The Last Chinese Chef

Nicole Mones reads an excerpt from The Last Chinese Chef on KQED's Writer's Block.

The Last Chinese Chef chronicles food writer, Maggie McElroy's journey to China one year after the untimely death of her husband. A paternity claim has been filed against her husband's estate and the question surfaces whether her husband fathered a child while he was working in Beijing. While Maggie plans her China trip to unravel the truth about her husband she is offered the opportunity to profile a rising star chef, Sam Liang. This culinary distraction turns into a life-changing healing experience.

Nicole Mones is the author of the award winning novel Lost in Translation and A Cup of Light. Since 1999 Mones has written about Chinese food for Gourmet magazine, covering the food scene in Beijing, Shanghai, and the San Gabriel Valley, east of Los Angeles. Her work has also appeared in the Los Angeles Times and the Washington Post.

Here are two recipes with associated excerpts from The Last Chinese Chef:


Beggar's Chicken
When Wu Xunqu, chief chef at Lou Wai Lou, divulged this recipe, he cautioned that it was most but not all of the recipe, since he had a few secret ingredients he wanted to keep to himself. He also insisted on starting with the life of the chicken. This is one of the poultry cooking secrets of Chinese haute cuisine: the last two weeks of a chicken's life must be spent outdoors, running free.

Ingredients & Preparation
1. At home, however, you may start with a whole chicken, cleaned, and 4-6 whole lotus leaves, soaked 20 minutes in warm water.

2. Create 3-4 Cups of concentrated soup broth from pork bone, beef bone, ham, chicken feet, onion, ginger, meiling soy sauce (it's a tiny bit sour).

3. When cool, combine with rice wine, starch powder, white pepper, salt, and a little soy. Marinate chicken 30 minutes.

4. Remove the chicken to wrap in soaked lotus leaves, first pouring over and inside one cup of the marinade (fortified with extra slivered ham, other cooked meats left from the soup, and/or soaked, slivered mushrooms).

5. Follow a layer of lotus with a layer of parchment and then another layer of lotus. Use plastic style baking bags and a foil wrap to create a tight seal.

6. Roast at 400 degrees for 1/2 hour, then at 350 degrees for up to 3 1/2 hours, depending on the bird's size and age.

-courtesy Wu Xunqu

Excerpt about Beggar's Chicken from The Last Chinese Chef:

"Then the beggar's chicken. It looked at first like a foil-wrapped whole bird, but he undid it, folded back layers of crinkly baking bags, and broke the seal on a tight molded wrap of lotus leaves. A magnificently herbed chicken aroma rushed into the air. Maggie couldn't wait. She picked up a mouthful of chicken that fell away from the carcass and into her chopsticks at a touch. It was moist and dense with profound flavor, the good nourishment of chicken, first marinated,then spiked with the bits of aromatic vegetable and salt-cured ham which had been stuffed in the cavity and were now all over the bird. Shot through everything was the pungent musk of the lotus leaf. At once she knew she should write about this place. She should give this recipe, catch the glorious bustle of this restaurant, describe these tall windows looking over the lake and virgin green hills beyond."

Pork Spare Ribs in Lotus Leaf
Serves 4

1 lb pork spare ribs
2 dried lotus leaves
rice powder scented with 5-spice

2 Tablespoons chopped scallion
1 Tablespoons chopped ginger
1 Tablespoon each soy sauce, oil, sugar, soybean paste
1/2 Tablespoon sesame oil

1. Cut spare ribs into pieces 1 1/2 inch wide, 2 inches long, then marinate in seasonings 1/2 hour.

2. Cut lotus leaves into eight pieces and soak in hot water 20 minutes.

3. Remove marinated ribs and discard scallion and ginger.

4. Add rice powder and thoroughly mix with rib pieces.

5. Divide ribs into eight small portions.

6. Place each on a soaked lotus leaf, fold and roll to make a package.

7. Place with the smooth side down in a bowl or deep plate.

8. Steam over high heat for two hours until tender.

9. Put a serving plate face down over the bowl and turn over.

Excerpt about Pork Spare Ribs in Lotus Leaf from The Last Chinese Chef:

"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. Underneath, the darker, more complicated flavor of the meat, the marrow, and the aromatics. Maggie thought it was
wonderful. She ate everything except the rib bones, which she nibbled clean and folded back up, polished, inside the leaf. She wished she could lick the leaf, it was so good.
But Sam, watching Uncle Xie's face, said, 'You think the scallion and ginger are too strong.'
'This is a dish of refinement,' said Xie. 'Sophistication and subtlety are what is most important, not the peaks of flavor. Every flavor must be a play on texture, while every texture suggests a flavor. You can be rustic, but never coarse. Always believe in the intelligence of the diner. Always reward them with subtlety.'"

Recipes for Beggar's Chicken and Pork Spare Ribs in Lotus Leaf (pdf)