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Ghost Market Cakes

I got badly stung the last time I bought an ‘antique’ at the Ghost Market on Fangbang Lu. I bargained real hard for a 1920s era vase, and handed over my cash. As the seller wrapped up what he’d told me was a one of a kind, he made the mistake of asking if I’d like a matching one to go with it. A matching one. Right. He could bring it for next week, if I ‘d like. Now every time I go to the weekend Ghost Market I see that piece bought, replenished, bought again – it’s the perpetual vase…..Either the seller has access to the entire remaining stock of a 1920s ceramic factory, or he’s making antiques himself. Hmmm… 

Not that the market isn’t also full of interesting real antiques, and I often run into antique dealers and collectors from around town amongst the old books and photos, who think there are still bargains to be had if you really, really know your stuff. Fake antiques are big business in China, and sometimes even the experts get duped. 
Emerging from the clouds of thick cigarette smoke inside, I walked back out on to Fangbang Lu and found this lovely lady selling steamed cakes from the back of her bicycle. I came across these delicious little cakes, topped with dried fruits, once before in the Muslim quarter of Xi’an, but on asking this lady she told me they were Dong Bei Gao – from far north-eastern China. The light sponge tastes slightly of coconut, and is cooked upside down in a special steamer with the dried fruit arranged in a pattern on the bottom, then turned out so that the pattern of fruit is visible on top. The black-speckled ones are flavoured with hēi zhī má (black sesame) 黑芝麻 giving them a slighty nutty flavour. 

At least I know these are real – for one kuai each (16 cents), they taste great!

Playtime at The Asylum: A Chinese Bath House

A smiley face from the Publicity of Credibility in Places of Bathing. Good. Very Good.

I’m walking around what looks like the lobby of a five star hotel, wearing blue plastic flip-flops and a vibrant muumuu covered in pink hibiscuses, feeling slightly uncomfortable and very underdressed next to the Persian carpets and marble check-in desk. To one side, a sleek black grand piano plays classical music. By itself. The keys just go up and down, plinkety plonk, plinkety plonk, churning out a Chopin piece. There is a piano stool and some sheet music propped up on the top of the piano, as if to suggest that the pianist is really there but due to some sensory alteration on my part I just can’t see him. 

A polite young man in a suit hands me a menu, so I can choose between dim sum, mahjong, karaoke or a floor show before my foot massage today. Or if I prefer, I could have my foot massage during any of the above activities. Welcome to the confusing and surreal world of the Chinese bath house, a 24 hour pleasure palace for men and women, young and old. Before you go conjuring up seedy steam rooms filled with supplicant young Chinese women, forget it. This place is so much more than a spot to get clean, beyond anything you could dream up whilst sober. Six flooors of private rooms and restaurants stretch upwards from the lobby. The corridors are filled with Hawaiian print pyjama clad men and women, padding around in their flip-flops, having a great time going from bath to karaoke to tea to facial. The atmosphere is somewhere between a Butlin’s Holiday Camp and the recreation deck on a really cheap cruise ship, or some kind of high class mental hospital, with the similar feeling of being locked in with all the other inmates. At any moment the tray of neuroleptics will appear along with the dim sum.

I’m here with my mahjong girls today, so we are escorted to the mahjong room, complete with wide screen TV, four comfortable recliners, and one of those amazing self-shuffling fully automated mahjong tables. I tell her we need the room until 4pm. That’s OK, our personal waitress tells us, the room fee is for 24 hours. It’s cheaper than a hotel, and we’ve got a crazy automatic mahjong table! I’m slightly obsessed with it. Press a button and the centre circle rises up with lights flashing like a UFO taking off, shove all the tiles down the hole, press another button and four slots slide back and four brand new walls rise up out of the table like magic. It even shuffles the dice for you if you’re feeling too exhausted to do that by yourself. I may need the full 24 hours just to get maximum enjoyment out of the table.

