Monday, December 17, 2007

Book review: The Last Chinese Chef by Nicole Mones

This is a fantastic book. This is GREAT book. This is a book that made me change my view of China and Chinese food. This is probably one of the best books I have read in 3 years. The author Nicole Mones has written three novels that all center about Chinese and American culture shock, modern and history, contemporary love stories about art, food, and love.

The three books are unrelated, but related in that most of the stories take place in today's China. The first book I read by her was A cup of Light - also one of the best books I have read in 3 years. I can't remember books longer than 3 years, so that is my cutoff date :), (well not really true... I do remember some books forever). A cup of light is about ancient Chinese porcelain and ceramics and antiquity dealers. Her third book I am reading now, and it is called Lost in translation, and is about the search for the hominid skeleton called Peking Man.

But back to this book, The Last Chinese Chef. A woman has lost her husband in a car accident a year earlier and finds out that there is a woman in China that says her husband is the father of her child. So she has to travel to China and check it out. She is also a food writer for a magazine (think Gourmet), so the editor tells her to go and interview a new, young American-Chinese chef that cooks Chinese food the old-fashioned "imperial" way in Beijing. He has just been invited to be one of ten finalists for a competition to design and cook a banquet, and the two winners will form the Olympic team. You only get to have two helpers, and he has two old uncles that help him out. His father was a famous chef before he fled China with his family and settled in California - and in his new life he stopped cooking. I won't tell you what happens, you will have to read the book.

What makes this book such a great read is the descriptions of people, places, and details - from the food to the language to architectural details. The American author has lived in China for 18 years, and you can tell. It is like the book is a documentary, that is how true it feels.

I didn't know that food in China is such a social event - people never eat alone, and food is always shared on large plates in the middle of the table, never plated on separate, individual plates. And presentation is really important, and texture more than taste sometimes. Crunchy on the outside, soft on the inside. And 'fake' food that surprise you, such as a whole chicken skin stuffed with tofu and mushrooms so it looks like a chicken, but is not. Nothing is like the Chinese food you get at restaurants in America or Sweden! This sounds so much better!

Now I, 1) want to go to a REAL Chinese restaurant and order a sampling menu of traditional Chinese food, and 2) learn how to cook some of these dishes. Maybe not the chicken skin one, or boiled chicken feet (served in Princeton, in fact), but there are others that sound so good. Chinese cooking is not just soy sauce, fried shrimp and sweet and sour sauce with white rice... it is spareribs with ginger and scallion wrapped in lotus-leaves and crispy duck with aromatic herbs...

Other people like this too:

"The most thorough explanation of Chinese food that I've ever read in the English language." -RUTH REICHL (see my earlier book review)

On Nicole Mones website you can also get advice on how to find good real Chinese cooking in America. And she explains the paradox about Chinese restaurants in the US and their boring menus:

"Chefs have told me “American taste” means Chinese-style dishes prepared with a limited range of pre-mixed sauces, usually no more than 5-7 per restaurant. This is why a Chinese–American restaurant can have 150 menu items but only a handful of different flavors."

"Wherever you live, there may be better Chinese food than you think. More than one immigrant chef has told me he would love to cook and serve Chinese-style dishes, but he fears his American diners won't accept food prepared according to real Chinese tastes." (link)


pippi longstockings said...

I agree. Chinese food,as Ingemar and I know it (from the Shanghai region) is light, fresh and very delicious.The flavors are many and makes the food tasteful.
In China that is. Even in Sweden it´s hard to find real chinese cooking. There should be a restaurant on Norrmalm, Stockholm, but I don´t remember the name . Can be worth looking for.

LS said...

The Chinese restaurant food you get here in the US is often so greasy, full of oil, and probably not at all like real Chinese food. We had Chinese last night that I bought from the local Chinese supermarket - Peking duck, cut up with hoisin sauce and scallions, steamed buns with pork inside, dumplings with filling of meat and vegetables, kimchi (which is really Korean), and sticky rice cooked inside bamboo leaves I think. It was good ! O.K., doesn't it sound like a regular dinner at the LS&PP residence ;)?