This novel was the selection for the current round of Cook the Books, a reading food blogger's version of the book club. I have to admit, when I first read the back cover blurb for The Last Chinese Chef, I was less than enthused. Following the intersecting lives of two characters -- one a recently widowed American food writer investigating a surprising claim from China on her deceased husband's claim, and the other a Chinese American chef trying to create a profession out of cooking according to traditional Chinese dictates -- the book just didn't seem to be my thing. I never would have chosen it on my own, as I tend not to go in for those good-relationship-gone-bad stories.
This novel, however, defied my initial expectations. Mones writes with delicate and luscious detail, both about her characters and some truly exquisite Chinese cuisine. I could virtually taste every dish that Maggie, the food writer, samples, and share her delight with each new experience. The professional chefs she encounters in China are focused on creating unique meals that demonstrate artistry, artifice, and surprising flavors. We don't get that kind of Chinese food here in America, which Mones admits in the novel. The author is also able to weave a vivid story about relationships, unfaithfulness, and love without going into graphic detail, which I appreciated.
One theme that ripples through every succulent chapter in Mones' novel was that of relationship, of connectedness. In China, food isn't just about food -- it's about sharing something with others, about community. I experienced a taste of this when I was in Malaysia, whose population boasts a fairly equal percentage of Chinese, Indian, and native Malay cultures. Along with the rest of my missions team, I received Chinese hospitality and experienced just how entwined food and relationships are. I enjoyed how this truth received so much attention in The Last Chinese Chef. Here is an excerpt that I think highlights the theme very well:
Guanxi was connection, relationship, mutual indebtedness. It was the safety net of obligation and mutuality that held up society. The best opportunities and connections were kept for the family, the clan, the friends, in an outwardly rippling circle. You gave one thing to the world; you gave something higher to your own group. . . . People eating together, whether are banquets or daily meals -- that kept the engine of guanxi going. Perhaps this was why chefs in China had always been so important (The Last Chinese Chef, p. 58-59).I savored every moment that I spent immersed between this book's covers. It made me long to visit China and taste its treasures for myself. I also learned quite a bit from Mones novel and feel that I now have a much deeper appreciate for and understanding of Chinese culture.
Reading this book even inspired me to cook up my own Chinese-esque dish. Of course, it's nowhere near as splendid as the creations described in the story. If you would like to learn more about the novel and related recipes, be sure to check out Nicole Mones' website.
I'm not sure how Chinese my stir-fry dish really is, but it did hit a sweet spot. This dish reminds me of the mountains of stir-fry we helped make while serving at a Malaysian soup kitchen. (Read more about it here and here, along with some recipes.) There, the master chef threw tons of bean sprouts, tofu, onion, and chicken into a vast, sizzling wok and turned out plate after plate of a hearty meal which we served to the waiting poor and homeless. I threw together my own version of his stir-fry-for-a-crowd as yesterday's lunch, and it was exactly what my soul and stomach needed. And that, I think, it what a lot of Chinese cooking is all about.
Book Savvy Stir-Fry in Almond Sauce
I did not do any measuring for most of this meal's ingredients. Trust your taste buds and use what you feel in the mood for, and whatever veggies you have on hand. Stir-fries are a great way to clean out the fridge and have some creative cooking (and Chinese!) fun at the same time!
1/3 block of tofu, diced
1 heaping T garlic, minced
ginger powder to taste
vegetables of your choice (I used broccoli, mushrooms, water chestnuts, zucchini, yellow squash, bean sprouts, and deliciously crunch kelp noodles)
Garnish of your choice (I sprinkled honey sesame sticks and sesame almonds over mine)
Cover the surface of a wok or pan with cooking spray and set over medium-high heat. Saute the tofu, garlic, and ginger with a splash of soy sauce until the tofu begins to brown. Add the vegetables and a little more soy sauce. Cook for 3-4 minutes, then add the sauce (below). Continue cooking for another few minutes, then remove and serve. Sprinkle on your favorite garnish and eat. Use chops sticks if you have a set.
1 T almond butter (or peanut)
1 T hot water
1/2 T rice vinegar plus more to taste
1 T soy sauce, plus more to taste
drizzle of molasses
pinch of cayenne
Mix everything together and stir until you are left with a creamy sauce. Add water if your nut butter is difficult to stir.
Makes stir-fry for one.