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. 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. 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. Tropp's enthusiasm for wok cooking was almost mystical — chefs were instructed from day one on creating a proper wok hay, 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. Barbara Tropp fought ovarian cancer for seven years, first with Chinese herbs and acupuncture, later abandoning them for chemotherapy, before her death at the age of 53. Her memorial was hosted by the Mondavi wine family and Barbara requested that mourners not send flowers ("I won't be there to smell them"), instead to make a donation to a scholarship fund to send young female chefs to China.