Kitchen Chinese

9 02 2010

A novel about food, family, and finding yourself

I miss Isabelle. 

Let me back up a little.  One of my fellow American expat food bloggers in Paris, Ann Mah, has written a novel.  It’s called Kitchen Chinese, and it’s loosely based on some of her experiences as a Chinese-American woman navigating the quarterlife in Beijing.  And it’s a delight.  From the intriguing and informative quotes on classic Chinese food that begin each chapter, to the mouthwatering descriptions of traditional (and not-so-traditional) Chinese meals, to the immediately lovable characters, the book is both fun and thought-provoking.

Aside from her knowledge about and skill in describing food, Ann’s greatest strength is creating characters.  The protagonist, Isabelle Lee, feels like a friend after only a few pages, which make her disappointments all the more crushing and her triumphs all the more cheer-inspiring for the reader.  Isabelle’s relationships with her family, friends, and coworkers ring true, and the changes those relationships go through feel natural and real, never forced for the sake of plot advancement.

I know I’m not the first, nor will I be the last person to read this book and wind up craving Chinese food.  I tried not to dwell too long on the part about that elusive specialty of Shanghai, xiaolongbao, because my Parisian hunt for them has so far turned up fruitless.  But the moon festival party scene, with its piles of steaming dumplings, sent me almost immediately up the street to the Restaurant Raviolis.

It's not soup dumplings, but it'll do

Where I proceeded to gorge myself, as per usual, with dumplings.  Dumplings floating in flavorful broth, and dumplings pan-fried to a crisp golden brown and dunked in soy sauce and black vinegar.

One of the best dumplings in town.

I am also now in search of a restaurant in Paris that serves Yunnan cuisine, which I never knew about before, but having learned of it, must taste.  Chinese cheese?  Sign me up!

I could definitely relate to Isabelle’s struggles as she finds her way in a new culture – while China and France are obviously very different places, there are certain elements of the expat experience that are universal.  And connecting to a culture by way of its food is one of them.  Dining being the convivial experience that it is, it is one of the best ways to build friendships, which is hugely important when you’ve transplanted yourself thousands of miles from home.  A country’s cuisine can also tell stories about its values and showcase its aesthetics.  Isabelle has the good fortune to get hired as the dining editor for an English-language magazine, which immediately plunges her into the world of Chinese cuisine, from Beijing’s street carts to Hong Kong’s dim sum.  As a result, she is forced to improve her language skills from the titular “kitchen Chinese,” as well as figure out how she fits into a country where she doesn’t look foreign, but feels it.

I feel lucky to have been asked to receive an advance review copy of Kitchen Chinese, but having finished the book, I miss my friend Isabelle.

You can get your own copy through my Amazon store, Ann’s blog, or at one of her upcoming book events.

Originally published on Croque-Camille.

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