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Julia Child’s First Culinary Love: Chinese Food

A temple in Kunming, China.

Julia Child is so strongly associated with French cuisine that you might assume that her first defining moment as a foodie took place in France, but that wouldn’t be entirely correct.

The truth is, her earliest steps toward becoming a culinary connoisseur took place years earlier, when she was stationed in an intelligence network on the other side of the world. Writing about her years in Asia during World War II, Julia Child remembered, “That is where I became interested in food.”

Yes, America’s doyenne of French cuisine, who would have turned 100 on Aug. 15, discovered the joys of dining in wartime China, long before she set foot in France. Working for the Office of Strategic Services (the OSS, the precursor to the CIA), a young Julia McWilliams was assigned to the base in Kandy, Ceylon (now Sri Lanka), around 1942 or 1943. This tropical Shangri-La was where she first encountered new foods like durian, a fruit that she described as smelling like “dead babies mixed with strawberries and Camembert.” It was also where she met the man who would one day be both her husband and her sophisticated guide to the world’s pleasures: Paul Child.

Paul and Julia were later transferred out of Ceylon and over to China, to Yunnan province’s capital city of Kunming during the last throes of the war in the Japanese theater. The air route over the eastern stretch of the Himalayas eventually took the lives of more than 1,600 people and destroyed 594 Allied airplanes. But that didn’t seem to faze Julia, who calmly read a book on the flight and, upon descending from the plane, said with delight, “It looks just like China.”

It was in Kunming that Julia’s palate was first awakened, for she was surrounded by “sophisticated people … who knew a lot about food,” she recalled. During the two years she spent there, Julia said she and Paul “continued our courtship over delicious Chinese food.”

Historian and author Theodore H. White (“The Making of a President”) turned Paul on to dining in the “best eating places,” and Julia followed suit, enjoying the unique textures and flavors. She later remembered “nuggets of chicken in soy sauce, deep-fried or in paper; always rice, pork, [hot]-and-sour soup. The duck was always good, and everyone had a good time.”

She not only ate with great pleasure from the cuisines of China, Julia began to learn a variety of cooking styles from different parts of China, as well as Vietnam. “I am very, very fond of northern, Peking-style Chinese cooking,” she said. “That’s my second favorite [cuisine]. It’s more related to French; it’s more structured.”

Julia and Paul Child’s last meal in Kunming

Although there’s no record of what dishes the couple might have dallied over as they got to know each other better, what is known is the menu of their last meal together in Kunming in the fall of 1945, just before Paul was reassigned to Beijing, and Julia was transferred to Chungking, 900 miles away.

Paul described to his twin brother, Charlie, that they had eaten at a favorite local restaurant, a Beijing-style place called Ho-Teh-Foo. As farewells loomed, he and Julia lingered over spring rolls fried in sesame oil, napa cabbage with Yunnan ham, Chinese black mushrooms braised with greens and Peking Duck Three Ways (the crispy skin and then the meat served as the first two courses along with thin crepes, shredded leeks and sweet wheat paste; the bones turned into a soup with cellophane noodles, spinach and egg).

Julia’s love for Chinese food remained unchanged the rest of her life, and she once noted that she would be “perfectly happy” if she had nothing but Chinese food. However, she never returned to China after the war and she did not pursue the study of it, probably for the simple reason that in the early 1950s there were few books and fewer teachers in the U.S. who could have taught her much about this cuisine after her return.

But still, it is fun to imagine what might have been if things had been different, if Julia had found someplace like a Chinese Cordon Bleu to show her the way and become America’s guide to Chinese cuisine, instead of French. Just think of it … Julia Child whacking ducks to pieces with a giant cleavers on black-and-white television, heaving great bamboo steamers around her tiny studio kitchen, wishing her audience a hearty Manyong! as she signed off, and causing America to fall in love with the foods that she had adored all of her adult life, as well as the place that had taught her to eat well: China.

Photo: An ancient temple in Kunming, China. Credit: iStockphoto

Zester Daily contributor Carolyn Phillips is a Chinese food wonk and illustrator who has a cookbook to be published by McSweeney's in 2014. In addition to Zester Daily, you can find her on her blog and as @MadameHuang on Twitter; her food writing can be found in places as  disparate as Lucky Peach and Pork Memoirs.