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Book review, author Q&A, and salt and pepper shrimp

Ann Mah's novel, 'Kitchen Chinese: A Novel About Food, Family and Finding Yourself' celebrates life changes, Chinese culture, and most importantly, regional Chinese dishes. This special blog post contains an interview with the author, and one of her favorite recipes.

By The Asian Grandmothers Cookbook / January 8, 2013

Serve these tasty shrimp as a main course, or over a bed of greens for a salad.

The Asian Grandmothers Cookbook

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Ann Mah’s debut novel, "Kitchen Chinese: A Novel About Food, Family and Finding Yourself," has all the ingredients for a successful chick lit novel. It’s an easy, breezy read. It has a lovable heroine – Isabelle Lee – who has her flaws yet  emerges victorious. And it offers so much more, especially for Asian Americans who hardly ever see themselves reflected in mainstream literature. Plus, the book is chock full of mouthwatering descriptions of the regional cuisines Isabelle samples in Beijing, Shanghai, and beyond.

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Born in Indonesia and raised in Singapore, Patricia Tanumihardja writes about food, travel, and lifestyle through a multicultural lens and has been published in numerous national and regional publications. Pat is also the creator of the “Asian Ingredients 101” iPhone and Android app, a glossary on-the-go that’s the perfect companion on a trip to the Asian market. Her first book, The Asian Grandmothers Cookbook: Home Cooking from Asian American Kitchens, will be available in paperback in September 2012.

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Isabelle leaves behind debris of an ex-boyfriend and a dead-end editorial job in New York for the bright lights of big city Beijing. She moves in with her high-powered attorney sister, Claire, who helps her land a job as dining editor for an expat magazine. True to formula (and just the way I like it!), Isabelle bounces between two irresistible men, all the while struggling with her identity as American yet Chinese.

With her knowledge of the culture and language limited only to what Ann terms “kitchen Chinese” (hence the title of the book), Isabelle finds her way in Beijing’s fast-paced society and reconnects with her roots with a touch of self-deprecating humor, warmth, and somewhat wide-eyed innocence.

I couldn’t put the book down for many reasons. It was smart, funny and overall, a very engaging read. Three things really struck me:

1. Isabelle, with all her insecurities and self-doubts (about her identity, talents, allure, etc.) was very much like me. I could really identify with her character and I deemed her my soul sister!

2. The smattering of Mandarin words (written in Romanized hanyu pinyin) used throughout the book encouraged me to pick up Mandarin again.

3. All the luscious descriptions of regional specialties like jianbingmabo tofu, and Peking duck made me so hungry I was enticed to either seek out recipes or call for takeout.

To give you a taste, I asked Ann to share a little bit about herself (do check out her blog) and her book and I hope you treat yourself or a friend to it. 

Q+A with author Ann Mah

What inspired you to write this novel?

In 2003, my husband and I got married and a month later we moved from New York to Beijing. I gave up a job I loved in New York book publishing to become a diplomat’s wife. Initially, I was a little stunned – and I missed my job so much it felt like I’d amputated a limb – but slowly the local Chinese food ignited a spark to explore. This book grew out of those experiences.

You’ve admitted that Isabelle’s story is inspired by your own life. But how much is true to (your) life and how much is fiction? Did you embellish Isabelle’s character/life with elements you wish were present in your life?

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