This post is part of a recurring series I started to share some of my favorite food reads, which range from food-centric novels to memoirs… even cookbooks! Perhaps through this series, you’ll discover a new book or see one you’ve been meaning to check out. By the same token, I’m always on the hunt for my next great food read. If you have any recommendations, please email me!
Contrary to what you saw on my Instagram last week, I really do love to read, as do the other members of my book club. (It’s a great tote though, isn’t it? I can’t wait to bring it to book club today!) In fact, these freezing temperatures have left me no choice but to stay under the covers as long as possible on the weekends and dream slash read about comforting soul food. Comfort food for most people around here might include dishes like mac & cheese, chicken noodle soup, and pot pie. It does for me too, especially as to that last one. But it also means the food I grew up with and that my mom would feed me when I was sick, like rice porridge and savory steamed egg custard (chawanmushi).
I’ve discussed my Japanese heritage on the blog before (here), but I don’t think I’ve mentioned that my dad is Taiwanese by way of mainland China. Growing up, I spent every Saturday attending Japanese school and every summer in Tokyo, so I’m woefully less in touch with my father’s heritage… except as to the food. I have very strong opinions about the best soup dumplings and bubble tea in NYC and will defend my favorite dim sum place to the ground. Even so, I am still very much a novice when it comes to the different and incredibly rich regional cuisines of China (and Taiwan), but I am an eager learner. As is my stomach. We are ready to hit the books! To that end, my studies will include this promising cookbook all about DUMPLINGS that my dad got me for Christmas last year.
I also recently finished reading The Last Chinese Chef by Nicole Mones. It is a novel about a widowed American food critic and her interactions with an up & coming half-American, half-Chinese chef as he competes for a spot on the national team in the cultural Olympics (preceding the 2008 Beijing Olympics, but that’s a peripheral detail).
It is a fascinating look into the storied history of Chinese cuisine, including the interplay between food and the arts. Who knew that food spontaneously inspired legendary Chinese writers and poets to compose works while they ate? The storyline about the food critic and her investigation into her late husband’s affair in China is not very compelling and a little unimaginative as a plot device to get her to China, but the book does an excellent job of explaining the different values and properties of ideal Chinese cuisine as they differ from Western cuisine. The breakdown of the art of an imperial banquet alone makes The Last Chinese Chef a worthwhile read. I don’t think I’ve ever so clearly understood that flavor can be irrelevant when the only purpose of a dish is texture; the delivery of the perfect crunch or pop. I gained a newfound appreciation for the incredibly complex processes that led to seemingly simple food, like the wok-fried shrimp whose many ingredients were untraceable by the end because they all served to enhance the natural shrimp flavor. Food that deceives, food that heals (what I wouldn’t do for that velvety, ginger chicken), food that challenges – all are featured. And the common thread (which was a main theme in the book), is community and gathering around food.
As a child, I always wondered why when my family went to Chinese restaurants, we would order a few dishes to share while the other groups around us were ordering dishes to eat individually. The Last Chinese Chef and my Chinese background show us why.