Saturday, February 07, 2009



Nicole Mones is an American who lived and worked in the textile business in China for 18 years, and she really knows the country and all its contradictions very well indeed. In her latest book, The Last Chinese Chef, she has entwined a modern love story with the story of China’s culinary culture.

Maggie McEllroy is an American food writer approaching her fortieth birthday when her husband is tragically killed. For many months she is overwhelmed by grief and unable to function properly, and when she is contacted by the law firm for whom her husband had worked to say that a paternity case has been lodged against his estate, on behalf of a five year old child in China, she is even more devastated. She is asked to go to Beijing to sort things out. The editor of the gourmet food magazine for whom she writes urges her to go, and commissions a series of articles on food in modern China.

The Beijing Olympics are looming, and the authorities in China have decided to hold a competition to choose the very best chefs to be part of the national cooking team over the Olympic celebrations. Thus it is that Maggie meets Sam Liang a Chinese/American chef who is last in a family line of famous chefs dating back to the days of the Imperial Court. His father had fled China during the Cultural Revolution and ended up in the USA.

Over a few weeks Maggie and Sam fall in love; and as Sam prepares to cook for the banquet of a lifetime, both Maggie and the reader learn about the place food holds in China’s history, its gastronomic philosophy, and how fine cuisine can be elevated to an art form.

To do this, the author has used the device of a book-within-a-book. Each chapter starts with a quotation from 'The Last Chinese Chef' purportedly published in 1925 by Liang Wei, Sam's grandfather - the opening chapter begins with:

"Apprentices have asked me, what is the most exalted peak of cuisine? Is it the freshest ingredients, the most complex flavours? Is it the rustic, or the rare? The peak is neither eating nor cooking, but the giving and sharing of food. Great food should never be taken alone. What pleasure can a man take in fine cuisine unless he invites cherished friends, counts the days until the banquet, and composes an anticipatory poem for his letter of invitation?"

Over the years I have eaten many meals in China, but it was only from reading this book that I began to grasp some of the ancient thinking behind the various styles of cooking and the choice of foods that I have been served.

The book is a must for anyone who enjoys Chinese food, or is interested in China.

Rated: 5*


I can't remember how old I was when I first learnt the old sea shanty "What Shall we do with the Drunken Sailor?" though I do remember singing it at primary school in Africa. It was also in the family repetoire of songs that we sang to relieve the boredom of long dusty car journeys. However, some dim spark at Bookstart the UK charity which "aims to provide a free pack of books to every baby in the UK, to inspire, stimulate and create a love of reading that will give children a flying start in life", has decided that the song is not suitable for children.

In addition to supplying books, they also organise Bookstart
Rhymetimes at local venues such as libraries. These are regular get-togethers for parents, babies and toddlers to sing songs and rhymes. In the Bookstart song sheet, the words "Drunken Sailor" have been replaced with the words "Grumpy Pirate" - removing any references to alcohol, presumably because the idea of a drunken sailor is just too inappropriate whereas grumpy pirates - like the murderous Somalis who have been terrorising the coast of east Africa, capturing oil tankers, container ships and the like - are considered acceptable. Of course, once you remove drunken sailors from the song you have to remove all the follow-on lines . "Put him in the brig until he's sober...Give him a hair of the dog that bit him...Hoist him to the yardarm with a running bowline" and my favourite, "Shave his belly with a rusty razor" are all too violent for the little darlings to lisp.

Therefore they have been replaced with lines such as "Tickle him till he starts to giggle" and "Do a little jig and make him smile". What the hell is this bowdlerised rubbish?
Sea shanties are part of the heritage of a maritime nation, we will be a nation of lily-livered wimps if this sort of PC nonsense continues.

I'd like to get the Bookstart censor then I'd Shiver his Timbers.

Heave Ho and up he rises,
Heave Ho and up he rises Heave Ho and up he rises Early in the morning! Scratch his back with a Cat-o'-nine-tails Early in the morning!


After reading Nicole Mones book (see above) I felt I should make something Chinese,
but with the cold snowy weather we're having I fancied something a little more substantial than a quick stir fry. This dish is a classic in China, I should think every household has their own variant of the recipe, in fact I have at least four versions , this one is taken from Fuchsia Dunlop's book Sichuan Cookery, slightly tweeked by me. It is a particularly apposite dish to make at the moment, as the sainted Jamie Oliver is on TV these days banging on about eating British pork and particularly encouraging people to use the cheaper cuts such as belly.

HONG SHAO ROU - Red Braised Pork

Serves 2 as a main course, or 4 with two or three other dishes as
part of a Chinese meal.
This re-heats very well on the second or third day, so can be made in advance.

500g streaky belly pork with skin on
Large piece of fresh ginger, unpeeled

2 spring onions

3 tablespoons sunflower oil or similar (NOT olive oil)

500ml chicken or vegetable stock

1 tablespoon dark soy sauce
2 tablespoons Shaoxing wine (if you don't have this you can substitute dry sherry)

Half teaspoon salt

3 heaped tablespoons soft brown sugar
1 whole star anise

1 piece cassia bark (or use half a cinnamon stick)

Bring a large pan of water to the boil; when boiling, put the pork belly in and cook for 3-4 minutes then remove to a chopping board.
After a minute or two, when cool enough to handle, cut the pork into 3-4cm chunks making sure that each piece has a layer of skin and a mixture of meat and fat. Use something heavy to slightly crush the piece of ginger, then cut the spring onions into 3 or 4 pieces. In a flameproof casserole, heat the oil until it is almost smoking and then add the pork chunks (take care to stand back as you do this as the hot oil tends to spit out at you) and stir fry them for a few moments before adding the stock, sugar, soy sauce, wine, salt and spices. Stir together and bring to the boil. Simmer, half-covered, over very low heat for about two hours, stirring now and then to prevent it sticking. The meat should become a reddish brown and very tender, and the sauce reduce by half and be dark and glossy.
Serve with plain steamed or boiled rice, and garnish with finely chopped spring onion.


nick said...

These misguided attempts to clean up literary classics are absurd. Drunkenness is a fact that children ought to learn about, to deter them from going the same way for one thing. And not only is the new version glorifying terrorism, isn't it also sexist - men are always grumpy? Unless it includes Granuaile, the Irish pirate queen, of course....

Bybee said...

I remember feeling similarly disgusted at the clean-up on "The Big Rock Candy Mountain" Cigarette trees? Lakes full of gin? Jails made of tin? Gasp.

herschelian said...

Nick - I just googled Granuaile - wow! what a woman - she would have known how to deal with a drunken pirate thats for sure.

Bybee - I am aghast, I had no idea that the PC brigade had tried to alter The Big Rock Candy Mountain - Burl Ives must be rolling in his grave. When young I fancied seeing the Cigarette trees, but these days its the alcohol trickling down the rocks that appeals ;-)

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