We order lunch which, as bath house food goes, is delicious – crispy pigeon, guotie, noodles, fruit platters. Who knew they served this stuff in bath houses? After a full half hour of mahjong it’s time for the foot massages. Don’t get up! We’ll come to you! Four masseurs arrive together, direct us to the recliners in the room and give us a ginger-infused leg treatment (for circulation, burns like hell) and an hour long foot massage. Bliss! The others keep playing while we have our massages, then we all swap. 
I decide we should explore the other floors, just to see what else goes on in these places. The sight of seven foreign women in matching muumuus is very amusing to the staff, who rightly think we look like wallies. We do. Undeterred, we poke our big foreign noses in every room, looking for the seedy undercurrent that must be here somewhere. We can’t find it. That stuff must go on in other bath houses. We do find the kids play area though, and a little Chinese girl in a mini muumuu. She’s just finished on the indoor climbing gym and is off to find someone to play air hockey with.

Downstairs is where the real bath action happens, through the doors marked ‘Woman SPA’. We don’t go into the ‘man SPA’ because that might see us kicked out. The Woman SPA is like a Korean bath house (ie nakedness is requisite), with hot and cold plunge pools, showers, and a battalion of scrubbers waiting to exfoliate you to within an inch of your life. On the spa wall are advertisements for this month’s special treatments:

Doesn’t look bad, does it? But the next one really caught our eye….

Toblerone facials! Reduce your fat hoard!! What will they think of next?
At 4pm, after more mahjong, I reluctantly hand back my muumuu and receive my shoes in return. I could really get the hang of this place, I think, after a few more visits. I want to come back at night for the 9pm floor show involving (I’ve heard) rollerskating, acrobatics, and Russian dancers doing a Scottish reel. Of course.

Chinese Tea Eggs

As promised, here are the recipes from my chicken and egg bounty yesterday. I am still gobsmacked that I actually created those amazing looking eggs. Gob.Smacked. And I ate four of them before I could even get my camera out, they are that delicious. As you gently peel away the shell, it reveals the delicate marbling underneath. In China, these eggs are sold in tea houses as an accompaniment to drinking tea, but also in every convenience store on every street in China – bubbling away in a black tea broth next to the counter. 

I added some beautiful spotted quail eggs to the other eggs, just for interest, and to see how they would turn out. They look so delicate! The egg stall at the wet market sells chicken eggs, bantam eggs, duck eggs, goose eggs and quail eggs, fresh every day, a fantastic egg smorgasbord. 

Chinese Tea Eggs

from The Food of China – a Journey for Food Lovers, edited by Kay Halsey, published by Murdoch Books

  • 10 small eggs, or 1 dozen quail eggs, or both
  • 4 cups of water
  • 3 tablespoons black tea
  • 3 tablespoons shaoxing wine
  • 3 tablespoons soy sauce
  • 3 slices ginger, smashed with the flat side of a cleaver
  • 1 star anise
  • 1 cinnamon quill
  • 1 tablespoon sugar
  • Place eggs in a saucepan with enough cold water to cover them
  • Bring water to the boil, then reduce to low and simmer for 10 minutes until eggs are hard-boiled
  • Refresh the eggs in cold water, then drain
  • Lightly tap and roll the shells on a hard surface to crack them – this will later give the eggs their distinctive marbled pattern. Do not remove the shells
  • Place all other ingredients with 4 cups of water in a heavy saucepan and bring to the boil, then lower heat and simmer for twenty minutes
  • Add the cooked eggs and simmer for a further forty-five minutes
  • Serve the eggs hot or cold, as snacks with tea 

White Cooked Chicken with Soy and Ginger Dressing

Now for the chicken. Once you have poached a chicken this way, and eaten the silky soft meat that falls succulently off the bone, dressed with soy and ginger, you’ll never want to have chicken any other way. The fantastic sizzle as the hot oil scorches the dressing ingredients sends a wonderful ginger smell through the house. 

from Kylie Kwong, original here


  • 1.5kg fresh chicken
  • 6 litres cold water
  • 3 cups Shaoxing rice wine
  • 8 scallions, trimmed
  • 12 cloves of garlic, peeled and crushed
  • 1 cup sliced ginger
  • 1 tablespoon salt
Soy and Ginger Dressing
  • 60ml soy sauce
  • 1 teaspoon sesame oil
  • 1 teaspoon sugar
  • 1/3 cup julienne spring onion, plus extra for garnish
  • 1 tablespoon julienne ginger
  • 2 tablespoons vegetable oil
  • For stock, combine ingredients in a 10-litre stockpot and bring to the boil
  • Reduce heat and simmer for 15 minutes
  • Place chicken breast side down into stock and submerge for 14 minutes, ensuring stock doesn’t return to the boil
  • Remove pot from heat, replace lid, and stand for three hours (if mid-winter in a cold place, wrap pot in a bathtowel to keep the heat in)
  • Using tongs, carefully remove chicken from stock and place on a tray to drain
  • For dressing, carefully combine all ingredients except fr peanut oil in a heat-proof bowl
  • Heat vegetable oil in a saucepan until almost smoking, then pour over dressing ingredients and stir to combine
  • Using a cleaver, cut chicken into ieces and arrange on a platter
  • Drizzle dressing overchicken, garnish with extra spring onion

