The story is this: widowed American food writer Maggie McElroy travels to China to settle a legal issue concerning her late husband's estate. While there her editors ask her to write about a rising star in Beijing's burgeoning haute food scene which is experiencing a renaissance after being suppressed under several decades of communism. What Maggie discovers is about more than food--it is how important food is in shaping history and culture, and how food is the very soul and identity of the Chinese people and ourselves as individuals.
While the characters and plot of The Last Chinese Chef (Houghton Mifflin, 288 pages, $24) are interesting and well written enough to capture the reader's interest from start to end, it's the background of China and the deep and enticing food in the book that is the star, and where local Portland Author Nicole Mones really shines. The woman knows her stuff, having been a regular visitor to China as a textile executive since the 1970s during the Cultural Revolution, and more recently as a food writer for Gourmet magazine and other publications. Her research and documentation of Chinese food is outstanding and beautifully written, with descriptions of food dishes, ingredients, and preparation techniques a stimulation for literature lovers and their appetites.
Take this passage where Maggie first tries a dish of what sounds like simple pork spareribs wrapped in lotus leaves: "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." Watching Maggie's delight, the chef goes on to state, "This is a dish of refineme...sophistication and subtlety are what is most important, not the peaks of flavor. Every flavor must be a play on texture, while every texture suggests a flavor. You can be rustic, but never coarse. Always believe in the intelligence of the diner. Always reward them with subtlety."
This book is clearly a food lover's wet dream, and is a great read for anyone interested in learning more about one of the world's most complex and historically significant cuisines, history, and essence. It is also a great story about discovery of one's self.