Wednesday, June 4, 2008

Connecting through food (The Last Chinese Chef - by Nicole Mones)

Food as sustenance, food as salve for the soul, food as poetry, food as history, food as political statement, food as a way for people to connect - these are the themes of Nicole Mones's The Last Chinese Chef. In it, a fortyish widow, Maggie, discovers that her deceased husband may have fathered a child with another woman in China. She is a food writer and, although still in mourning, combines going to China to investigate whether she has any legal responsibility for this child with an assignment to interview a fortyish Chinese-American chef, Sam, who is competing in a national cooking contest. On the downside this book is rather obvious. I knew how it was going to end within about 35 pages. After a while, I was even pretty sure I knew what would occur in each succeeding scene - so suspense is out. However Mones writes a swift-moving novel in which you really care about what is happening to the characters and she has researched her subject - Chinese cuisine - very thoroughly.

"You said Chinese cuisine in China tries to accomplish certain things."


"Things that set it apart from the cuisines of the West?"

"Yes." He thought. "For one thing, we have formal ideals of flavor and texture. Those are the rigid principles I mentioned. Each one is like a goal that every chef tries to reach - either purely, by itself, or in combination with the others. Then there's artifice. Western food doesn't try to do much with artifice at all."

"Artifice." She wanted to make sure she heard him right.

"Artifice. Illusion. Food should be more than food; it should tease and provoke the mind. We have a lot of dishes that come to the table looking like one thing and turn out to be something else. The most obvious example would be a duck or fish that is actually vegetarian, created entirely from soy and gluten, but there are many other types of illusion dishes. We strive to fool the diner for a moment. It adds a layer of intellectual play to the meal. When it works, the gourmet is delighted."

"Okay," she said, "artifice."

"Call it theater. Chinese society is all about theater. Not just in food. Then there's healing. We use food to promote health. I'm not talking about balanced nutrition - every cuisine does that, to some degree. I'm talking about each food having certain properties - hot, cold, dry, wet, sour, spicy, bitter, sweet, and so on. And we think many imbalances are cause by these properties being out of whack. So a cook who is adept can create dishes that will heal the diner."

"You mean cure illness?"

"Yes, but it's more than that. People have mental and emotional layers to their problems, too. The right foods can ease the mind and heart. It's all one system."

"You cook like that?" she said. "You yourself?"

"Not really. It's a specialty."

"Okay," she said writing it down. "Healing." As if food can heal the human heart. "Is that it?"

Just in case you didn't get it the first time, Mones repeats the theme of the novel and italicizes it.

"One more. The most important one of all. It's community. Every meal eaten in China, whether the grandest banquet or the poorest lunch eaten by workers in an alley - all eating is shared by the group."

"That's true all over the world," she protested.

"No." He looked at her, and for the first time she saw a coolness in his face. He didn't like her disagreeing. "We don't plate. Almost all other cuisines do. Universally in the West, they plate. Think about it."

"Well..." That was true. Every Chinese restaurant she'd ever been to had put food in the middle of the table...

Healing and connection - these are the predominant themes of the novel. Mones pounds them into the reader without subtlety. Her writing style is casual, and while this makes for very natural dialogue, I find "Maggie'd" for "Maggie would" distracting and not worth the ink it saves. However, the writing on food is informative and detailed but also entertaining and get ready to salivate - it's little wonder the pages of my copy have a few food stains on it.

He put down a plate of pink shrimp under a clear glaze. No additions or ingredients could be seen, though she had watched him add many things. The aroma seemed to be sweet shrimp, nothing more.

He took one and held it in his mouth, dark eyes flying through calculations.

Her turn. She put one in her mouth and bit; it burst with a big, popping crunch. Inside there was the soft, yielding essence of shrimp. "How do you make it pop like that?"

"Soak it in cold salt water first. That's what I was doing when you first came in."

"It's great," she said.

"Good," he corrected. "Not great. I can still detect the presence of sugar."

"I can't."

He smiled. "Remember I told you we strove for formal ideals of flavor and texture? This dish is a perfect example. One of the most important peaks of flavor is xian. Xian mean the sweet, natural flavor - like butter, fresh fish, luscious clear chicken broth. Then we have xiang, the fragrant flavor - think frying onions, roasted meat. Nong is the concentrated flavor, the deep complex taste you get from meat stews or dark sauces or fermented things. Then there is the rich flavor, the flavor of fat. This is called you er bu ni, which means to taste of fat without being oily. We love this one. Fat is very important to us. Fat is not something undesirable to be removed and thrown away, not in China. We have a lot of dishes that actually focus on fat and make it delectable. Bring pork belly to the table, when it's done right, and Chinese diners will groan with happiness."

