut that can be used in several dishes. The recipe calls for monosodium glutamate, which you can skip, and fermented black beans, also known as Chinese black beans, an ingredient found at Chinese or ethnic markets. Hoisin sauce may be substituted. Increase the amount of hot pepper, she adds, if you want a spicier dish.
Simmer pork in a small saucepan with 2 cups water, sherry and 1 slice ginger until tender, about 30 minutes. Remove the saucepan from heat and let cool. Cut the cooked pork into large slices about 1/4-inch thick and reserve the stock for later use.
Put 2 tablespoons of oil in a hot skillet over medium heat. Add salt and cabbage, stirring constantly for one minute. When cabbage is half translucent, remove and spread on a plate.
Pour remaining 2 tablespoons of oil in the same skillet over medium heat. Add remaining 2 slices ginger, crushed garlic and minced black beans for a few stirrings, then add hot pepper flakes and sliced pork. Pour in the soy sauce, stock and MSG, if using. Stir and cook for 1 minute. Mix in cooked cabbage and serve immediately.
Per serving: 241 calories, 18 grams fat, 2 grams saturated fat, 39 milligrams cholesterol, 5 grams carbohydrates, 14 grams protein, 1,005 milligrams sodium, 1 gram fiberPrep: 20 minutes Cook: 30 minutes Servings: 4