The Last Chinese Chef – Nicole Mones
So at first I was all, what does an American writer know about Chinese cooking? Well turns out she knows quite a bit, having spent 18 years doing business in China!
And so this Chinese-Singaporean whose great-grandparents came from China but has never stepped into China itself (unless you count Hong Kong but it’s not really China, is it) had to concede that Mones does seem to know what she’s taking about.
A few pinyin errors aside, as well as one too many uses of “zhen bang!” (which to me tends to be something young kids say, or parents say to encourage their little kids), it was an interesting read and insight into Chinese culture. Like this bit about showering at night:
Of course, she thought, another meal.
“Does someone else need to use the bathroom?”
“Not now. They’re Chinese. They bathe at night. You slept through it.”
I had a good chuckle over that. Having spent most of my life residing near the equator, a shower before bed is pretty essential. Sometimes showers were required more than once a day, if it was a particularly sweltering day. And yes, life near the equator means that it’s hot all the time.
I have to admit being far less interested in Maggie’s story. She’s in Beijing to find out about if her late husband really did father a child with a Chinese woman. She’s also a food writer and has been tasked to interview Sam, an up and coming half-Chinese (his mother was Jewish) chef. He knows his food.
“That’s just flavor. We have texture. There are ideals of texture, too—three main ones. Cui is dry and crispy, nen is when you take something fibrous like shark’s fin and make it smooth and yielding, and ruan is perfect softness—velveted chicken, a soft-boiled egg. I think it’s fair to say we control texture more than any other cuisine does. In fact some dishes we cook have nothing at all to do with flavor. Only texture; that is all they attempt. Think of bêche-de-mer. Or wood ear.”
But the thing is, she really doesn’t know anything about Chinese food. Right. And she’s a food writer.
Anyway, Sam is auditioning to be part of the national cooking team of some cooking competition. And the food that he does eventually cook sounds heavenly. In fact, all the descriptions of food were the shining stars of this book.
Breakfast was congee, rice porridge with shreds of a briny, pleasingly marine-flavored waterweed and crunchy, salty peanuts. Hard- boiled eggs, pickles, and fluffy steamed buns flecked with scallion surrounded the pot. Two kinds of tea were poured, Dragon Well green, which was Hangzhou’s local specialty, and a light, flower-scented oolong that Sam said was from Fujian.
This really made me miss living in Singapore, where porridge can be eaten any time of the day. Porridge for breakfast? Sure. I like a Cantonese-style fish porridge. Porridge for supper? Even better. Especially if it’s Teochew porridge where there’s a big spread of cooked dishes to go along with the rice porridge with sweet potato cooked into it. I like it with fried fish, vegetables, pork stew, braised goose, pickled vegetables.
I mean, a book that sends me off on a foodie memory is always a good read. Well, the problem with this book was Maggie. And she’s a big part of it. If we could strip away her side of the story, and make her a smaller side character (for Sam still has to explain his cooking to someone), and focus solely on Sam and his family’s cooking history as well as the food itself, this would have been an excellent book.
Hood – Emma Donoghue
Most people know Donoghue from her rather scarring book, Room.
But she has also read some other amazing books. Hood is one of them.
Pen (Penelope really but no one calls her that) and Cara have been together, on and off, since they were teenagers in a convent school. For the last few years, they had been living together. A couple. Living in Cara’s father’s house even, although he doesn’t know more than that they are friends. Same goes for Pen’s colleagues and family.
Cara dies in a car accident. (Not a spoiler. It’s in the blurb). Pen as her lover and best friend is grieving. She is widowed but no one can understand that.
When these people looked at me they could have no idea that I was anything to their missing relative; that I had let her dip her biscuits in my tea, on and off, for thirteen years; that sometimes, in the middle of a conversation on inflation or groceries, she would look down at my hand in sudden wonder and would tell me, her voice hushed as if in church, ‘Oh, I want your hand inside me.’
Donoghue takes us through that one week of mourning, as Pen sorts out her life, her memories, her past with Cara, and her future.
How very foolish I had been, in this age of pic-’n’-mix consumerism, to have slept with only one woman in the thirteen years since I discovered the whole business. Now I was left high and dry and loverless. Though I knew theoretically that there were other people in the world who could heat up a bed for me, I didn’t believe in them as anything more than fantasies. Bed was Cara, and without her, without at least the possibility of her return, I felt infibulated.
Hood was a very moving story, not just about death and dying but about Cara and Pen’s relationship, how it began and faltered, how they hid their love. I enjoyed Pen’s voice, her perspective, her intelligence and wit.
In an interview with Flavorwire, Donoghue admits that Pen is one character of hers that stuck with her:
Actually I like Pen in Hood. There’s a lot of my thoughts in her, but she’s living a life (closeted in Ireland) that I walked away from, so she’s a sort of alter ego I suppose
The Last Chinese Chef and Hood could not be more different. One by a new-to-me author who surprised me with her knowledge of Chinese culture and food but emotionally I couldn’t connect with her characters so I’m not quite rushing out to read her other books yet. The other by an established author whose works I had previously enjoyed somewhat but after reading this one I want to champion and say, hey blog reader, go read Emma Donoghue’s Hood. Or you know, any of her other books.