Kitchen Chinese is the debut novel by Ann Mah, an author and a journalist from California who’s currently residing in Paris. It recounts the story of Isabelle, a Chinese-American who moved to Beijing in an attempt to turn her life around. Outwardly Chinese but brought up in non-Asian environment, her adventure brought her to unexpected places, new experiences, awkward interactions (especially when compounded with expectation for fluency in the local language) and cuisine discovery but ultimately, love can also be found in a foreign land.
The novel is detailed and descriptive while successfully remain light-hearted and humorous at the same time. Like a feast, it is infused with just about everything that gives you a perfect insight into the life of an expat in a culture that perhaps belongs more to his/her ancestors.
We caught up with Ann to discuss about the book and to get to know her better.
- How much of yourself do you identify with Isabelle, the protagonist in Kitchen Chinese?
The book was inspired by my own experiences as a young Chinese-American woman in China, so Isabelle and I do share some similarities. But, ultimately, I chose to write fiction for two reasons. First, I think it’s difficult for someone in their twenties or thirties to write a memoir, when they don’t have a large breadth of experience behind them. Secondly, writing fiction allowed me to explore different angles outside of my own life — for example, romantic relationships. I was happily married when I lived in Beijing, but Isabelle is single and must navigate the dating scene in a foreign country and language. These experiences give her a greater understanding and acceptance of her cultural identity.
- What inspired you to write this novel?
I lived in Beijing for two years before I started writing Kitchen Chinese. At first it seemed so cliche to think that, as a Chinese American, I would have an epiphany about my cultural roots and want to write about it. But life as an expat made me start thinking about cultural vs ethnic identity and the experience of being a fish out of water. The need to process these thoughts was the seed that gave root to this book.
- Who provide you with food inspirations?
I worked as a restaurant critic and dining editor for a Beijing expat magazine and some of my fondest memories are of eating lunch with my colleagues. They introduced me to “jiachangcai” or homestyle dishes and were an endless source of information. Through them, I also started to learn more about Chinese regional cuisine, which fascinates me still. China is a huge country — about the size of the United States — and each region has its own diverse style of cooking.
- How do you view Chinese style dessert (tong sui) from what is norm in western world (pastries, cakes, pies etc)? (A friend once remarked any country east of Turkey doesn’t do good dessert!)
I’m not a big fan of dessert in any form. And Chinese desserts can be very sweet and sticky, filled with things like red bean or lotus paste that are definitely an acquired taste. However, meals in China usually end with fruit — it’s not unusual to finish a fancy meal with a plate of watermelon and cherry tomatoes (remember, tomatoes are a fruit!) even in the dead of winter!
- Which do you prefer and why: eating or cooking? Chinese or French cuisine?
Eating and cooking are twin passions of mine. But what I love most about them is the sharing. I don’t like eating by myself, nor do I like cooking for myself. But I do love the process of creating something and offering it to others — whether it be food or writing. As for Chinese vs French cuisine — I love them both. It’s like choosing between children!
- What is your favourite city and what do you love most about it?
My husband is a diplomat so we move often. As a result, I’ve had the chance to develop many favorite cities. For now, my favorite is Paris. I’d always dreamed of living here and it hasn’t disappointed me yet. I love the sweeping boulevards, the patina of history, the elegant Hausmannian facades, the passion for fine dining, and the unlimited access to unpasteurized cheese.
- Where do you hang out regularly in Paris?
The market on Boulevard Raspail (not the fancy Sunday marché bio, but the more humble Tuesday/Friday market). The wine section of La Grande Epicerie. A corner of the Luxembourg Gardens, where I like to sun myself and read the newspaper. The American Library in Paris for research and quiet concentration. La Laiterie, a restaurant in the 7th where I love their chalkboard menu, simple fresh food and casual atmosphere. Le Mistral, a cafe in the 20th, for coffee and friendship — my husband has been friends with the owners since he was an exchange student in college.
- What’s next?
I would love to write something set in Paris, perhaps about wine and a female sommelier. At least, the research would be fun!
Ann Mah will be speaking at the American Library (10 rue du Général Camou, 75007 Paris) on Wednesday 10 March 2010 (that’s today!!), at 7.30pm. She also blogs regularly and can be found tweeting at @AnnMahnet.