The Last Chinese Chef
by Nicole Mones
PN3563 M742L 2008 Central Library
Pork spare ribs wrapped in lotus leaf, Beggar chicken, steamed clams and eggs, eight varieties of dumplings- after you read this book, you’ll never look at Chinese food the same way again.
In The Last Chinese Chef, Mones documents the love affair between a man and Chinese cuisine and to a lesser extent, between him and Maggie, an American food writer who came to China for a personal reason. As a way to distract herself from her painful task, she takes on the assignment of interviewing Sam Liang, an Asian-American chef who cooks in the tradition of the imperial kitchen.
Through Maggie’s interview with Sam, we learn that great Chinese cuisine often has its genesis in poetry (e.g., the Chinese poet Su Dong Bo) and art and creating great Chinese food requires forethought, patience and the very best ingredients. Chinese cuisine focuses on artifice, texture, taste, opulence; and more often than not, seek to bring people together. Sam rightly points out that this communal aspect of Chinese cuisine is one of the key factors that differentiate the East and the West. The former often shares food from one big plate while the latter always has their food individually plated.
Mones’ choice of looking at the process of food preparation, its philosophy and the socioeconomic factors that surround it (rather than just the finished product itself) is refreshing indeed. For Singaporeans who love to eat, this is a pertinent read that will transform your interaction with food and enhance your understanding of the cultural forces behind their creation.
Warning: Do not read this book on an empty stomach.
It is that time of the semester again when students troop into the library wearing huge T-shirts, shorts and flip flops. They carry with them bags of papers, books, snacks, the occasional teddy bear, soft toy, etc which they later spread out all over the tables. Practically all seats are taken and there is a slight bristling of tension in the air. Exam time.
Sometimes you will get a student coming up to you to complain about a bunch of girls whispering too excitedly or about the crackly sound of plastic bags of crackers being opened or about calculators or laptops clickety-clacking away too noisily (“The library should have a non-clicking zone, you know”). You have the occasional student who would come up to say his fave seat by the corner has been reserved by a ton of books and bags and would you please do something about it. Or the one that exasperatedly tells you, “Could you ask the girl at the table across from me to eat her fish-balls somewhere else?” And don’t get me started on handphones.
I read somewhere that people with heighten anxieties can’t deal with the slightest noise. I can appreciate that. Yup. I would get seriously cheesed off too if I have to listen to the crackly crackle of keropok or deal with the smell of fish-balls while I concentrate on calling my lecturer and asking my friends about the Theory of Constraints for tomorrow’s exams. But you know, I’m cool. There is the librarian what. I just go over and tell her. And she is going to make things right for me.
What is it with giving out candies, chocs and all sorts of food stuff at students’ presentations? After a couple of presentations, I was half-expecting a plate of char-siew rice coming my way as I sat through yet one more presentation.
During the break, I turned to a lovely girl in what looked like a Prada knocked-down and asked, “You guys distribute food all the time at presentations?” She laughed a little too nervously while fiddling with an unopened bag of mini Mentos. “Sometimes we give out apples…” And like a true blue librarian, I asked, “Where do you throw the cores?” By that time, the next presentation was up and Ms Prada was saved from giving me a satisfactory answer but I must say the delicate shade of pink on her face was delightfully lovely.
I guess when I stepped into the classroom to observe students presenting their group projects, I caused a little bit of a stir for one little moment. I can just about hear “What the hell is the librarian doing here?” Observing only-lah. Don’t panic. As if my comments would contribute to your marks. But commented I did. The lecturer had wanted me to see her students’ work after the Advance Searching Skills class I gave them at the beginning of semester. I was there to see how well they use and cite secondary sources. One group did cite some secondary sources but when their experiment (yah, they attempted an experiment instead of a survey – brave, right?) went a bit out of orbit, they did not attempt to rein it in by using secondary research. Secondary sources would have given them a framework to work from and the presentation would have been tighter.
All in all, the presentations were good. What was enjoyable was how the lecturer dissected the analyses of their data and coached them. Man, you got to hand it to her. She is one academic all of us should be proud to work with. I certainly am.