Taiwanese-Canadian Mandy Lee’s first attempt at cooking was not a success. In one of the chapters of The Art of Escapism Cooking (2019), she writes that when she was 16 and growing up in Vancouver, her mother and three “aunties” would have all-day sessions of mahjong. Each of the players would pay $5 for Lee to buy ingredients and cook them a meal, and whatever money was left over was hers to keep. “As a teenage girl whose cooking experience amounted to counting calories and microwaving face masks, I quickly realised I was in way over my head. Either naturally or through PTSD, I have lost all recollection of the first meal I cooked for them, but a few softly spoken words from one of the aunties as she slowly lowered her chopsticks burned into my memory like a hot iron on a slab of meat: ‘We could also order takeout next time.’” Lee took that as a challenge. Years later, after she and her husband moved to Beijing, Lee’s ability to cook stood her in good stead. She loathed Beijing and cooked to escape, first chronicling her efforts in “Lady and Pups – an angry food blog”, which she started in 2012, and now in the book. She doesn’t mince words about how much she detested living in the Chinese capital: “One hazy Beijing afternoon, one no more particularly dreadful than the others […]”, and “I stared impassively at the hellish cityscape of Beijing outside […]” And later, “It is generally ill-advised to go political if you want to sell cookbooks. But I don’t care. There’s no politically correct way to sugarcoat this. What’s wrong with Beijing? Maybe nothing. What’s wrong with me in Beijing? Everything. […] “Due to my general reluctance to say the word ‘Beijing’ on a regular basis, I like to and often do call Beijing by the nickname I chose for it – Richard, derived from a Proto-Germanic root meaning ‘hard ruler’. But more important, ‘Dick’ for short.” The book, she writes, is “a memoir of recipes and stories that I documented during a desperately unpleasant time of my life, the delicious aftermath of how I cooked my way out of six miserable years in Beijing, my lemons and lemonade.” She wonders, “When and how had I stopped making meals but, instead, begun making fantasies? When and how did I no longer cook, but escape? Why did I spend six years of my life buried in a little corner that most people would call a kitchen, but that for me was a sanctuary? “I cooked in Beijing because it was the one positive thing I could harvest from a place abundant with negativity […] The food that comes as a result – which I’m told has made a lot of others happy, too – is the pleasant by-product, the overspilled muffin top. So, if you’re experiencing thoughts of suicide along with the midnight urge to butcher a chicken, this book may be right for you, my friends – those of you who find yourselves, likewise, cooking for one reason and one reason only. “Happiness.” The recipes in the book are enticing – including the delicious looking crackling-studded pork belly burger that graces the cover. They include gooey cheese soup dumplings on a lacy crust; Peking duck ramen; vegan burned miso ramen; Sichuan hot chicken; wontons with shrimp and chilli coconut oil and herbed yogurt; fried razor clams with Thai tartar sauce; Spamocado toast (it features Spam and avocado, as you can probably guess); crispy whole-fried sandstorm chicken; laksa-flavoured paella; and lamb and cheese slab pie rubbed with cumin-chilli oil.