San Francisco lost a legend this week, and the world lost a regional Chinese food maven who is credited with changing the way America saw Chinese cuisine. Cecilia Chiang died at age 100 on Wednesday, and she will be missed and remembered by many.
Those who didn't know Chiang's story or who are too young to have experienced The Mandarin in its heyday in Ghirardelli Square were perhaps unaware until this week of the legacy she leaves behind. While never a chef herself, she built her restaurant around taste memories from her childhood, in the 1920 and 30s in Beijing — she grew up in a privileged household with two cooks, one from the south and one from the north, and she remembered well all the dishes they made.
When she opened The Mandarin, it had some 200 dishes on the menu, because she says she wasn't sure what Americans would like to eat most. But over the years there were some greatest hits that have become the greatest hits of Chinese restaurants across the U.S. Hot and sour soup, kung pao chicken, potstickers, Peking duck, mu shu pork, sizzling rice soup — these are all dishes that might never have known were it not for Chiang's memory and taste.
The Chronicle has an excellent rundown of eight dishes she's famous for introducing at The Mandarin, and where you can find excellent versions around the Bay right now.
And while beggar's chicken (jiao hua ji) may not be so easy to find on restaurant menus — it was once on the menu at erstwhile Cow Hollow restaurant Betelnut, for which Chiang consulted on the menu — you can attempt it at home, and it's a delicacy that is well worth the time and effort (and procurement of potter's clay).
It a dish of marinated and stuffed chicken that gets roasted/steamed inside a shell of clay, and done right, it's divine. (Michael Bauer used to rave about Betelnut's version.)
Chiang writes about the dish in her book The Seventh Daughter, and popular YouTuber Emmy Cho (a.k.a. Emmymadeinjapan, EmmyMade, EmmyCooks) was inspired to make as authentic a version as possible, using clay she foraged and sifted herself.
You can see how she makes it below, but assuming that digging for your own clay is a step too far even in a pandemic, you can also check out alternate recipes from the New York Times — theirs uses foil and a potter's clay, with ground pork and pickled Sichuan vegetable in the stuffing) — and Saveur (this version uses the traditional lotus leaves to wrap the bird, and fatback in place of ham or ground pork). Or consider just doing it Emmy's way, which is based on Cecilia's way, just with Amazon-purchased earth clay.