The Asian Reporter 19th Annual
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From The Asian Reporter, V19, #42 (October 27, 2009), page 13.
A net of connectedness
The Last Chinese Chef
By Nicole Mones
Mariner Books, 2007
Paperback, 278 pages, $13.95
By Josephine Bridges
Maggie McElroy, protagonist of The Last Chinese Chef, is a food writer who doesn’t cook. Until the opening pages of Nicole Mones’ wonderful novel, Maggie has "travelled each month to a different American community for her column." She has written about "ethnic food, of course," but when some unsettling news propels her to China, she takes an assignment to interview a Beijing chef, Sam Liang. "It would keep me sane," she tells her editor. What she doesn’t say is that she has "never really liked Chinese food."
Sam Liang is the grandson of Liang Wei, imperial chef and author, whose book Sam is translating into English. Born and raised in Ohio, the son of a Chinese father and a Jewish mother, Sam lives now in Beijing, where, like his grandfather, he is "a cook of tradition. Beijing might be wide open, aggressive — profane, even — in its run for the future, but people still longed for the past."
So many dishes make an appearance in The Last Chinese Chef — some of them again and again — that they begin to seem like characters. "Breakfast was congee, rice porridge with shreds of a briny, pleasingly marine-flavored waterweed and crunchy, salty peanuts." In the Uighur night market, "they settled on thick hand-cut noodles with green vegetables in broth and a huge platter of dense, chewy, cumin-encrusted lamb ribs." Tofu, boiled for half an hour, "becomes a sponge, ready to squirt its sauce when you bite into it. Now the average kitchen might dress it with green onion and oyster sauce. You know, whatever. Not me. I am making a reduction sauce from thirty crabs."
Even scenes from Beijing’s history are items on a menu: "In the early 1990s, the city was awash in migrant labor. Construction could not proceed without it; in this respect China was much like America. But in China the migrants didn’t come from other countries; they came from rural areas and remote provinces. As workers from Sichuan flooded in, restaurants, cafés, and stalls opened, and soon Beijingers developed a taste for hua jiao, prickly ash, Sichuan peppercorn … Workers from Henan brought their hong men yang rou, stewed lamb; those who came from Gansu brought Lanzhou la mian, Lanzhou-style beef noodles; and from Shaanxi came yang rou pao mo, a soup of lamb and unleavened bread." And fat, historically a crucial component of the Chinese diet, is no longer so desirable now that central heating and cheap meat have become fixtures in people’s lives, Sam notes as he makes a radical decision to drain some of the rich liquid from a signature dish.
Food is at the center of The Last Chinese Chef, and Sam points out that here, food means 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." Food may be at the center, but spread around it, as if around a table laden with delicacies, is the community sharing the meal. While most of the novel is written in the third person, two chapters stand out because they are narrated by characters who might be considered minor, except that it’s clear Nicole Mones doesn’t think of any of her characters in that way. And it’s not just individual characters the author has brought to life, but their web of relationships, what the author calls "a net of connectedness." Even the bamboo in Hangzhou, which has begun to behave strangely, appears to be a part of it.
You may feel like a part of it, too, which is one of the marvels of the novel. Particularly if you are feeling a little disconnected, The Last Chinese Chef is the book for you: a new kind of comfort food perhaps, but comfort all the same.