Wednesday, April 6, 2011

The Last Chinese Chef by Nicole Mones

A few years ago my sister had the opportunity to go to China with her dance troupe.  She had an amazing time visiting the Great Wall, the Terracotta Army, and many more sights.  When asked how the food was, though, she pulled a face and said, "They served us chicken feet."  Turns out on one of their first nights there, they were invited to a traditional banquet.  Not wanting to offend their hosts, they had to respectfully try some of everything.  But she was totally grossed out.

Photo Credit
So, my very limited knowledge of Chinese food comes from the local Panda Express and that story.  I'm a cultural ignoramus. I know.

But then, I read The Last Chinese Chef by Nicole Mones and the food she describes sounds utterly amazing.  You can definitely tell that Mones is a food writer, as her descriptions of the cuisine were so vivid you could almost smell the aromas.

What was particularly great about this book though, was the emphasis on connections.  One of the main characters points out that true Chinese food is never individually plated.  Everyone shares from the main serving dishes.  Food is meant to be shared and dining together should engender great conversations and experiences.

Of course, there is more to the book than just descriptions of food.  There's a sweet romance between Maggie, an American widow (who just happens to be a food columnist), and Sam, a Chinese-American chef who is vying for one of China's top spots in the Cultural Olympics.  Both are wounded and isolated people who are able to finally connect with each other, as well as their family and surroundings, through the preparation and enjoyment of the luscious Chinese cuisine central to the novel.

Here's a "taste" of what I'm talking about.  This is the passage where Sam cooks for Maggie for the first time. The dish he makes for her is one that treats grief and it leads to a major turning point for Maggie wherein she is finally able to cry about the loss of her husband.
"Now it's ready."

She took the chopsticks. The smell of chicken had bloomed to a warm profundity. It smelled like home to her. Her childhood may have been narrow, just her and her mother, but where they lived, the aroma of chicken was there with them. And this smelled as good as anything she could remember. Better.  .  .  .

She plucked a morsel from the side of the bird, low on the breast where the moistness of the thigh came in, and tasted it. It was a soft as velvet, chicken times three, shot through with ginger and the note of onion.  .  .  .

She bit into another piece, succulent, soft, perfected. It made her melt with comfort. It put a roof over her head and a patterned warmth around her so that even though all her anguish was still with her it became, for a moment, something she could bear. She closed her eyes in the bliss of relief.
This is a fast read that gives a great history of food in China.  I'm warning you, though, you'll end up hungry.  The author recommends Chang's Garden in Arcadia, California if you end up with a hankering for "real" Chinese food.

<I checked this book out of my library.>

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