I find Mones food writing luscious, it's no wonder she writes for Gourmet magazine. But there are two kinds of writing about food in this novel that Mones pulls off with impressive command. One are stories within the story - of the child's grandmother and of Sam's father, the son of a famous Chinese chef, who has the bad fortune to come of age under the Maoist regime when fine cooking was considered not just anathema to Communist culture, but preparing or even appreciating it could be a cultural crime. The following excerpt takes place on a crowded train ride as Zhang Guolin rides to her new government-assigned place of living. She carries a tin box of food lovingly prepared by her Nainai.

In our little bay, designed for six passengers, at least twenty had pressed in. Everyone was hungry.

After some hours and the exchange of many revolutionary ideas, it was agreed that anyone who had any food would bring it out for all in our knot to share.

As I dug in my bag I glimpsed the kinds of foods others were drawing forth: peanuts in a twist of newspaper, dried fruit, small packages of crackers. And then I put out my tin box.

All eyes flew to it. It had the weight and size of real food; when I cracked the lid, the aroma rushed out, unstoppable. "What is it?"

"I don't know, " I answered, for I had taken the box from Nainai without looking inside.

Now I lifted off the lid, and drew in my breath. It was Guang-zhou wenchange ji, a Cantonese dish Nainai loved. Velvet-braised chicken breast, thin-sliced Yunnan salt-cured ham, and tiny tender bok choy were layered in an alternating pattern. All three were meant to be taken together in one bit. The arrangement glistened under a clear sauce. As soon as I saw it my mouth longed for it. That must have been what Nainai's friend brought her from the south, Yunnan, ham. So special. It had been meant for me, and now everyone was staring at it. With a plunging heart I realized how opulent and bourgeois it appeared.

"What's that?" someone said.

"She said she didn't know," said another.

"How could you not know?" said a third, this time to me.

I held the tin box, terrified.

Then Huang Meiying, next to me, spoke up with a boldness I had not expected. "She doesn't know because an old lady handed it to her on her way into the station. I saw it. I was right behind her."

"What old lady?"

"I never saw her before," said Huang.

"Did she say anything?"

Silence. It was my turn. Little Huang was looking at me. I cleared my throat. "She said, Long live Chairman Mao."

"Maybe it's poisoned," someone said.

"It's not poisoned," scoffed another. "I'll show you. I'll eat some." He tasted it, lifting one set of the three slices in the incandescently simple sauce and dropping it in his mouth. I wanted to scream at him. I was about to collapse from hunger. And this was ham, from Yunnan, made for me by my Nainai. I wanted it.

Great scene! I appreciated Mones writing much more when it integrated ideas, food, and plot elements in a compelling scene like this than when it pounded one over the head with narrative explanation. The other writing Mones succedes with are the quotes that begins each chapter:

When does the bamboo flower? A man may wait his lifetime for the answer and still not see it. The bamboo might flower only once in a hundred years. Once it begins, all the bamboo around it will flower too, for hundreds of miles all over the region...
- LIAN WEI, The Last Chinese Chef

I found each of these little passages a fascinating bit of culinary or cultural history and and they assisted the movement of the plot, but Mones coup is that The Last Chinese Chef is the name of her novel, but there is no "classic" she is quoting from. She has invented this book and all its passages from scholarly articles she researched. She had me convinced.

Ultimately this book is a romance that is begging to be a big-budget culinary feature film. Sort of You've Got Mail meets Babette's Feast. It's written like film, it has appealing romantic leads you really feel for, it covers contemporary topics - multiculturalism, midlife searches for meaning in life - it has some stories suited for epic historical flashbacks which will be pretty to look at. Despite the fact that the book had no surprises in terms of its plot, I was interested and it made for entertaining reading on a couple of flights to and from Ohio. Now that I know all the Chinese food I've been eating is unauthentic crap, I want to know where (in NYC) I can get the good stuff - I've worked up a taste for it!


Sarah at SmallWorld said...

I'm adding this to my TBR list. Sounds like the lack of subtleties might get tiresome, but still, I'm intrigued by your review!

Anonymous said...

Thanks for the insightful review. I saw the book at the bookstore and thought the author was just trying to hit the iron while it's still hot because everyone is talking about Beijing, China, the Olympics.

"So a cook who is adept can create dishes that will heal the diner."

This theme also comes up in the Korean soap-opera series, Dai Jang Geum, that I'm watching at the moment. The art of cooking to to prescribe the appropriate ingredients, and while to excel in flavor and originality, the most important thing to concoct dishes that are healthy to the person served.

I'll check out the book! :)

Ted said...

Smallworld - it is entertaining reading - especially if you're a foodie!

Matt - The book definitely has the feel of a product about it. It is rather timely, isn't it? But I got past that and enjoyed it nonetheless. I knew very little about Chinese cooking and found that aspect of the book very informative.