Thursday, August 20, 2009


Once again, my favorite foodie readers at the Cook the Books club have chosen the perfect book for a food-obsessed reader with a voracious appetite for good food and entertaining reads. More than any of the other books we've read in the past, this novel resonated with me. My premise that food is how we show our love for family and friends was echoed in this story of a food writer and a Chinese-American chef.

In Nicole Mones' The Last Chinese Chef, a culinary tour of China serves as both backdrop for a novel about a woman trying to come to terms with the death of her husband, and as metaphor for the nourishment, physical and symbolic, that food provides. This is no ordinary food, however. When Maggie, our protagonist, meets Sam, a Chinese-American chef whose culinary history dates back to Imperial times, she--and the reader--experience cooking that is lyrical in its expression of a civilization through smell and texture and taste.

I could not put down this incredible volume and found myself flagging passages and going back to reread them and ponder their meaning. While clearly a novel, Mones' work is instructional as well. As Sam and his uncles discuss Sam's participation in China's Olympic culinary competition, we begin our education in the artistry of Chinese cuisine. From the ideals of flavor and texture to the notions of artifice and illusion, we learn along with Maggie how different Chinese cooking is from the cuisines of the western world.

I've been eating Chinese food for over 50 years, but never gave a great deal of thought to the fact that Chinese food is not plated. Almost all other cuisines are. As Sam explains, the most important feature of Chinese cooking is the simple fact that it's all about community. "Every meal eaten in China, whether the grandest banquet, or the poorest lunch eaten by workers in an alley--all eating is shared by the group." Early in the novel Sam instructs Maggie, "a cook who is adept can create dishes that will heal the diner." I would recall those words again and again as Maggie experiences one incredible dish after another while her anguished heart begins to heal and she learns that she is capable of both forgiveness and a reawakening of love.

After reading Mones' novel, I was curious about this region of China and did a bit of research about it. I learned that Hangzhou has long been reputed as a city of gourmet food with a focus on fresh ingredients, elaborate preparation, and natural flavor. Attention is accorded to color, smell, taste and shape. In fact, Hangzhou is in the midst of a culinary revolution of sorts.

Not having access to many of the regional recipes alluded to in the novel, I determined to cook something that would use the freshest ingredients in a simple way, but in a way that would focus attention on the essence of the ingredients. After literally hours of searching through my cookbooks and the internet, I decided to try to replicate a wonderful dinner I had just recently at a favorite restaurant, steamed lobster in a scallion ginger sauce.

Having had only terrifying experiences in steaming lobsters, I happily gave that over to the fishmonger. I was able to strike a wonderful bargain for a very large lobster. Regrettably, I was still traumatized by having to hack off Oscar's head and dismember him and neglected to get a photo of him in all his splendid, 4 pound grandeur, pre-dismembering.

I found several recipes for scallion ginger sauce and, with a bit of mixing and matching, used the following, which proved to be delicous.

2 tablespoons dark soy sauce
1 1/2 tablespoons light soy sauce
1 1/2 tablespoons water or chicken broth
1 teaspoon brown sugar, or to taste
6 scallions (green onions, spring onions), ends removed, finely chopped
1 2-inch slice fresh ginger, peeled and finely chopped
1 green or red chili pepper, de-seeded and sliced
3 tablespoons peanut or vegetable oil

1. Combine the soy sauce, water, and sugar in a small heatproof bowl. Stir in the scallions, ginger, and chopped chili pepper.

2. Heat the oil in a heavy saucepan over medium heat for about 5 minutes, until it is shimmering on the bottom and very hot but not yet smoking (about 300 degrees Fahrenheit).

3. Carefully pour the oil into the scallion/ginger mixture. It will sizzle for a few seconds. Once it stops sizzling, stir, and then let stand for 2 minutes before serving.

For this dinner, I removed most of the meat from the lobster's claws, split the tail, and cut up the rest of the lobster, cracking the shell or cutting it with shears to make it easy to eat. I placed the pieces on a platter, poured the scallion ginger sauce over all, and served it that way with white rice.

It was a delicious dinner and far more economical to eat at home than at a restaurant. While I still dream of eating lotus leaf spare ribs and beggars' chicken and sesame cakes, I will have to content myself to the far more pedestrian fare available in New York.

Please check out what other Cook the Books participants are cooking up to celebrate Mones' wonderful novel here.


  1. Oh my god, this looks fantastic. I just looooove lobster. I'm excited to see people blogging about this book. I've been trying to get my hands on a copy for awhile now, bt they are kinda hard to come by!
    Beautiful presentation, too!

  2. That looks great! I've just finished the book, and I'm trying to come up with something before the deadline.

  3. What a great review on this book and so eloquently written! I'm curious about the cook the books club. Do you all buy your books or are you lucky enough to get them at the library? Sounds like a must read!

    The lobster sure looks pretty, especially with a scallion ginger sauce. Good thinking to have the butcher steam the lobster for you!! I wouldn't want to deal with all that at home. My mom use to steam bushels of blue crabs and I can remember them scratching at the pan and the lid wobbling about while they tried to get out. It never stopped me from eating them though : )

  4. Kim you should definitely join us. You can get some of the books from the library. I've ordered most of mine, used, from You have plenty of time to read. I've loved almost all of the selections.

  5. That looks spectacular! I have had fish done this way but never lobster. Utterly luxurious!

  6. This was a great post. Your comments about the book are so thoughtful and I also loved learning more about Hangzhou. This lobster dish is spectacular. I have bookmarked it to make for my hubby's next birthday, as he loves lobster.

  7. A great dish for CTB! I haven't been brave enough to try cooking lobster yet, but it is on the list!

  8. I don't eat loobster but I see the scallion ginger sauce as great with chicken and with beef and with almost anything, as I think about it.

  9. this dish looks fantastic - it's a long time since i had lobster, and this is one way i would like to enjoy it too

  10. I've never fixed lobster at home, all that shell and claw are so off-putting, but I do love it. Your recipe sounds good enough to warrant an attempt.

  11. I can't see myself preparing lobster at home, so for this I admire you. I love the sauce.

  12. The lobster looks so terrific - it really looks just the way it would ina fancy Chinese restaurant. I was completely taken with this book as well - a joy from cover to cover.

  13. Tried the sauce with some modification (didn't have cooking wine so used white wine instead) and it really flavored the steamed lobster I made this afternoon. Kids loved it!


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