It would be reductive, though not entirely unfair, to label this fitfully impressive first novel a gay Southeast Asian Like Water for Chocolate. The protagonist, Fong Mun, a Laotian resettled in California, has achieved security and minor fame as a chef and cookbook author, and has effectively buried his memories of enduring, then escaping, his beleaguered country's political chaos during the 1970s--until a handsome young countryman, Raymond, whom Fong Mun meets at a dinner party he's catering, solicits his life story, and the memories tumble forth, in flashback scenes juxtaposed against the pair's evening together, first in the kitchen, then in bed. Huo vividly renders the gradual capitulation of Fong Mun's city (Luang Prabang) to Communists who appropriate private property and schools, then dethrone Laos's monarchy at the time of the fall of Saigon. And he conveys with real feeling the multiple disorientations suffered by ``a boy who looked like a girl'' (and gradually realizes he's homosexual), separated from his family, then reunited with them in a refugee camp, where his mother and grandmother die. Fong Mun's narrative is pleasingly lucid, graced by occasional magical-realist touches (such as a ``chronic toothache'' that plagues Luang Prabang's entire populace). But the intervals that interrupt his tale for conversations with the sympathetic Raymond are redundant and filled with details of ethnic cookery unlikely to interest any reader not already devoted to Laotian cuisine. Furthermore, Huo races to the end: An enormity of climactic information (leading up to, then briefly describing, Fong Mun's move to America) is awkwardly crammed into the final 20 or so pages. The novel's central concept--that reconstructing recipes from memory is Fong Mun's way of recapturing and preserving the culture taken from him--is a moving one, and when Huo sticks closely to it, we're absorbed and persuaded by his story. An appealing debut that doesn't fully satisfy but does whet one's appetite for more of Huo's work.