Amazon’s Best Contemporary Women’s Fiction Kindle collection has become my go-to gift for friends who are sick or on bed rest — what could be better for passing the time than six novels at a bargain price? The collection got lost in my reading shuffle for a while, but this holiday season I finally got around to revisiting it and I devoured all three remaining books in a matter of days. My favorite book in the collection turned out to be the fourth: The Last Chinese Chef by Nicole Mones.
Maggie McElroy is a recently widowed food writer who specializes in writing about popular American cuisine — food at state fairs, local specialties in small towns, and other bites (pun intended) of Americana. She is slowly coming to terms with the sudden death of her husband, Matt, when his co-worker calls with stunning news: a woman in Beijing has filed a paternity claim against Matt’s estate. Maggie must go to China to obtain a paternity test.
Maggie’s editor, hoping to give Maggie something to do besides worry about the lawsuit, suggests that she combine the trip with a writing assignment: interviewing Sam Liang, an American-born chef who is about to open a new restaurant in Beijing. Sam is no American culinary giant opening a satellite restaurant in a busy business district. He is the grandson of Liang Wei, author of the (fictional) classic text The Last Chinese Chef, and he dreams that his Beijing restaurant will showcase the kind of classical Chinese cooking his grandfather wrote about.
I should admit here that I love food. Few things make me happier than a good meal lovingly prepared. So I was immediately seduced by Mones’s gift for writing about the food Maggie eats in China. Early in the book, Sam cooks a whole chicken boiled in ginger and chives, and then finishes it on a hot wok before he serves it to Maggie:
[Maggie] plucked a morsel from the right side of the bird, low on the breast where the moistness of the thigh came in, and tasted it. It was soft as velvet, chicken times three, shot through with the ginger and the note of onion. Small sticks of bone, their essence exhausted, crumbled in her mouth. She passed them into her hand and dropped them on the plate. “But it’s perfect,” she said. “All chicken should be cooked that way, all the time. I may never have tasted anything so good.”
The book is littered with moments like this, moments when Maggie tastes and experiences something new, and the passages devoted to thirty-crab sauce or chicken skin stuffed with minced meat and vegetables are a delight to read. It’s clear that Mones knows her stuff when it comes to Chinese cooking.
But The Last Chinese Chef isn’t just literary food porn. The book is a lovely meditation on what it means to cook for someone and what food can mean to a family and a culture. The book also doesn’t shy away from China’s difficult history; Sam’s father fled China during the Cultural Revolution and Sam’s move to Beijing has baffled and upset the older Liang. There are frequent “excerpts” from Liang Wei’s fictional classic and from Papa Liang’s memoirs that make this book a compelling work of historical fiction, in addition to being a gorgeous culinary tour of China and a lovely, compassionate story about moving on after death and disappointment.
To try my own hand at a food metaphor, reading The Last Chinese Chef felt like sipping a cup of hot tea on a cold, windy day. It is warm and sensual and thoughtful and an absolute delight. (OK, my food metaphors need work. Read the book anyway.)
Rating: Buy It