- Paul Levy
Yan-kit So (1933–2001), food scholar and writer on cookery, was born on 13 July 1933, the only one of eight children of a tea merchant, Yin Moo So, born in the family's home city of Zhongshan in Guangdong province. Like her siblings, she was brought up and educated in Hong Kong, where she attended the Catholic Maryknoll school; she took a starred first in history from Hong Kong University. In 1956 she went to London and the School of Oriental and African Studies, where she completed her PhD in four years, writing her dissertation on Sino-Burmese border issues in the nineteenth century. On 14 June 1958 she married Po Yat Iu (b. 1930/31), a Chinese surgeon, and son of Tak Lam Iu, an architect. The marriage was dissolved shortly afterwards.
After a brief spell as a junior lecturer at Hong Kong University, Yan-Kit returned to London, where she met and on 17 March 1962 married a visiting American academic, Briton Martin (son of Briton Martin, architect), whose subject was Indian history. By then she had changed her name by deed poll to Nancy Yan-kit So. Together they went to Syracuse University in New York state, where their son, Hugo, was born in 1965. Yan-kit had sometimes cooked as a graduate student, and now she honed her culinary skills, cooking—superbly—Chinese dishes to entertain her husband's family, colleagues, and students. When her husband was diagnosed with a brain tumour, Yan-kit decided for the time being to carry the burden of his illness, and did not tell him. The family left as planned for Pune, where he was due to take up an academic post. While they were on holiday in southern India Yan-kit told her husband the terrible news. He died there in January 1967, still only in his late thirties.
Yan-kit returned first to America, but then came back to London to bring up her son and dedicated herself to preparing her husband's PhD thesis for publication. It was eventually published by the University of California Press in 1969, as New India, 1885: British Official Policy and the Emergence of the Indian National Congress. Trying to find a new direction for her life, she then began a law degree. But in 1976 grief seemed to catch up with her and she had a breakdown; it left her with an air of vulnerability which was always respected by her many devoted friends. Food proved to be both the new outlet she needed for her great energy and also an excellent subject for her acute intelligence and graceful pen. She had the habit of scholarship, and approached her new field of study as she would any other, with the thoroughness, precision, and verve she brought to everything she did.
Yan-kit joined Alan Davidson's fledgeling Oxford Symposium on Food and Cookery soon after her first forays into her new field in 1981. This was the first group to concentrate on food history as an intellectual endeavour, and Yan-kit's appearances at these meetings, according to Davidson 'always created the sort of effect that would be achieved by a brightly coloured humming bird zooming into a solemn conclave of blackbirds, brown thrushes and grey pigeons' (The Guardian, 4 Jan 2002). Her first book was Yan-kit's Classic Chinese Cookery Book (1984), which won two prizes, at a time when these still meant something. She began travelling to research for her books in the following year, and went to much of mainland China, as well as to Taiwan, Singapore, and Hong Kong, where many of her family still lived. It was a striking experience to eat in a Chinese restaurant with her, for she spurned the menu, waving it away with a smile to the head waiter, to whom she dictated her requirements. These invariably stretched the chef to his utmost, and serving them seemed to give as much pleasure to the waiters as to the diners who actually ate them. Many a rare dish was reserved exclusively for her visits by her favourite London restaurants, and lucky were those privileged to accompany her. Her next two books were The Wok Cookbook (1985) and, with Paul Bloomfield, Party Eats (1988). Yan-kit adored parties, and there was much to be gleaned from this little book.
All this time Yan-kit was compiling her last and best book, Classic Food of China (1992). This, with its 120 pages of essays on Chinese foodways, showed her mastery not only of Chinese recipe manuals (there were not many of these until relatively recently, for the transmission of recipes was chiefly a matter of oral tradition), but also of the more important Chinese tradition of literary texts of gastronomy going back to the sixth century ad. Her linguistic skills matched her historical training, and she was able to quote extensively and accurately from a very diverse set of documents. One reason for the appeal of her unusually learned cookery books was that she had an additional audience to the usual one: second- and third-generation overseas Chinese, 'who are quite at sea as to what Chinese food is, let alone the culture behind it'. Just as she herself had learned to cook only after going abroad, she had immense sympathy for 'these people, whom native Chinese, not always kindly, refer to as “bamboo poles” because, like a section of a bamboo pole, they are blocked at both ends, and are hence neither Chinese nor Western' (The Independent, 3 Jan 2002).
Yan-kit began writing at a time when Chinese food was becoming more popular and available in Western countries. Her scholarship helped to preserve the traditions and tastes of authentic Chinese cookery. Her interests were catholic. She was an active patron of the British Museum, and was often seen at the opera, concerts, and theatre. And she was as intrepid as she was thorough. When she decided in 1993 to improve her French, she moved to Paris for a year. Even when she knew she had incurable cancer, she continued to give parties to which invitations were zealously sought. Not only was the food of the highest order, but so were the conversation, the wine, the flower arrangements, and the hostess's exquisite clothes, chosen to give additional pleasure to her guests. Her spirit remained undimmed, to the extent that in her last year she took up ballroom dancing. She died at the Lister Hospital, Westminster, on 22 December 2001, and was survived by her son, Hugo.
- Y.-K. So, preface, Classic food of China (1992)
- The Times (3 Jan 2002)
- The Independent (3 Jan 2002)
- Daily Telegraph (4 Jan 2002)
- The Guardian (4 Jan 2002)
- personal knowledge (2005)
- private information (2005)
- m. certs.
- d. cert.
- photograph, repro. in The Times
- photograph, repro. in Daily Telegraph
- photograph, repro. in The Guardian
Wealth at Death
£94,689: probate, 14 Oct 2003, CGPLA Eng. & Wales