Spring Festival Gift From Little Xu

We are so very lucky to have a wonderful ayi (auntie) who helps keep some daily sanity in our house. She appeared one day not long after we arrived in Shanghai, arranged by our Chinese friends, who insisted that a household with twice as many children as the average Chinese family would definitely need the help of an ayi to prevent the descent into certain anarchy. The fact that we had survived without an ayi for the previous ten years didn’t figure for them – we should have an ayi, they had already arranged an ayi, and she was starting tomorrow. That was that. For many families, Chinese and foreign, their ayi cooks, cleans, pays bills, goes to the market and looks after the children, an incredible luxury. We felt a bit overwhelmed and ridiculously guilty at that thought, and so we opted for just a few hours cleaning a week.

So Xiao Xu (Little Xu) began to come four mornings a week to clean the office downstairs, and afterwards, would come upstairs and help us for an hour or two. At first, we would race around the house after breakfast, washing dishes and tidying up, before she could see what a mess we lived in. It took a long time to lose that strange combination of guilt and gratefulness that you feel when someone is doing your housework for you, and for us to learn enough Chinese to learn about her life, her husband who works on a Shanghai construction site, and her ten year-old son who lives with his grandparents back in Anhui province. She sees them twice a year, at Spring Festival, and during the October National holiday. Xiao Xu does all our washing ironing, and despite us telling her its not necessary she still does wonderful things like ironing our pyjamas. We love her.

For Spring Festival (Chinese New Year) she returned to her home in Anhui province for three weeks, to visit her parents’ farm, see her son and husband, and have a holiday. It’s never quite clear when she’ll return, because train and bus tickets are just as difficult to get at the end of Chinese New Year as they are at the beginning, and we tell her to take as long a holiday as she wants to spend time with her son. 

So I was surprised to see Xiao Xu on Friday – she came in and wished me a happy new year, then handed me a plastic bag dripping with blood. ‘Fromy farm!’ she said. Inside the bag, you can see, was a freshly dead chicken and eighteen small eggs, still covered with feathers and chicken manure. Luckily she didn’t have to travel with a dead chook and a plastic bag full of eggs for more than a few hours, because that could have been one helluva smelly mess after a long bumpy train ride.

What a great gift! Xiao Xu knows I love to cook, and would be excited by farm-fresh food. By tradition, families who employ an ayi will give a hong bao at Chinese New Year, a red envelope with one to two months wages inside, and we had done the same. It was lovely to receive a gift in return. 

So now what to do with this great chicken? And all those eggs? I have two great ideas, with recipes tomorrow. I have always wanted to learn how to make Chinese tea-cooked eggs, those dark brown, fragrant, mysteriously marbled eggs, and these little ones will be perfect for that, all I need is a good recipe. And as for the chicken – the best Chinese chicken recipe I have learned is called White Poached Chicken, which gives little clue to what must be one of the most delicious ways to eat chicken in the whole universe. Recipes tomorrow!

Prohibit Parabolic and Other Helpful Chinglish Signs

I spent a very productive wet, cold day yesterday sorting out all my photos, the type of job reserved for moves to foreign countries where you will have so much more spare time now that you’re not working! Hah! Amongst the 15,000 photos were some real Chinglish crackers, several from Shanghai, many from other parts of China where the Chinglish police are less vigilant. I understand them even less now than I did when the photos were taken. For your viewing enjoyment, ladies and gents.
 On the bank of a creek, depth 20cm. I had thought of parabolic-ing, but when I saw the sign I thought -no way.
Be on the lookout for pirates, people.

