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Tropp was the daughter of podiatrists in New Jersey. Falling in love with Chinese culture due to an art class in high school, she studied Chinese in college, leading to doctoral studies at Princeton University. Two years in Taiwan and a fortuitous stay with food obsessed host families led to her immersion in the intricacies of Chinese cuisine. During this time she studied poetry and made many visits to the national art museum. Her burgeoning understanding of Chinese culture reinforced her studies of Chinese cuisine.
The Modern Art of Chinese Cooking
When Tropp returned to America, she soon dropped out of Princeton and moved to San Francisco to be closer to a vibrant Chinese community and food markets. She soon had a contract to write the Modern Art of Chinese Cooking, a book which James Beard described as "...a unique achievement. Her intelligent and thorough explanations are detailed and truly great. The choice of recipes is exciting. This is a magnum opus for any cooking addict." The Modern Art of Chinese Cooking brought Barbara international acclaim as it served as a guide for non-Chinese speakers into the subtle delicacies of an elaborate and highly refined cuisine.
China Moon Cafe
Between 1986 and 1997, Barbara Tropp ran a very successful Chinese restaurant named China Moon Cafe in a 1930s era coffee shop in San Francisco. Similar to Chez Panisse in Berkeley, China Moon Cafe drew foodies from around the world who came for the unique combination of California cuisine infused with a deep knowledge of another traditional food culture. Frequent visitors to the restaurant during this time included people like Robin Williams, Christopher Reeve and Julia Child who had developed a close friendship with Barbara. The restaurant hummed with precision and flavorful smells and vibrant colors. Chefs who trained with Barbara went on to illustrious careers with chefs like Wolfgang Puck. Staff alumni from the restaurant include the Vietnamese-American filmmaker Paul Kwan and the opera singer Julie Queen and sous chef and later restaurant owner Richard Katz. Chef Nance Tourigny worked with Tropp in the early 90's and went on to establish her successful personal chef business in Seattle working for prominent clients like Craig McCaw. Tropp's enthusiasm for wok cooking was almost mystical — chefs were instructed from day one on creating a proper, a column of smoke summoned from the center of the wok with clanging wok tools, where seared vegetables and meats were tossed about and gained a delicious smokiness that is the true hallmark of wok flavor.
China Moon Cookbook
During this time Tropp wrote China Moon Cookbook, a simpler more informal cookbook of recipes and techniques developed at China Moon Cafe. A representative quote from the book describes the atmosphere and flavor of China Moon Cafe well:
China Moon food is, at its best, gutsy and bold. There is a loud stereo of flavor emanating from our dishes-not the equivalent of a rock concert, thank you, but more like the gallop of Vivaldi's "Four Seasons" with its big crescendos of tonality followed by moments of quiet resonance.
Another quotation from the book reads:
'Cosmic Chaos' is my favorite pun of all. This is the meaning of won-ton as it appears in the first line of every ancient Chinese cosmology. In the beginning the universe was a won-ton (chaos) inside a thin shell, before the earth separated into the dark and the heaven into the light.
Her publications include:
- Modern Art of Chinese Cooking (1982, ISBN 0-688-14611-2)
- China Moon Cookbook (1992, ISBN 0-89480-754-4)
- Chinese Cooking from Cookbooks - NYTimes.com
- Inside Scoop SF » Reaching for the moon at China Moon Cafe
- Inside Scoop SF » Barbara Tropp’s menu at China Moon Cafe, 1994
- China Moon Cafe, 639 Post Street
- China Moon Cafe. (San Francisco, CA)(1996: The Ivy Award Winners) - Restaurants & Institutions - April 15, 1996
- China Moon Cafe, San Francisco (CLOSED): The Chef and Restaurant Database (ChefDb)
- Gourmet's 50 Women Game Changers in Food: #30, Barbara Tropp
- 50 Women Game-Changers — Gourmet Live
- FOOD : Shine On, China Moon : Former Scholar Barbara Tropp Is Now a Chinese Chef - Los Angeles Times
- Barbara Tropp: Workman Publishing
- Barbara Tropp - Expert On Chinese Cooking Leads Reader On A Step-by-step Tour Of Her Restaurant's Specialties - April 22, 1993 - William Rice - Chicago Tribune
- Fletcher, Janet (20 Jan 1999). "THE WORLD OF BARBARA TROPP / In the face of critical illness, this elfin chef continues to follow her `Asian dreams'". San Francisco Chronicle. Retrieved 29 August 2013.