Meet Fu Pei-mei, Taiwan's first TV cooking star

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Fu Pei-mei on the set of her best-known television cooking program, “Fu Pei-mei Time'' in 1994. She taught Chinese cooking on television for more than forty years. Photo courtesy of Cheng An-chi.

The Netflix show What She Put on the Table follows the life of Fu Pei-mei, a culinary icon who taught generations of Taiwanese women how to cook — and did it before anyone had heard of Julia Child. Professor Michelle T. King of the University of North Carolina at Chapel Hill specializes in modern Chinese gender history and food history. She recently won a National Endowment for the Humanities grant for her book, Chop Fry Learn Watch: Fu Pei-mei and the Making of Modern Chinese Food. 

Evan Kleiman: I was so thrilled to have your book come over my digital transom after I'd had this very strange introduction to her with the television show What She Put on the Table?

Michelle T. King: I'm actually really curious to know what you thought of this series because if you've come at it with no background about her whatsoever, you might be quite mystified.

"Chop Fry Watch Learn: Fu Pei-mei and the Making of Modern Chinese Food" details the Chinese chef's ascent to fame and how she took a generation of female cooks with her. Photo courtesy of W.W. Norton & Company.

It was absolutely fascinating to read your analysis of it in the book, which of course, I had no cultural context to appreciate. But before we get into that, let's start at the beginning. How were you first introduced to Fu Pei-mei's cookbook?  

I grew up in Michigan, and I'm the daughter of immigrants originally born in China. My parents moved to Taiwan in 1949 then came to the United States in the 1960s and Fu Pei-mei's cookbooks were all on my mom's bookshelf. So when I was a kid, I would take them down. They have really great color photos of dishes in them, and it's also a bilingual text, so you'll see the recipes in both Chinese and English. 

As a kid, I would just flip through it and look. I did not know anything about this woman other than she wrote cookbooks. It wasn't until much later, after I'd been trained as a scholar of gender history, that I was actually looking for recipes to cook for my kids. I wanted easy Chinese recipes, and I flipped back through her cookbooks, and I realized, "Oh, my god. There's so much here that I could write about!" Particularly after I saw that she traveled around the world teaching a lot of foreigners how to cook Chinese food in the 1970s, '80s, and '90s. 

Author Michelle King as a baby (second from left), with her older brother, mother, and older sister eat a Chinese American family dinner of burgers without buns, baked potatoes, peas, and Jello salad in Midland, Michigan, 1973. Photo courtesy of Ellen Huang King.

It wasn't until after I started doing research about her that I realized she had been on television for 40 years, which has to be some kind of world record for length of time continuously on television. I mean, the program changed names, but she's best known for her own cooking program, Fu Pei-mei Time, which debuted in the 1980s. She's right up there with Julia Child, certainly in the world of Chinese food, as far as what her international impact was.

How did the composition and duties of a family home change as China forged a modern nation? And how were Fu's missteps an example of these changes?

For a lot of middle class or upper class families in China in the earlier part of the 20th century, you would have had household servants or cooks who would do the cooking for your families. My mom grew up in her family, they had a man from Shandong who was their home cook. But of course, her mother would supervise, and knew the general ins and outs of cooking, and could make her own dishes, particularly at holidays. When people moved to Taiwan after 1949, after the Chinese Civil War, society was really changing and it was actually very, very difficult for people to find maids to help them in the home. Taiwan was beginning to undergo an industrial transition, so a lot of young women started to take jobs in factories, instead of being housemates. This forced middle class women to learn to be home cooks themselves. 

Fu turned out to be a terrible home cook whose husband was angry and short tempered at her attempts, and she ended up coming up with the most bizarre solution. To me, it just seems so extreme. She looked for chefs in her town who would take her on as an intern. Rather than turning to a cookbook, she wanted to learn from a restaurant cook. 

