This month's choice for the Cook The Books Club is "The Last Chinese Chef" by Nicole Mones. "The Last Chinese Chef" introduces the reader to the intricacies of Chinese life and Chinese cuisine through the eyes of Maggie, the outsider journalist from the US, who is recovering from personal tragedy. Maggie arrives in China with two missions: to conduct an interview with chef Sam Liang and to resolve a paternity claim against her husband's estate. Her stay becomes an education (for the reader as well) as she follows Sam's preparations for a competition banquet held in the lead up to the Beijing Olympics. He shares with her thoughts on everything from achieving the right intensity of taste in a dish, to balancing the textures of a meal and even the importance of making allusions to history and literature (in particular poetry) with dishes. Sam's cooking is Chinese food at haute cuisine level - and, as he points out, it bears no resemblance to the western dishes like spring rolls, lemon chicken or sweet and sour pork that are the only Chinese dishes many people have tried.
I found myself completely swept away by this book, so much so that I somehow forgot that it was fiction on the way through. By the time I got to the end and read the author's notes, I was really sad to have these people (who had become so real to me) firmly sent back to the world of fiction. You see I wanted Maggie and Sam to fall in love, commit to each other and run the restaurant together. I wanted them to hire Gao Lan as a waitress and have Shuying as a permanent part of their lives. I wanted Sam to reach enormous professional heights and for his mother to come from the US and see all he had achieved, and for his father and he to discover a closeness as adults that they had never previously had. I even wanted to read the fictional reference materials, quoted in each chapter. Maybe even eat at their restaurant one day......
For me, the cultural reference points were particularly interesting. Some of my family are Chinese, although not from China, but there are clearly many similarities and connections (guanxi!). Certainly the Chinese concern with food and flavour and texture, rang true with me, as did the importance of restaurants in daily life. I felt that much of what Maggie learnt along the way, are also things that I have learnt. I also felt that the ongoing tension between western and eastern perspectives, as personified by Sam who straddles both, was very illustrative. I will certainly be handing this book on to family that I know will love it as much as I did.
So when it came to choosing a meal to cook inspired by this book, I had lots of thoughts on what I wanted to achieve:
- I wanted to illustrate "guanxi" or relationships and connectedness because I was cooking for my family.
- I decided to make the poached chicken that Sam makes for Maggie early in the book. When Sam made this chicken, he reached across the usual journalist / subject divide and paved the way for their friendship to develop, as well as setting her on the path to healing. Maggie says "It was as soft as velvet, chicken times three, shot through with ginger and the note of onion....I may never have tasted anything so good." I had to have a go at it!
- I wanted vegetable dishes to complement the chicken. I chose braised soya beans which were in Kylie Kwong's book "My China" as a Beijing dish, and are therefore hopefully true to the sort of thing that Sam would make. Soya beans are also symbolic of the continuance of society (more guanxi). The snowpea and garlic stir fry introduces the colour of jade to the table, while snowpeas are a Chinese symbol of unity, and garlic symbolizes luck and health.
- I wanted to make a reference to a Chinese fable, as many of the book's dinners referred metaphorically to literature as well, and so I chose the story of the Moon Lady, Chang Er. We ended the meal with ginger cookies in the shape of a moon with a little speck of candied ginger to represent Chang Er sitting on the moon.
While everything was good, I particularly enjoyed the chicken and will definitely use this technique to poach chicken in the future. It was so tender that I could have nearly carved with a chopstick, while the chilli, ginger and coriander dressing gave it a very powerful kick. The cookies were also good - not too gingery, just sweet and crisp with a slightly warm aftertaste. All in all, a great meal that capped off a wonderful story, and which was enjoyed by all of us. In the next few weeks, I will make another meal to take advantage of some of Nicole Mone's recipes - sadly I had already planned my dinner before I discovered that treasure trove.
