Book Review: Kitchen Chinese by Ann Mah

China, Food & Wine, Travel Books & Movies — By on May 5, 2010 at 3:00 am

by Michele Herrmann
Special to Lost Girls World

Food has a knack for forging human connections in many ways: socially, culturally, historically, and personally. In Ann Mah’s debut novel, Kitchen Chinese, the main character Isabelle Lee experiences some notable and tasty life lessons.

A sudden job loss and the end of an office romance lead her to leave New York City magazine publishing behind to start over in Beijing, moving in with her older sister Claire, a high-powered attorney and socialite. Soon, she lands a job as a restaurant critic at an ex-pat publication.

What she only knows about Chinese cuisine comes from her Chinese-American childhood, eating her mother’s cooking and listening to her chatter. Yes, that will change.

As she awkwardly adjusts to her new surroundings and develops new friendships, she eventually finds there’s much more to Chinese food and her heritage, as well as her family and herself.

Mah drew upon her experiences in living in Beijing in four years and, like her novel’s main character, working as a dining editor for an English-language magazine, which I find helps to make Isabelle’s journey more lifelike. I could understand the culture shocks Isabelle encounters at first: being recognized by locals as a foreigner; trying to place orders in restaurants; getting around; and-perhaps most importantly-improving her language skills.

Mah has been consistent about keeping food as a central part of her novel. We learn about Isabelle having Peking duck when she arrives, to her buying street cart food for a magazine story, to communally sharing a Mongolian hot pot with her coworkers. It’s also a nice surprise to find recipes included in the back such as Mah’s own Salt and Pepper Shrimp Salad.

The story also takes a look at how growing up embraced in a specific culture can shape family relations: from a sister Isabelle has never really known yet but, unlike her, has met high academic and career expectations, to a mother who seems at first overbearing about her daughters’ job and dating choices.

There are some segments of the book that seemed to slightly drag on, such as the dilemma Isabelle faces on choosing the affections of two very charming yet quite different men. One of these guys has a supposed ex-girlfriend who is-how should I best describe this?-quite intense.

Overall, I enjoyed Kitchen Chinese and give it a four-star rating. This novel suits any reader who takes pleasure in the joys of eating, traveling, and self-discovery.

Kitchen Chinese
Avon A, February, 2010

Support The Lost Girls: Click on this link to buy Kitchen Chinese!

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About Michele…
Aside from writing, Michele Herrmann has done everything from taking pet sitting jobs to stockpiling spare change to help fund her pursuit of travel. So far she has been up and down the U.S. East Coast and Canada and has visited France, England, the Netherlands, Spain, and Italy. Herrmann covers technology and business trends in higher education and resides in Connecticut.

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