There were really not many cookbooks around for women to learn from. There's an earlier cookbook author called Huang Yuan-Shan, who did write a few cookbooks published in the 1950s, but there was nowhere near the kind of publishing of cookbooks available to purchase in the bookstore. There just wasn't the kind of infrastructure. At the same time, cooking classes for housewives were only just beginning. 

Remember, they're just recovering from World War II, as well. In a sense, I think her spending her dowry money on learning how to cook speaks to the climate of the time. I guess in terms of her husband, we have him to thank. If he had been a more placid man and less complaining about her cooking, she never would have tried to become a better cook. He liked to play mahjong and invite his buddies over, and expected [her] to cook for them. It was because of those mahjong games and her desire to become a better hostess that she learned how to cook by hiring all these restaurant chefs.

Family photograph of Fu Pei-mei (right), her husband Cheng Shao-ching, and their three children, circa late 1950s. Photo courtesy of Cheng An-chi.

And then she became obsessed. 

It's not like today, you go on YouTube and you want to be an influencer and you start this career. It was just, "I want to learn how to cook better dishes." After she'd spent all her money and she'd become a much better cook by learning from these restaurant chefs, all the mahjong players told their wives, "Hey, go learn from Fu Pei-mei. She knows how to make a dish!" They started coming to her informally, and after a while, she figured, "Well, I might as well earn back that money that I spent, learning how to cook by teaching other women how to cook." 

She set up a tent in her backyard to start teaching cooking classes while her husband was away at work because he objected to having strangers in their house. Very soon after that, after she started teaching these cooking classes, she went on television with this debut of the medium in 1962.

How did this opportunity to go on television present itself, and what was the very first show that she did?

One of her students introduced her to a producer at the nascent Taiwan Television. The medium of television itself only got its start in Taiwan in October 1962 and Fu first appeared on Taiwan Television in December 1962. You also have to remember that unfortunately, unlike Julia Child where we have all the footage of her earliest shows, none of the shows at the time were recorded. They were all broadcast live in Taiwan. It wasn't really until the '80s that they started recording some of the programs. So we don't have footage from those earliest programs. 

The comparison with Julia Child is really telling. I've seen pictures of her test kitchen and [it] looks like a real American suburban kitchen with the electric burners and a working sink and stoves. Fu Pei-mei, on Taiwan Television, was cooking on a charcoal brazier, which basically is like charcoal in a clay pot that your wok sits on. Julia Child's debut dish was just an omelet. Fu Pei-mei was making a squirreled fish. You have to butterfly a fish into filets, you score it in kind of a crosshatch pattern, then you deep-fry it so that it puffs up into a pretty, [what's] supposed to look like a squirrel's tail. She does it in 20 minutes on live television. 

Fu Pei-mei in her debut appearance on Taiwan Television in 1962, demonstrating how to make squirreled fish. Photo courtesy of Cheng An-chi.

And again, all this took place in Taiwan, not China but she was from China. There must have been a lot of complex cultural and political elements at play as food began to develop her career. 

Well, I think the interesting thing is one can ask, why would someone like Fu become so popular in that postwar period? Just like, why would someone like Julia Child become so popular in the United States?

Fu Pei-mei meeting Chiang Ching-kuo, Premier of the Republic of China in 1974. Photo courtesy of Cheng An-chi.

Julia Child was bringing French food to middle class Americans, right? It's a touch of class, it's a touch of sophistication. Americans were starting to go and travel in Europe. All of that translated into this sort of reverence for French food in the United States. In Taiwan, I think a similar situation applies, where because there were so many refugees from all over China, there were so many people who brought all their different regional cuisines with them to Taiwan. So really, you could eat pretty much anything in Taiwan in those postwar decades, especially after the economy got going, because people wanted to eat their regional cuisines. And so the thing that Fu Pei-mei is really known for is introducing how to cook the regional specialties of many different Chinese regions to her audience of housewives.

Michelle T. King is a professor of modern Chinese gender history and food history at the University of North Carolina at Chapel Hill. Photo by Robert McGee.