By Chinese custom, the first question asked of a visitor is, "Have you eaten?"
Whether it was in Shanghai or Taiwan, on the high seas or at his own restaurant in suburban Maryland, no one ever went away from Sih-Chuen Liu's door hungry. Mr. Liu was a skilled chef of Chinese cuisine whose career spanned half a century and a world of turmoil. He came of culinary age in Shanghai in the 1930s, worked for the family of Madame Chiang Kai-shek, cooked for American troops in World War II and on merchant vessels before jumping ship -- literally -- to find a better life in Taiwan and, later, America.
Yet for all the adventure and toil of his early years, Mr. Liu spent more than half his life in the Washington area, living quietly in Silver Spring until his death from congestive heart failure June 1 at age 89. Although he had little schooling, he put all five of his children through the University of Maryland, just down the road from the restaurant he owned from 1970 to 1983, the Lang Lin.
The food was simple and cheap -- in 1980, the most expensive item on the menu was $7 -- and Mr. Liu was happiest when he was in the kitchen, preparing the spicy Szechuan and Hunan dishes of his native northern China. He cooked entirely from memory, never using a recipe.
"The pancake for mu-shu pork," said his eldest daughter, Fong-Ying Liu. "My father made the best."
"My dad made the best curry pastries," said Tai-Yin Landis, the youngest of three daughters.
"Nobody," concluded Hung-Hsi Liu, the younger of two sons, "cooks better than my dad."
True to his culture and his age, Mr. Liu never complained of the hardships he faced in life, not even when he was separated from his family for years at a time, and never spoke openly of love. Instead, he showed it in ways that reached beyond mere words.
"Have you seen the movie 'Eat Drink Man Woman'?" Landis asked. "All you see are the man's hands, preparing food. That was what my father was like. The way he expressed his affection and his feelings was through cooking."
Mr. Liu, who was born in rural Jiangsu, China, was one of 12 children. He was tall for his time, about 6 feet, and had gray eyes and wavy hair, which prompted his relatives to kid him about being "American," not knowing the future that lay ahead of him.
After moving to Shanghai, then a capital of high life, sophistication and vice, his first job, surprisingly enough, was as a pastry chef in a French restaurant. He worked in the city's nightclubs and hotels and hooked up with the wealthy Soong family, one of whose members was Madame Chiang Kai-shek.
As a member of the Chinese army during World War II, he was assigned to the staff of Adm. Milton E. Miles of the U.S. Navy. Before he could make breakfast for American troops, Mr. Liu drove a truck through the countryside each morning to buy 600 eggs from Chinese farmers.
After the war, he cooked aboard merchant vessels, deserting his ship in Hong Kong in 1949 when he learned of Mao Zedong's Communist takeover of China. He fled to Taiwan and worked in restaurants and hotels, waiting two years for his wife and three children to be smuggled out of Shanghai.
Two more children were born in Taiwan before Mr. Liu came to Washington in 1954, working initially as the private chef for Madame Chiang's nephew. He planned to stay only two years, but immigration problems kept him here, and it took nine years before his wife and children could join him in Washington.
"When we were growing up in Taiwan and our dad was in America," said Hung-Hsi Liu, a dentist, "we were told there was gold in the streets. When we came here, we found it was a little different."
Mr. Liu was a cook at the Peking restaurant on Connecticut Avenue for seven years, until he was able to buy Lang Lin in 1970. All of his children worked in the restaurant, and to this day they instantly recall its address: 1313 University Blvd. in Langley Park. When they weren't serving food or cleaning up, they were doing their homework. All five live in the Washington area and have successful careers.
In 1983, when he was 68, Mr. Liu sold the restaurant and retired. He often went fishing, with nets he had woven himself. Several times a year, he made chicken, fish and duck dishes for elaborate dinners in honor of his family's ancestors.
"Last Christmas we were all here, making dumplings," said his daughter Wei-Ying Liu. "He was in the kitchen, directing."
He believed strongly in the Confucian values of harmony, simplicity and respect for one's elders that he had learned as a boy in China. Watching television, he would simply say, "I don't understand."
"Sometimes I felt so sorry for him," said his elder son, Hung-Kai Liu, "because he was a 19th century man living in the 21st century."
Mr. Liu had an arranged marriage in China and, despite long separations, he and his wife, Ai-Chen, remained steadfast for 62 years. After she died in 1998, their youngest child, Hung-Hsi Liu, visited his father every Wednesday afternoon. Mr. Liu would cook lunch and talk of food, family and life.