The Last Chinese Chef by Nicole Mones

Among our favorite books about China are the novels of Nicole Mones, who first went to China to start her own import business when she was 25. Not many business people become novelists, and not enough people write entertaining novels that help explain Chinese history, culture, and values to a broader audience.

By “values,” I don’t mean morality. I mean things that are important to Chinese people: family, relationships, community standing (or “face”), and food. Some would list food first, not only because China is a country where famine has been a regular visitor until the recent past (millions of Chinese starved to death as recently as the 1960s), but because food is such a big part of those other things Chinese people value most. Food is at the center of family life, and it’s how relationships are built and sustained – as anyone who visits China quickly realizes.

“Values” also refer to qualities we admire, our sense of aesthetics. This includes standards of beauty, building and product design, and visual expression that distinguish one culture from another. Those of us who seek to understand China need to pay attention to Chinese painting, music, and the performing arts. Cooking is an art that attaches value to different qualities of taste and texture. Here is a passage from Mones’s The Last Chinese Chef in which a chef explains an important difference between Chinese and Western cuisine:

“That’s just flavor. We have texture. There are ideals of texture, too – three main ones. Cui is dry and crispy, nen is when you take something fibrous like shark’s fin and make it smooth and yielding, and ruan is perfect softness – velveted chicken, a soft-boiled egg. I think it’s fair to say we control texture more than any other cuisine does. In fact some dishes we cook have nothing at all to do with flavor. One texture; that is all they attempt. Think of bêche-de-mer [sea cucumber]. Or wood ear [tree fungus].”

This book is also rich with discussion of guanxi, a concept that is essential to understanding China, and to doing business there. Nicole Mones has included recipes for some of the dishes described in The Last Chinese Chef on her website, and she recommends restaurants in a number of cities in the United States and China. At ChinaConnectU, we’re lucky enough to have a Beijing apartment and office a short walk from a restaurant she recommended to us (no, we didn’t take the apartment for that reason alone).

More about Nicole Mones’s novels

Another thing fiction can do is let us experience other lives and see the world through other eyes. Reading Mones’s Lost in Translation (Delta, 1999) and the way Chinese people respond to the main character, an interpreter from the United States who speaks perfect Chinese, helped me grasp the Chinese sense that they are at the center of the world (the Chinese name for China is Zhongguo “the middle kingdom”). “She speaks!” say Chinese people in amazement as the story takes the translator out into western China where non-Chinese people are a great curiosity. Not, “She speaks Chinese,” but “She speaks.” Because not to speak Chinese would simply be not to speak at all.

I’ve heard similar stories – a friend who was asked why he had a funny way of speaking by a rural boy who expressed no surprise that a white man spoke Chinese. The boy simply could not identify where my friend came from. (People in different parts of China have different native dialects and speak Mandarin, the “common tongue,” with different and identifiable accents, just as we English speakers in Dubuque, and Newark, and New Orleans do.)

A Cup of Light (Delta, 2003) is about the trade in ancient Chinese ceramics and the modern art of forgery. The technical details are fascinating, but what I gravitate toward are passages like this, in which Nicole Mones explains a phrase used by ceramic dealers to express the highest praise:

“Completely hoi moon.” This was one of the few phrases that people like her always, reflexively, uttered in Cantonese even when speaking Mandarin or English. Maybe it was because the term was Hong Kong porcelain slang; or maybe because the Cantonese just had more sing and sinew. Hoi moon geen san. Let the door open on a view of mountains. See beauty. See authenticity.

 

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