Florence Lin had little experience as a cook when she arrived in the United States in 1947 from her native China, where her exploits had included joining Chiang Kai-shek’s nationalist army in the struggle against Japanese invaders. She was a young wife and mother, married to a New York stockbroker, and was hungry for the flavors of home.
Mrs. Lin taught herself the art of Chinese cooking, sometimes with improvised tools and ingredients — sauerkraut instead of pickled cabbage, Tabasco sauce in place of chiles — and went on to play a seminal role in introducing the cuisine to Americans as a celebrated cookbook author and cooking instructor. She died Dec. 27 at age 97 at her home in Jamesville, N.Y. The cause was congestive heart failure, said her daughter Flora L. Lee.
By the time of her death, Mrs. Lin was regarded as a doyenne of Chinese cooks in the United States — one who helped expand the American palate beyond chop suey and sweet-and-sour pork to include the tastes and aromas of steamed bread, Peking duck and fresh lotus root salad.
She was not the first to present her country’s genuine flavors to Americans. The cookbook author Buwei Yang Chao, for example, had published the volume “How to Cook and Eat in Chinese” in 1945. Grace Zia Chu, the author of “The Pleasures of Chinese Cooking” (1962), and Cecilia Chiang, the longtime proprietor of the Mandarin restaurant in San Francisco, also were important influences.
But Mrs. Lin’s “recipes had a level of authenticity, sophistication and detail” not previously seen by American cooks, Grace Young, an authority on Chinese cooking and the author of books including “Stir-Frying to the Sky’s Edge,” wrote in an email.
The daughter of a prosperous silk merchant, Mrs. Lin refined her taste buds while accompanying her father on business meals when she was a girl. She learned the essentials of cooking by observing the women of her family and their staff members working over the wok at their country home, washing vegetables in the river and feeding rice stalks into the fire for fuel, she told Young.
When she settled in the United States, Mrs. Lin, like other Chinese immigrant women, sought to re-create her favorite dishes. She began cooking for her husband’s business colleagues, developing a reputation for her sumptuous curry puffs.
By 1960, she had begun teaching Chinese cooking at the China Institute in Manhattan, where she established herself as a revered instructor. Interest in Chinese cooking was growing, Young said, and would boom with Richard M. Nixon’s historic 1972 visit to China, where the American president dined at a banquet with chopsticks.
Mrs. Lin welcomed all students, trained and untrained, with Chinese heritage or without. Among her pupils over the years was Julia Child.
“We had five cooking lessons,” Mrs. Lin told the San Francisco Chronicle in 2013. “We’d start from the beginning — what’s a stir-fry. Here, people eat raw food, but in China, we cook our produce. Then you add a little by little, sweet and sour tastes. You divided them into groups, and you had to show them how to cut things, because we all used big knives, cleavers, that they didn’t know even how to hold.”
With her growing reputation as a cook and teacher, Mrs. Lin was selected as the chief contributor to “The Cooking of China,” a 1968 installment in the Time-Life “Foods of the World” series. Her first independent cookbook was “Florence Lin’s Chinese Regional Cookbook” (1975), in which she presented the lighter fare of imperial Peking, the hotter Szechuan and Hunan cuisine, the soy-sauce-inflected flavors of Shanghai, and the stir fry of Canton.
Her later volumes included “Florence Lin’s Chinese Vegetarian Cookbook” (1976), “Florence Lin’s Chinese One-Dish Meals” (1978), “Florence Lin’s Cooking With Fire Pots” (1979) and “Florence Lin’s Complete Book of Chinese Noodles, Dumplings and Breads” (1986). Years after their publication, her books remain classics.
“In the last forty years only a few cookbooks tracing remote or little-known Chinese culinary byways have opened up any frontiers not touched on in Lin’s book,” author Anne Mendelson wrote of Mrs. Lin’s regional guide in the volume “Chow Chop Suey: Food and the Chinese American Journey.” “It is still the single best collection of regional dishes.”
Mrs. Lin was born Shen Han Ju in 1920 in Hankou, in southeastern China, and spent part of her childhood in Ningbo, near Shanghai.
“As a child I loved to be in the kitchen with our cook, observing all the activities,” she told Young for Young’s book “The Breath of a Wok.” “My cooking was influenced by my desire to duplicate the foods I’d grown up eating in China.”
Her life was thrown into turmoil when Japan invaded China in 1931. Over her family’s objections, she joined the youth army under Chiang Kai-shek, surviving bombings in which she was later assigned to count the bodies of the dead, according to information provided by her family.
After the war, Mrs. Lin took a job at an accounting office, where she met and became engaged to Lin Kuo Yung. They were married in the United States, where they settled in part through the assistance of his uncle, the noted Chinese writer Lin Yutang. In America Mrs. Lin adopted the first name Florence.
She conceded that the fast-paced American lifestyle did not always lend itself to the preparation of multiple dishes for a single meal, as was common in China when she grew up. She valued practicality, allowing her students to make substitutions, such as white bread for steamed buns, when needed. She insisted, however, that chopsticks — more than Western-style forks and knives — enhanced the flavor of Chinese meals.
Despite having perfected English only when she came to the United States, Mrs. Lin became a regular contributor to publications including the New York Times and received numerous culinary awards.
Her husband died in 1976 after 29 years of marriage. Survivors include two daughters, Flora L. Lee of Lake Oswego, Ore., and Kay S. Lin of Fayetteville, N.Y.; and two grandchildren.
In her culinary commentary, Mrs. Lin sought to weave in flashes of Chinese culture, to expose readers not only to Chinese ways in the kitchen but also Chinese ways of life.
“There are no gifts except food,” she told the New York Times in 1986, recalling her hometown tradition of offering relatives live chickens, yellow fish, ham or yellow rice wine at the new year. A chicken, she said, may make the rounds among givers and receivers of gifts during the holidays.
“That poor chicken,” she quipped. “Sometimes it goes around so much it gets dizzy.”