The Kitchen God's Wife opens with the narrative voice of Pearl Louie Brandt, the American-born daughter of a Chinese mother and a Chinese-American father, who is a speech therapist living in San Jose, California. Pearl's mother, Winnie Louie, has called Pearl to request that she and her family attend the engagement party of Pearl's cousin Bao in San Francisco. Pearl is reluctant to oblige her mother, since she is more involved in her American identity.
Nevertheless, she feels an obligation to attend the family festivities. Then, two days before the engagement party, Pearl receives another call from her mother telling her that Auntie Du has died and that the funeral will be arranged for the day after the engagement party. With these obligations on her shoulders, Pearl sets out for San Francisco with her young daughters, Tessa and Cleo, and her husband. Upon Pearl's return home, her Auntie Helen, Bao's mother, who co-owns a florist shop with Winnie, makes a demand:
she insists that Pearl must tell Winnie that she has multiple sclerosis, about which everyone else in the family knows. Helen claims that she is suffering from a malignant brain tumor and does not want to die knowing that Winnie is unaware of her daughter's illness. Helen adds that if Pearl will not tell Winnie the truth, she will do it herself. Later, Helen tells Winnie that she must unveil the truth of her past to Pearl because she cannot go to her grave with such secrets. The reader later learns that Helen knows her tumor is benign and is using the threat of her own imminent death as a pretext to force mother and daughter to be honest with one another.