Saturday, September 12, 2009
The Last Chinese Chef by Nicole Mones is a satisfying novel about the connections between food and culture and, specifically, the cultural role of cooking in imperial and communist China.
The story centers on magazine columnist and recent widow, Maggie McElroy, as she travels to China to handle a matter involving her husband's estate. She combines the trip with an assignment to write about an up and coming Chinese American chef competing for a spot on the "culinary Olympics" team. Through Sam, and his grandfather's famous book, The Last Chinese Chef, Maggie is introduced to the culinary history of China.
She also comes to appreciate the Chinese concept of guanxi -- "connection, relationship, mutual indebtedness . . . . the safety net of obligation and mutuality that held up society." She sees how guanxi works among the people she meets, and also how the concept is reflected in China's cooking and dining. Sam teaches her that the finest Chinese cooking looks to make connections, not only between flavor and texture, but between the food and literature, art, and history.
There are several layers to the story. Like the classic Chinese cuisine Mones writes about, the book combines flavors and textures in ways that are enjoyable, complex, and often surprising.
This was my fiction choice for the Spice of Life challenge.
(Please leave a comment with a link if you would like me to list your review here.)