As spring reluctantly arrived in our corner of the world, we took a short digression into the world of fiction with Nicole Mones’ The Last Chinese Chef. We didn’t really stray far, however, since this book is firmly rooted in the cuisine of China and its indelible connection to Chinese culture. The story concerns recently-widowed food writer Maggie McElroy who travels to Beijing for multiple reasons, one of which is to interview Sam Liang, a rising chef in Beijing’s competitive restaurant scene. Sam has been trained by his three chef “uncles” in the exacting traditions of imperial Chinese cuisine. Through the numerous discussions of food between Sam and his uncles, and between Sam and Maggie, we learn a great deal about the Chinese approach to food: that all meals in China are communal– food is never individually plated and is meant to be shared with family or friends; that food in China aspires to engage the intellect as well as the palate, with dishes that bring to mind events in history, great works of art, poetry, and/or philosophy. As such, Chinese food is inseparable from its culture, and comments on it. It is a unifying force in a diverse and changing country. Phew! It was a lot to take in.
In addition to the main plot, there is a fictitious book within the book (also titled The Last Chinese Chef), which Sam’s grandfather wrote and which Sam is translating into English. Quotes and excepts from this memoir let the author explore and explain Chinese cuisine over the past 70 or so years. Ms. Mones lived in China for 18 years and her extensive knowledge brings authenticity to her work. For American readers, one of the main points in the novel is that Chinese-American cuisine is quite different than Chinese food in China. Since most of us probably won’t have the opportunity to travel to China, we can only hope that someone like Sam will bring the real thing to the US! In the meantime, reading this book certainly gave us a window into a little-known world, and maybe gave us some different ways to think about food and its connections to our, or any, culture.
Since we didn’t do quite as much cooking this month, we decided to follow through on the communal aspect of Chinese meals, and went out to lunch as a group at Feng Shui in Chelmsford. Theoretically our goal was to focus on the flavors and textures of the food, as Sam and Maggie might have done; but we were all enjoying being out together and discussing the book, so we may not have been as conscious about the meal as we could have! But in any event, the general consensus was that the book was well written, engaging, and a fascinating exploration of a world with which few are familiar. We especially wished the book-within-the-book was a real one, so that we might read it. Each chapter started with a quote from that book– here’s my personal favorite: “Apprentices have asked me, what is the most exalted peak of cuisine? Is it the freshest ingredients, the most complex flavors? Is it the rustic, or the rare? It is none of these. The peak is neither eating nor cooking, but the giving and sharing of food. Great food should never be taken alone. What pleasure can a man take in fine cuisine unless he invites cherished friends, counts the days until the banquet, and composes an anticipatory poem for his letter of invitation?”
That about sums it up!