Pesky tourists – bugger off.
The environment starts with YOU dammit, and yet you went and put sundry goods in the rill, didn’t you?
Vandals. A rill full of old crocs, cigarette packets and sundry goods.
Slouching prohibited.
At Expo. Where Chinglish, apparently, didn’t exist. Except maybe for this sign…
And also this one, above every single toilet on the expo site.
Into the closest ool?
Into the close stool?
Into the closes tool?
Herbivores! Just throw your garbage on the ground!
Enough said.
Subway tunnels may look like fun places to jump, but you know, in China, it’s illegal. Unlike driving without a seatbelt, whilst smoking and talking on your molbile phone, which is legal and perfectly safe.
Drawing in public. Who would have thought that would be against the rules?
And yet here it is again. Don’t sketch or paint. For your own safety, you understand.
Above a doorway in Beijing. Blunt, to the point. I like it. Even bee superheros hit their heads sometimes.
Nanchang Lu meanswear store favourite, still makes me smile every time I cycle past. Spelled completely correctly, technically not Chinglish, and yet so, so wrong. 
Looks well-run, doesn’t it? 
Don’t even think about taking a speel, you dirty speeler.
Also technically not Chinglish but I had to put it in anyway, for the sheer pyromaniac joy of lighting something so potentially dangerous. I can really see this getting past the Australian Safety Standards. 
But what are they? Of course. Children’s birthday candles. 

The Lantern Festival

Just wanted to share with you some of the psychedelic joy of this year’s Lantern Festival. The Lantern Festival marks the LAST DAY of Chinese New Year celebrations, and just for a change there will be bazillions of fireworks and another rash of house fires to light up the night.  
Legend has it that the lanterns were originally intended to venerate Buddha, way back in the Han Dynasty more than 2000 years ago. There’s also the story involving a jade emperor, a crane, a band of villagers, and a fake fire, but it’s so convoluted I’m going with the first explanation.
Last year we spent the Lantern Festival in Nanjing, walking along the old city wall, visiting the lantern market and eating heaps of great festival food. And because it fell on a weekend we shared the experience with a million or three Chinese people, which was claustrophobically fun, but that sort of intensity is really just a once in a lifetime only. This year, we went to Yu Gardens before the actual night of the festival to avoid the crowds. Not wholly successful, but the atmosphere was amazing, and the lanterns, as always, were totally OTT.
Like this one. Every year, Pepsi creates a wild and wonderful New Year lantern using Pepsi cans as the main building material. Genius. I can’t imagine how they came up with that one. I think this year’s Pepsi-eyed tiger/lion/dragon is a big improvement on last year’s lame efffort, but did anyone tell them it’s the Year of the Rabbit? At least it’s large, dazzling, and an opportunity to showcase their new fruit juice drink, which I believe is the drink of choice of tigers/lions/dragons.
Over by the Huxintin Teahouse there is a panoramic moving lantern display with an Emperor, and a lot of……stuff. Lilypads and the like. I’m guessing this is supposed to be a Chinese legend of some description. It could even be the story of the Emperor, villagers, dead crane, and fake fire, but that is just a wild stab in the dark on my part.

And don’t forget to buy your rabbit ears and flashing, singing, battery-operated rabbit toys. Enjoy!

Shitake Mushroom Dumplings

So remember last week I promised a vegetarian version of my Chinese New Year dumplings? Here they are, in all their meatless glory. In fact these dumplings are not just vegetarian but VEGAN – please don’t tell anyone, because this is a meat-eating site. To be honest, I was (extremely) surprised by how good they tasted.  

Shitake Mushroom Dumplings
makes 50 dumplings

  • 100g fresh shitake mushrooms, or six dried
  • 200g chinese greens (eg cabbage, bok choy, spinach leaves)
  • 200g silken tofu
  • 2 teaspoons finely chopped ginger
  • 3 teaspoons finely chopped scallions
  • small bunch coriander, finely chopped (including stems and roots)
  • 2 teaspoons shaoxing wine
  • 2 teaspoons sesame oil
  • 2 teaspoons soy sauce
  • 1 teaspoons salt
  • 2 teaspoons sugar
  • dash of white pepper
  • 2-4 teaspoons cornflour
  • 50 square dumpling wrappers

  • If using dried shitake mushrooms, cover with boiling water and soak for 20 minutes
  • chop mushrooms into fine dice
  • finely chop chinese vegetables
  • combine all ingredients, except cornflour, and mix well
  • allow to stand for 20-30 minutes
  • drain any extra liquid from mixture, and if still too moist, add 2-4 teaspoons of cornflour and mix well

