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Last Chinese Chef, The

by: Nicole Mones

New York NY: Houghton Mifflin Company 2007, $24.00, Paperback
ISBN: 0-61861966-6

Reviewed by: Jacqueline M. Newman
Fall Volume: 2007 Issue: 14(3) page(s): 22 and 23

This book welcomes readers into a the world of Chinese chefs and their food that few know of. This novel is a work of food, friendship, and falling in love. David H. Hwang, author of M. Butterfly calls it "a dazzling journey...(that)..unlocks the deepest mysteries of...Chinese culinary arts." He also deems it "a page-turner." He advises how much it reveals of and into the world of Chinese food.

We read its almost three hundred pages in two sittings. We fall in love with the novel and the knowledge it provides. Pages 148 and 149 say, as quoted on its PR sheet, "Inside the leaves, the rib meat came away under their chopsticks, rich and lean and long cooked with a soft crust of scented rice powder. Underneath, the darker, more complicated flavor of the meat, the marrow, and the aromatics.....every flavor must be a play on texture, while texture suggests a flavor....always believe in the intelligence of the diner. Always reward then with subtlety." That same sheet provides a recipe from Chang's Garden in Arcadia CA, that we share below, for ribs in lotus leaf.

The book shares information including that the Chinese see every ingredient as having a property among five divisions of foods. It speaks of Chinese flavors including xiang which is fragrant, nong meaning concentrated, you er bu ni as rich flavor in fat. It talks of cui, meaning dry and crispy, nun as making fibrous smooth and yielding; and many more terms Chinese afficionados need to know. It discusses individual and groups speaks about I Yin, the prime minister/chef and lao ban who are restaurant managers. It tells of Hangzhou as the place where the cuisine of the literati was enhanced, Shanghai as the place where food was created for wealthy traders and merchants, and so much more. Learn guan xi as connections between people, suan cai fen si as sour cabbage with vermicelli, Plato's teaching about food is the opposite of art, Confucius had no objection to the finest food nor to the finest shredding of it, the Dowager Empress' xiao wo tou is similar to China's Marie Antoinette, Yuan Mei considered cooking similar to matrimony; he saw it as correct pairing on which things depend, and so much more.

The book ends, unfortunately, as the hero's father advises: Now eat, children, another day lies ahead. Like many readers, we never mind eating but did not want this volume's story to end. We learned quite a few things from The Last Chinese Chef, bet you will too.
Pork Spare Ribs in Lotus Leaf
1 pound pork spare ribs, cut into two-inch long individual ribs
2 Tablespoons chopped scallions
1 Tablespoon chopped ginger
1 Tablespoon each of soy sauce, oil, sugar, and soybean paste
1/2 teaspoon sesame oil
2 dried lotus leaves
1/4 cup rice powder scented with five-spice powder
1. Mix ribs with scallion and ginger pieces and the soy sauce, oil, sugar and bean paste. Marinate for half an hour.
2. Cut lotus leaves into eight pieces and soak in hot water for twenty minutes.
3. Divide ribs in eight small portions. Discard the water, then mix ribs with the rice powder mixture and wrap each rib portion rolling it into a lotus leaf package folding the ends in.
4. Put these packages smooth side down in a bowl or deep plate and steam them over high heat for two hours until tender.
5. Put a serving plate face down over the bowl and turn over.
Serves four.

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