White Cooked Chicken
from "Recipes and Stories" by Kylie Kwong
1.6 kg free range chicken
6 litres water
3 cups shao hsing wine
6 green shallots, trimmed
12 garlic cloves, peeled and smashed
1 1/2 cups coarsely chopped ginger
4 tbls sea salt
Place all ingredients except chicken in a large stock pot, bring to the boil then simmer for 15 mins to infuse flavours.
Rinse chicken and cut away any excess fat. Lower chicken, breast side down into simmering stock ensuring it is fully submerged. Poach gently for exactly 14 mins (reduce the temperature so that there is nothing more than the occassional ripple breaking the surface). Remove pot immediately from stove and allow chicken to steep in stock for 3 hours at room temperature.
Gently remove chicken from stock, being careful not to tear breast skin (I lifted it out with y hands). Place chicken on a tray to drain and cool. Cut the chicken chinese style (bone in with a cleaver). Serve drizzled with soy chilli and coriander dressing below.
Soy Chilli Dressing
1/4 cup mushroom soy sauce
1 tsp sesame oil
1 finely julienned large red chilli
1 tbl ginger julienne
1/2 tsp white sugar
2 1/2 tsps peanut oil
1/3 cup corander sprigs
Pinch of szechuan pepper
In a bowl, combine soy sauce, sesame oil, chilli, ginger and sugar. Drizzle over chicken. In a small pot heat peanut oil to smoking point then pour over the chicken. Garnish with coriander and pepper.
Red Braised Soy Beans with Star Anise and Vinegar
from "My China" by Kylie Kwong
1 cup dried soy beans
1/2 cup shao hsing wine
5 cm pice of ginger peeled and finely sliced
1 spring onion trimmed and cut into 5 cm lengths
3 star anise
1/3 cup brown sugar
1/3 cup light soy sauce
1 tsp sesame oil
1/2 cup water
2 tbls brown rice vinegar
Soak beans overnight in cold water, then rinse and tip into a heavy based saucepan. Cover generously with cold water, bring to the boil then simmer, adding more water as necessary, for 1-1 1/2 hours or until tender. Drain and set aside.
Sauce: Place shao hsing wine, ginger, star anise and spring onion in a wok. bring to the boil and simmer for 2 mins. Add suagr, soy sauce and sesame oil and simmer for a further minute. Add chickpeas and water and simmer briskly for 10 mins. Stir in vinegar and serve.
Stirfried Snow Peas With Garlic
from "Recipes and Stories" by Kylie Kwong
2 tbl vegetable oil
1/2 tsp sea salt
250g snow peas
2 garlic cloves crushed
1 garlic clove finely diced
1/4 tsp white sugar
1/2 cup chicken stock (I used the stock from poaching the chicken)
1/4 tsp sesame oil
Heat vegetable oil in a hot wok until it shimmers. Add salt and snow peas and stir fry for two minutes. Add garlic and stir fry for 1 min. Add sugar and stir fry for 10 secs. Pour in stock and sim mer for 2 mins or until snow peas are tender. Lastly add sesame oil and serve immediately.
from "China Moon Cookbook" by Barbara Tropp
125g cold unsalted butter chopped
1/2 cup packed dark brown sugar
1 tbl minced fresh ginger
1 tsp powdered ginger
1/2 tsp vanilla extract
1 cup plus 2 tbl plain flour
1/4 tsp baking soda
Pinch of sea salt
1/4 cup finely diced crystallized ginger
Cream butter and sugar for about 3 mins until smooth. Add both gingers, vanilla, flour, baking soda and salt. Mix until the dough just comes together. Turn out the dough, gather into a ball and flatten slightly.
Dust some parchment paper on a tray with some flour. Place the dough in the centre and roll out to an even thickness of about 2-3 mm. Cover and refrigerate the dough until firm (abt 1 hour). Preheat the oven to 175C, and line baking sheets with parchment. Using a cookie cutter, cut crescent moons, and place 1 cm apart on baking sheets. Press a pie of ginger near the tapered end of each biscuit. Bake until the biscuits are golden, 10-12 mins. Cool on wire racks.