As a dedicated foodie, I seek out not only food related mysteries, but also cookbooks and other novels/memoirs/etc. that focus on food and the culinary arts. I just finished Nicole Mones' The Last Chinese Chef, and I will never look at Chinese food the same way.
What a pleasant read. Mones weaves a credible romantic plot with incredible insights into the history and philosophy of Chinese food. Food writer Maggie McElroy, a widowed American food writer, is suddenly confronted with a paternity claim against her late
husband's estate--by a Chinese family claiming their granddaughter has inheritance rights. Maggie travels to Beijing with dual purposes: to write an article about a rising young
Chinese-American-Jewish chef, Sam Liang, and to discover the truth of her husband's possible daughter. Along the way she meets much of Sam's family, including his Beijing uncles and the Hangzhou uncle -- a raucous, loving, argumentative bunch of foodies who advise Sam about menus and romance, treat him like the lowliest of apprentices making him start over again when a dish isn't perfect, and alternately praise and criticize his cooking.
The novel leads the reader to see food as the Chinese do, as "healing" and to understand the guanxi or "connectedness" that takes place around food. Each chapter of the book begins withs a paragraph taken from a book also titled The Last Chinese Chef, written by Sam's grandfather and translated by Sam and his estranged father, a scholarly explanation of the place of food in Chinese history and family life. Mones' transports her readers back to the days of the cultural revolution and still further back to the Imperial palace, wrapping smells, textures, religion and memories into a dish fit for an Emperor or his concubines.
My only disappointment was the paucity of recipes included at the end of the book.
If you're looking for an enjoyable read, this is it. Just make sure you have your local Chinese take-out restaurant on speed dial.