IT WAS MAY 1945 when what would become one of America’s most ubiquitous home-cooking techniques first entered the English lexicon. In her cookbook, How to Cook and Eat in Chinese, 55-year-old Chinese immigrant Chao Yang Buwei described a process common in her homeland, wherein cooks would cut meat and vegetables into small bites and tumble them rapidly together over heat. The Mandarin term for the technique, ch’ao, “with its aspiration, low-rising tone and all, cannot be accurately translated into English,” Chao lamented. For short, she decided, “We shall call it ‘stir-fry.’”
The term soon burrowed its way into the American vernacular and has since taken on a life of its own. Nowadays, stir-frying isn’t just a method— “stir-fry” has become its own category of recipes. Yet most home cooks have never heard of Chao, despite her lasting impression on the way Americans talk about food.
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