Holding a square wrapper in your left hand, place a teaspoon of filling in the centre

Fold the dumpling wrapper in half, bringing the edges together

Hold the edges of the dumpling between your thumbs and index fingers as shown, with the filled part of the dumpling towards you

Fold the dumpling in half again lengthwise, then curve the dumpling around your middle fingers as shown

Overlap the edges at the front and press to seal, using a little water if needed


Bring a large pot of water to the boil, then gently lower dumplings into the water six at a time. Cook for three minutes or until the dumplings float to the surface.
Serve with black vinegar for dipping.

$7 Foot Massage with Free Police Raid

I hadn’t bargained on getting a police raid along with my Chinese foot massage this week, but there I was, just at the point of relaxation, when the cops busted in and demanded to see everyone’s ID cards. It upset the serenity, so to speak, but it was the most entertainment I’ve ever had packed into an hour for 42 yuan. One officer sat down on a pink footstool to chat with the customer alongside me, while the other one strode up and down shouting ‘Fangsong! Fangsong!’ (Relax! Relax!). It was a great Shanghai moment.

Now, perhaps you have foot massages every other week, and are fully au fait with this whole foot massage business, and perhaps I’m the last laowei in Shanghai never to have tried one. But just in case you haven’t, here’s the lowdown. I can’t guarantee yours will be as exciting and action-packed as mine was, but never mind, it’s meant to be all about relaxation.
Firstly, you can tell a foot massage joint by its tiny size, and the spinning barber pole out front with the refloxology foot map printed on it. From the outside, it looks to be about the size of a broom cupboard, but these places are like the tardis – once inside, you’ll find six masseurs and just as many customers reclining on specially made easy chairs. Find a spare one and plonk yourself down on it.

The massage menu essentially runs to only four items – reflexology foot massage, body massage, head and scalp massage, and ear massage. Now whether or not you believe that zones on your feet, ears or head respond to body organs or not, it’s certainly feels good to have someone pummel your feet for an hour. I am, however, giving the ear massage a big swerve until I can be sure that it doesn’t involve some strange Chinese instruments and a follow-up visit to an ENT surgeon.

The big, hot, steaming foot bucket comes next. The masseuse tips the contents of a fragrant sachet of powder into the water, turning it a disgusting shade of home brew, but I plunge my cold feet in, and it’s so hot I get a piercing pain in my toes. After a good soak, she asks if I’d like the optional extra – for an extra 30 yuan you can have all the dead skin scraped off the bottom of your feet, and all your toenails and cuticles trimmed. This could be kind of gross if it wasn’t so damn gratifying to see the small mountain of dead skin on the towel under your feet. The laoban works away with immense concentration, then shouts ‘Ah-hah!!” and proudly holds up my previously dry and wrinkled hoof to show me that it now looks like a baby’s bottom – smooth and pink. It’s a miracle!

Now the real work begins and the masseuse, over the next hour, massages every bit of my feet and lower legs until I’m practically asleep. I notice that when she massages the tips of my toes it really, really hurts, and I wonder what part of the body this corresponds to, but their foot/body map is entirely in Chinese. As I’m reading up on reflexology later at home I take a good look at the foot map in English to see which part of body is defective. Oh. That would be my brain

Shanghai Street Food #16 Crystal Sugar Hawthorns Bīng Táng Shān Zhā 冰糖山楂

I have the worst firecracker hangover headache today. After six nights of interrupted sleep, I can tell you that my Chinese neighbours’ favourite times to let off fireworks are –

1. Ten minutes after I fall asleep
2. Half an hour before I usually wake up 
3. Between 1am and 2am

I can’t fool them by going to bed later and getting up earlier, or by turning out all the lights and pretending I’m not home. What I really need, other than coffee and aspirin and about 10 hours more sleep, is a double-glazed apartment 50 floors above the ground, where the muted sound of firecrackers fifty floors below will be no louder than the coffee machine starting up. 

Also, I wish that the f***er whose car alarm goes off beneath my bedroom window EVERY SINGLE TIME a cracker goes off, will come home to find the battery dead (oh! I wish!!) and all his pot plants dead, and the paint on his car pockmarked by falling debris. 

