The Last Chinese Chef is Nicole Mones third novel. It is a fictional story yet it reads with the same integrity as the fictional novel and modern classic about Japanese society The Memoirs of a Geisha by Arthur Golden. What sets these two authors apart from the rest is their in depth research and attention to detail. They blend the new with the old, the modern with the ancient, fact with fiction to showcase a complex story within the romance and sentimentality of a passing era.
"Food was always surrounded by coded behaviours
that themselves carried great meaning." p17
The Last Chinese Chef is about food. From cover to cover. It romantices the symbolism, preparation, skill and the respect for flavour, texture, quality and presentation expected of a gourmand of Chinese cuisine.
"Food should be more than food; it should
tease and provoke the mind." p36
Having said that, as I read the novel, it was always in the back of my mind the reality, that China is a nation of people who must be fed, whatever the cost and historically they will eat anything that has a pulse. This is not isolated to China.
Across the globe we hunt, catch and slaughter without a second thought. However, China, is well known for its specialities which I feel only add to the pain, suffering and extinction of many species. Of note, was the recipe about "drunken shrimp" which are eaten alive after they have been marinated in alcohol, or the praise by the fictional chef in the novel for the creamy texture of shark's fin soup.
Nicole tells a story of a fast moving society that once rested on a culture so vast, it was spread across many dynasties, until it was interrupted by Communism, the Cultural Revolution, incursion from the West and now industrialization and globalization. Nicole taps in to the recent past of Imperialism and Communism and weaves it into China's modern history.
"Great food needed more than great chefs;
it needed gourmet diners ...but the Communists
had made it illegal to appreciate fine food,
or even remember that it once existed" p39
Amid the feasting is the story is about a grieving widow - Maggie Elroy - an American food writer who travels to China to come to terms with a paternity claim against her late husband and to cover a magazine assignment of a cooking competition in China.
She meets chef Sam Liang - an American of Chinese and Jewish descent who has returned to China to re-discover his ancestry and follow his passion for cooking. He is taught by his "uncles" who are not related to him by blood but by connections to family members over the generations.
Sam enters a national cooking competition and much of the food choices he discusses with Maggie are for her magazine article and what will constitute a suitable winning menu. There is mention of crispy fried duck, carp in lamb's broth, dipped snails and fried sparrow. There is tofu with the sauce of thirty crabs! stuffed pork, silver fungus, braised soya beans, steamed pork ribs in lotus leaves and all sorts of herbs and spices, marinades and additives such as soya sauce, sesame oil, chinese wine, ginger, shallots, bean paste and vinegar.
Each chapter begins with an inspirational quote from a fictional food bible called The Last Chinese Chef by Liang Wei. Nicole did a remarkable job composing this tome that reads like an ancient text. The excepts from this book do not exist but it is shaped around the skeleton of classical sources by Chinese scholars who wrote on the subject of Chinese cuisine and its imperial roots.
By the end of the novel both Sam and Maggie find they are well matched, like the flavours in a great meal and Maggie's love affair with Sam, China and its food begins.
"The right food can ease the mind and the hearts." p36
There are recipes at the end of the novel and more on offer at www.nicolemones.com. Duck is mentioned so many times throughhout this novel that I have included a family favourite.
My Easy Duck Soup
1/2 duck chopped
1 bunch any green chinese vegetable of your choosing.
I used bak choy this time.
2 litres of water seasoned to taste.
Place duck pieces in water and bring to the boil to release the flavours.
Turn down to a simmer and season with salt and pepper.
Add greens close to serving time so that they are
wilted but not overcooked.
This is essentially a clear soup but
you can add noodles if you want a heartier meal.
©2011 My Novel Idea by Ann Etcell-Ly/All Rights Reserved