Kitchen Matriarchs : Still Cooking at 90


Want to live a long and healthy life? Eat Chinese food.

That’s the advice from Madame S.T. Ting Wong, pioneer Chinese cooking teacher in Los Angeles.

Wong was 72--a mere adolescent--when she wrote “Madame Wong’s Long-Life Chinese Cookbook.” Now she is 90, and her vigor proves that her book offered more than just a catchy title.

Wong became a legend when she taught at UCLA Extension. Her classes were jammed, and those on the waiting list gnashed their teeth as regulars enrolled again and again.


They came for the wonderful food, and for Wong’s peppery comments and no-nonsense philosophy. “A bombshell of intercultural energy” is the way former UCLA Arts/Extension director Robert Bartlett Hass describes her in the introduction to her book.


Wong taught extension classes for 25 years. She still teaches privately, cooks Chinese food daily, does her own marketing and maintains her own apartment in Santa Monica.

Her code of life is this: “Be optimistic. Ignore bad things. Love people. Think of others more.” And, of course, eat well-balanced meals.


“Bean curd and bok choy--those are my favorites,” Wong says. For breakfast she eats half a bowl of congee (rice soup) with a few vegetables. For lunch she might have steamed fish and a vegetable. Dinner includes a soup.

What really keeps her going, though, is her wide circle of friends, many of them former students. “They inspired me. They encouraged me. You have no idea how sweet their words were to me,” she says.

Wong still hears from people she taught 60 years ago in China. Born in Shanghai, she taught there and in Hong Kong before resettling in the United States. A second book, “More Long-Life Cooking From Madame Wong,” came out in 1982.


Wong’s former students include Barbra Streisand, Michael Caine, Dinah Shore, Linda Evans, Debbie Reynolds and Wolfgang Puck. She did not realize Streisand was in the class until university officials told her.

Streisand’s favorite dish was crispy duck, Wong says. She taught Puck how to make it at Chinois and shows photographs of the two of them in the kitchen there. Puck celebrated one of her birthdays with a seven-course dinner.

Her 90th birthday party was held at the Plum Tree Inn in West Los Angeles. Invitations in Chinese lucky red bore a golden character meaning longevity twined around a peach, a traditional symbol of longevity. (Wong actually has two birthdays. Here, she celebrates on Oct. 2. The equivalent date on the Chinese calendar is Sept. 4, she says.)

Wong’s party at the Plum Tree Inn featured a dinner that included spicy shrimp (a recipe that appears in her cookbook as imperial shrimp), velvet chicken, green beans and longevity noodle soup, containing noodles almost as long as her life.


Although Wong is generous with advice and recipes, she keeps one secret: The crisp, lightly sweetened nuts she packs in jars bearing her own printed red label. A food company once wanted to market the nuts, but that never happened.


“In life, as in food, there are four kinds of taste,” she says. “Sweet, sour, bitter and spicy. What has happened in your life happens in your food. You must go through these four tastes. If you lose them, that is the end of your life.”

Far from losing her tastes, Wong is already looking forward to her 100th birthday. In her first cookbook, she wrote: “My uncle is 90 years old. His principle of living is laughter.” And, “at 72, I cannot lose a moment to be unhappy.” That’s good advice at any age.

For those who were never fortunate enough to attend Wong’s classes, here are three of her recipes, including Streisand’s favorite duck, and congee like the one that Wong eats for breakfast.


1 (5-pound) duck

2 tablespoons salt


1 (1/4-inch-thick) slice ginger root

1 green onion, cut into 4 pieces

2 tablespoons dark soy sauce

6 tablespoons flour

1/2 gallon oil

Rinse duck and wipe dry. Rub with salt inside and out. Place ginger and green onion inside duck. Let stand at least 4 hours, refrigerated. Bring to room temperature.

Place directly on steamer tray. Steam, covered, over boiling water 1 1/2 to 2 hours. Remove from steamer. Set aside and cool.

Brush duck with soy sauce. Sprinkle on flour, rubbing well into skin and coating thoroughly. In wok heat oil until very hot. Add duck and fry until crispy and golden brown, turning occasionally. Serve whole, or cut into pieces. Accompany with plum sauce. Makes 4 to 6 servings.

Each of 4 servings contains about:

1,283 calories; 4,218 mg sodium; 210 mg cholesterol; 123 grams fat; 9 grams carbohydrates; 34 grams protein; 0.06 gram fiber.


1 pound shrimp, shelled, if desired

1/2 teaspoon salt

1 1/2 teaspoons cornstarch

2 cups oil

1/4 cup onion, finely chopped

2 green onions, finely chopped

2 tablespoons ginger root, finely chopped

1/4 cup catsup

1/4 cup chicken stock

1 tablespoon sugar

1 tablespoon Sherry

1 tablespoon chili paste with garlic

Cut shrimp in half lengthwise. Add salt and cornstarch. Mix well. Heat oil in wok. Add shrimp and deep-fry 1 minute. Drain shrimp.

Remove all but 2 tablespoons oil from wok. Add onion, green onions and ginger. Fry 1 minute. Add catsup, stock and sugar. Bring to boil. Add shrimp, Sherry and chili paste. Stir-fry briskly on high heat 30 seconds. Makes 4 servings.

Each serving contains about:

291 calories; 846 mg sodium; 172 mg cholesterol; 16 grams fat; 11 grams carbohydrates; 24 grams protein; 0.15 gram fiber.


6 dried Oriental mushrooms

1 cup long-grain rice

10 cups water

1/4 cup oil

1 pound bok choy, diced

1 tablespoon salt

Cover mushrooms with boiling water and let stand 20 minutes. Rinse rice thoroughly. Drain mushrooms and discard stems. Dice mushrooms. Place water in pot. Add rice and bring to boil.

Meanwhile, heat oil in wok. Add bok choy and stir-fry 1 minute. Add 1 teaspoon salt. Add bok choy, mushrooms and remaining 2 teaspoons salt to rice. Cover and simmer 2 hours. Makes 10 cups.

Each 1-cup serving contains about:

127 calories; 739 mg sodium; 0 cholesterol; 6 grams fat; 17 grams carbohydrates; 2 grams protein; 0.58 gram fiber.