Enough ranting. On to food. At least Chinese New Year comes with some fantastic street snacks that make up for all the sleep deprivation. After years of shift work I can tell you that it’s not coffee that wakes up your brain, but SUGAR. These sugary little beauties are called Crystal Sugar Hawthorns (bīng táng shān zhā 冰糖山楂and I wish they were available all year round, but that’s what makes them so special

Hawthorns are a member of the rose family and the red berries are the size of a large, round, rosehip. Eaten raw they are incredibly sour and quite astringent, but rolled in oil then confectioner’s sugar and left to dry gives the crunchy, sour hawthorns a crisp sweet white crust. Like a miniature sugared toffee apple. 

They’re quite hard to find, I bought mine from a tiny stall at the Yu Gardens. 5 yuan/bag.

The Shanghai Street Food Series
Number 1   Roast Sweet Potatoes
Number 2   Snack-on-a-stick 
Number 3   Liangpi – a spicy cold noodle dish
Number 4   Langzhou Lamian – hand-pulled noodles
Number 5   Cong You Bing – fried shallot pancakes
Number 6   Baozi – steamed buns, Shanghai style
Number 7   Jian Bing – the famous egg pancake
Number 8   Dan Gao – street cakes
Number 9   Shao mai – sticky rice treats
Number 10  Summer on a Stick – fresh fruits

Number 11  You Tiao – deep-fried breadsticks
Number 12  Dan Juan – egg rolls
Number 13  Shao Kao – street barbecue
Number 14  Bao Mi Hua – exploding rice flowers
Number 15  Chou Doufu – stinky tofu
Number 16  Bing Tang Shan Zha – crystal sugar hawthorns
Number 17  Mutton Polo
Number 18  Yumi Bang – puffed corn sticks
Number 19  Mian Hua Tang – cotton candy
Number 20  You Dunzi – fried radish cakes

Number 21  Suzhou Shi Yue Bing – homestyle mooncakes 
Number 22  Gui Hua Lian’ou – honeyed lotus root stuffed with sticky rice
Number 23  Cong You Ban Mian – scallion oil noodles
Number 24  Guotie – potsticker dumplings
Number 25  Nuomi Cai Tou – fried clover pancakes
Number 26  Da Bing, Shao Bing – sesame breakfast pastries
Number 27  Ci Fan – sticky rice breakfast balls
Number 28  Gui Hua Gao – steamed osmanthus cake
Number 29  Zongzi – bamboo leaf wrapped sticky rice
Number 30  Shengjianbao – pan-fried dumplings

Number 31  Mala Tang – DIY spicy soup

The Last Chinese Chef

Way back in the first few days of January I committed myself to being a Glutton –  no news to you guys, I’m sure. But this is a special type of gluttony…..I signed up for the annual Foodie’s Reading Challenge as a BOOK glutton.
In the Challenge, you are invited to read and review as many food-related books as you can get through in a year. 
  • ‘A food book is a book which is centered around food and/or drinks. That could be a cookbook, a food biography or memoir, a non-fiction book focused around a specific food, wine, chef or restaurant. Also allowed is a fictional story in which food plays a major role.
    • Nibbler: 1 to 3 books
    • Bon Vivant: 4 to 6 books
    • Epicurean: 7 to 9 books
    • Gourmet: 10 to 12 books
    • Glutton: More than 12

    To really set myself a challenge, I’ve so far found six books about Chinese food to read this year, and I’m hoping to find another seven along the way. Recommendations very welcome!

