Book Review – The Last Chinese Chef

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.

  1. Maggie loves being in the middle of it all and finds herself more and more drawn to Sam.

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