I like cooking; it is a source of creation and happiness. So I am very excited to find this book: The Last Chinese Chef.
The author does a fantastic job to link a cliffhang story with Chinese cuisines and culture.
The story begins when Maggie, a widowed American food writer, learns of a Chinese paternity claim against her late husband’s estate. She has go immediately to Beijing, China. She asks her magazine for time off, but her editor counters with an assignment: to profile the rising culinary star Sam Liang.
In China, she knows that his husband has a one-night affair with a Chinese woman, Gaolan. She meets Gaolan’s child, Shuying with the help of Sam. Millions of reason that Maggie should hate her husband and angry with the Chinese woman, but she accepts this fact. She remember her husband once asked for having a child before he died but she proponed so that they never have opportunity to have a child. In Maggie’s heart, she hopes the child proved to be his husband’s and she understand the pain and helpless of Gaolan after they met. Even though the lab test proves the child belongs to the other man, not Maggie’s husband, she still provides help to Gaolan.
Meanwhile, with Sam as her guide, Maggie is drawn deep into a world of food rooted in centuries of history and philosophy. Unlike western food, the peak of Chinese cuisine is giving and sharing of food. “Great food should never be taken alone. What pleasure can a man take in fine cuisine unless he invites cherished friends, counts the days until the banquet, and composes an anticipatory poem for his letter of invitation?” Chinese people like to place all the dishes at table and every one can eat those dishes. That is sharing: food must be eaten with a group of people.
Westerners do not understand the real Chinese food. “A meal for them was nothing but food. When it came to the food of China they had their version, a limited number of dishes that always had to be made the same way with the sauces they would recognize from other restaurants. Sameness was what they wanted. They went out for Chinese food, they ordered their dishes, and they did not like them to change.” It is true that, in western countries, we can’t find out a restaurant that offer real Chinese food because chefs have to modified Chinese dishes to meet the need of westerners. So it is sad that westerners rarely understand Chinese food and culture. (I miss Chinese food so so so much!)
Different parts of China have different food and culture. Maggie comes to know that food always related to the Chinese culture and history. “The major cuisines of China were brought into being for different purposes, and for different kinds of diners. Beijing food was the cuisine of officials and rulers, up to the Emperor. Shanghai food was created for the wealthy traders and merchants. From Sichuan came food of common people, for, as we all know, some of the best-known Sichuan dishes originated in street stalls. Then there is Hangzhou, whence came the cuisine of the literati. This is food that takes poetry as its principal inspiration. From commemorating great poems of the past to dining on candlelit barges afloat upon West Lake where wine is drunk and new poems are created, Hangzhou cuisine strives always to delight men of letters. The aesthetic symmetry between food and literature is a pattern without end.”
Sam is participate in a banquet contest and has to prepare dishes with the help of his uncle. Maggie follows him to visit his dying uncle Xie in Hangzhou. She feels warm and comfortable in Xie’s house. The close relationship between relatives and friends is quite different from America and Maggie comes to enjoy life in China. She used to eat alone and live apart from people; she thought it is the life she wants. But after she comes to China, recalling the old life, she realizes she lost so much happiness in the past. At the end, Sam loses the contest. But he gets more than expected—love. Maggie and Sam are in love: they are brave to step out of their comfort zone.
“Eating is only the beginning of cuisine! Only the start! Flavor and texture and aroma and all the pleasure—this is no more than the portal. Really great cooking goes beyond this to engage the mind and the spirit—to reflect on art, on nature, on philosophy. Never cook food just to be eaten.”
If we cook food just to be eaten, cooking may become a repeated and uninteresting task. Food should be shared and appreciated with others–that is what Maggie learnt in China and that is what readers learnt in this book.