    First book for the year is The Last Chinese Chef, by Nicole Mones. (Fourth Estate 2007). This book somehow found its way into my house, without me having bought it, without it being given as a gift. It just literally turned up one day, so of course, I had to read it.
    The opening lines of The Last Chinese Chef set the scene for a rich and thoughtful novel where food is undoubtedly the main character.
    ‘Apprentices have asked me, what is the most exalted peak of cuisine? Is it the freshest ingredients, the most complex flavors? Is it the rustic, or the rare? It is none of these. The peak is neither eating nor cooking, but the giving and sharing of food.’ – Liang Wei, The Last Chinese Chef, pub. Peking, 1925. 
    We meet Maggie, a food writer, a year after she has been suddenly widowed. Clinging to her work as a way of pulling her through her bottomless grief, her passion for food has survived the turbulence of the past year intact. When she suddenly finds herself traveling to Beijing to resolve an issue with her late husband’s estate she decides to combine it with a work assignment, interviewing up-and-coming American-Chinese chef Sam Liang.
    Sam, in training for a national culinary competition and preparing to open his first restaurant, is inspired by a book written by his grandfather Liang Wei, the last chef of China’s Imperial Court. The fall of the Qing Dynasty in 1911, and the subsequent revolution, mean that the secrets of the Imperial kitchen have been all but lost except for the words of his grandfather’s book, titled ‘The Last Chinese Chef’. Sam is laboriously translating the book into Engish, using the valuable knowledge gained to bring forgotten techniques and principles to his cooking. Add to this the rigorous culinary training given to Sam by his three strict but doting elderly uncles, Sam is hoping to revive the classical imperial cooking style of his grandfather and uncles to impress the judges with an unforgettable feast.
    As Sam’s Uncle Xie tells him:
    ‘This is what you must understand if you are to be a true Chinese chef. Eating is only the beginning of cuisine! Only the start! Listen. Flavor and texture and aroma and all the pleasure – this is no more than the portal. Really great cooking goes beyond this to engage the mind and the spirit – to reflect on art, on nature, on philosophy. To sustain the mind and elevate the spirit of the meishijia [the gourmet]. Never cook food just to be eaten, Nephew!’
    As Maggie learns more of Sam, she also learns more of a cuisine she previously knew little about. This is one of the most enjoyable aspects of the book for me, and parallels my own exprience of discovering the wonderment of Chinese food in China, as opposed to the vastly differene Chinese cuisine we eat in the West. As each new dish is tasted, our eyes are opened to a way of cooking and eating of never-imagined complexity and nuance, like the Chinese concepts of xian – the sweet, natural flavour of a food, like fresh fish or clear chicken broth; xiang – the fragrant flavor like frying spices or roasting meat; nong – the concentrated, deep complex taste from slow-cooking; and you er bu ni – to taste of fat without being oily.
    And the food. The descriptions will make you want to immediately go and out and eat. Or cook. Or both.  Like this description of a dish of slow-cooked lotus-wrapped pork ribs that, in a quest for perfection, Sam’s stern Uncle Xie makes him repeat three times:  
    ‘Inside the leaves, the rib meat came away under their chopsticks, rich and lean and long-cooked with a soft crust of scented rice powder……….The first bite bloomed in her mouth: lovely mahogony-deep pork with bright accents of onion and ginger.’
    And of a fish soup: ‘…best of all was the second soup. It brought gasps around the table, even from Uncle Xie. The live fish had been transformed into pale, fluffy fish balls, light and airy and ultra-fresh. These floated in the perfectly intense fish broth with shrimp, clouds of soft tofu, and tangy shreds of mustard green. She felt when she was eating it that it nourished every part of her: it was a soup she sensed she would remember all her life.’

    ‘a mince of wild herbs and dried tofu, sweet-savory puffs of gluten, and pureed scented hyacinth beans. He came back for the fragrant vinegar duck, spattered with brown Shanxi vinegar.’
    Aaahh. It’s a book about food, but also about relationships – it’s not giving anything away to say that this is also a love story – focusing on the connections between people, mediated by food. From the extraordinary and intricately intellectual dishes of the Imperial Court, through to the present day, food is seen as a way of bringing people together, families, remembering lost loved ones, and celebrating the arrival of new ones. What we and Maggie discover is that Chinese food culture actually represents a way of cooking and eating that we’ve been trying to get back to for a long time in the West. The shared table. The value of technique. The respect for food’s origins.
    Nicole Mones, author of the ethereal Lost in Translation,  clearly knows and loves Chinese food. An American, she began doing business in China only months after Mao’s death in 1976. She has returned to China over and over again in the intervening years, and her website looks like that of a foodie, not a writer – there are restaurant recommendations, and best of all, recipes for some of the wonderful dishes featured in her book, including the lotus-wrapped pork ribs.

    Reading The Last Chinese Chef brought me such a great deal of pleasure – pieces of my Chinese puzzle fell into place, and I gained a deeper understanding of the food I’m eating every day, along with a beautiful tale of healing grief and love. I hope you will get a chance to enjoy it too.