Currently considered the nation’s favourite food, the popularity of Chinese cuisine has increased rapidly in the UK since the 1960s. This increase in vogue for Chinese cooking has frequently been attributed to Yan-kit So who is credited with making it accessible to a wider audience.
Born in Zhongshan, southern China, in 1933 but raised in Hong Kong, Yan-kit So was the third of eight children. Comfortably situated, her father ran a trading company whilst her mother, although trained as a teacher, stayed at home to look after the large family. Always a favourite with her father, Yan-kit showed an early academic aptitude, and went on to read History at Hong Kong University where she earned a First. At this stage of her life, cooking did not even register as a career option; her life seemed set on academia. In 1956 she came to England where she began to study for a PhD on 19th-Century Sino-Burmese border issues at the School of Oriental and African Studies (SOAS). Following the completion of her PhD, Yan-kit returned to Hong Kong as a junior lecturer, however quickly returned to London.
Tragically, in 1967 her husband of five years, American-Briton Martin Jr, died of a brain tumour at the young age of 39, leaving Yan-kit with a young son. Following his death, Yan-kit returned to America for a few months before eventually settling in London. Over the next few years she would throw herself into a variety of courses, including Law and preparing her late husband’s PhD thesis for publication. None of these suited her, however, and in 1976 she suffered a nervous breakdown.
It was as a result of this breakdown that she became encouraged to pursue the study of Chinese cookery. This new direction was the perfect combination of her love for socialising and hosting with her intellectual and artistic verve. Additionally Yan-kit’s father had himself been passionate about food, encouraging her to learn to cook when she was a student in London. Friends and colleagues whom she frequently entertained with her own renditions of classic Chinese dishes showed great enthusiasm for her cooking. So much was their acclaim for her culinary skills that a number of friends encouraged her to give demonstrations of Chinese cookery, and in 1981 she began to work on her first collection of recipes, which was eventually published in 1984 as ‘Yan-kit’s Classic Chinese Cookbook’. This book won the Glenfiddich and Andre Simon awards and remains a highly popular book for Chinese home cooking today.
Following the success of her first book, Yan-kit So went on to publish ‘Wok Cookbook’ in 1985, ‘Yan-kit So’s Chinese Cookery and Part Eats’ (with Paul Bloomfield) in 1988, and finally, what she considered to be the culmination of her work, ‘Classic Food of China’ in 1992. Jane Davidson later revered this book and its author in a review stating that ‘there are cooks, and there are historians, and there are writers, and there are linguists. To be all four must be an unusual combination. Dr. So wields her pen and her chopsticks with deftness, displaying her academic powers and her practical skills with charm and modesty.’
This clearly refers to Yan-kit’s ability to simplify the task of Chinese cooking without detracting from the excitement that comes from it. With complete clarity she is able to address the common problems of identifying Chinese ingredients, including the scientific names of a number of the vegetables. The instructions are clear and concise, the quality of the recipes which Yan-kit tested to perfection herself, are second to none. An important feature of the books is the huge index of both ingredients and methods of cooking with thorough instructions. Additionally, and perhaps most helpful in the cooking of unfamiliar food, every instruction from knife techniques to unfamiliar ingredients had a photograph accompanying it.
Her first book, ‘Yan-kit’s Classic Chinese Cookbook’, containing around 150 recipes, covers a wide range of dishes from the four main regional styles of Chinese cookery; Szechuan, Cantonese, Peking and Shanghai. The eight chapters are organised by both food category and cuisine, making it easy to follow and find recipes that suit any specific level of ability.
Ever an advocate of what she considered proper Chinese cooking, she was highly critical of subsequent Chinese cooks who ‘Westernised’ Chinese recipes in order to make them more commercially appealing. She championed authenticity and quality in Chinese cooking, and was in fact an early participant in the Oxford Food Symposium, an intellectual gathering that gave attention to culinary culture; arguably the first Symposium of its kind in the UK. Later on in her life, Yan-kit So became a patron of the British Museum and continued to popularise the culture of Chinese Cuisine until her untimely death from cancer in 2001. Yet her legacy lives on; her love of communicating her enthusiasm to others has without a shadow of a doubt changed the face of Chinese cuisine within the UK.
Volcanic Iceland Epic Trip
meet our Local Insider
HOW LONG HAVE YOU BEEN A GUIDE?
WHAT DO YOU LOVE ABOUT YOUR JOB?
It's the personal contact, the personal experiences. I love meeting people from all over the world... I really like getting to know everyone and feeling like I'm traveling with a group of friends.
WHAT DESTINATION IS ON YOUR TRAVEL BUCKET-LIST?
I have so many places on my list, but I would really lobe to go to Africa. I consider myself an “adventure girl” and Africa feels like the ULTIMATE adventure!
Every CULTURE TRIP Small-group adventure is led by a Local Insider just like Hanna.
KEEN TO EXPLORE THE WORLD?
Connect with like-minded people on our premium trips curated by local insiders and with care for the world
Since you are here, we would like to share our vision for the future of travel - and the direction Culture Trip is moving in.
Culture Trip launched in 2011 with a simple yet passionate mission: to inspire people to go beyond their boundaries and experience what makes a place, its people and its culture special and meaningful — and this is still in our DNA today. We are proud that, for more than a decade, millions like you have trusted our award-winning recommendations by people who deeply understand what makes certain places and communities so special.
Increasingly we believe the world needs more meaningful, real-life connections between curious travellers keen to explore the world in a more responsible way. That is why we have intensively curated a collection of premium small-group trips as an invitation to meet and connect with new, like-minded people for once-in-a-lifetime experiences in three categories: Culture Trips, Rail Trips and Private Trips. Our Trips are suitable for both solo travelers, couples and friends who want to explore the world together.
Culture Trips are deeply immersive 5 to 16 days itineraries, that combine authentic local experiences, exciting activities and 4-5* accommodation to look forward to at the end of each day. Our Rail Trips are our most planet-friendly itineraries that invite you to take the scenic route, relax whilst getting under the skin of a destination. Our Private Trips are fully tailored itineraries, curated by our Travel Experts specifically for you, your friends or your family.
We know that many of you worry about the environmental impact of travel and are looking for ways of expanding horizons in ways that do minimal harm - and may even bring benefits. We are committed to go as far as possible in curating our trips with care for the planet. That is why all of our trips are flightless in destination, fully carbon offset - and we have ambitious plans to be net zero in the very near future.