I put this book on my list after reading Jen Lin-Liu's On the Noodle Road, an account of traveling the Silk Road to research the history of pasta. I learned from it that the author ran a cooking school in Beijing, and I expected that to be the focus of this book. Instead, it is about how Ms. Lin-Liu learned to cook herself, and her travels around China exploring regional cuisines. She interviewed the people she met, working and eating in restaurants, not just about their food but about their experiences in the major political events of the 20th century, including the Cultural Revolution of the mid-1960s. In the process, she created a portrait of life in the China of today (or at least of 2008, when the book was published).
Jen Lin-Liu is Chinese herself, born in the United States to parents who immigrated from Taiwan. After college, she moved to China, first to Shanghai and then to Beijing, working as a freelance journalist. Living in China highlighted the tensions she had felt growing up Chinese and American.
I straddled the expatriate bubble and the Chinese world outside it, not quite belonging to either. So it was in China, ironically, that for the first time I felt the urge to call myself a Chinese American. It was the first time I had to seriously grapple with issues of race, identity, and where I fit in . . . It was the alienation I felt that led to my rabid obsession with Chinese food. I imagine my subconscious thinking went something like this: if I can't connect with the people, at least I'm going to connect with the food.But Ms. Lin-Liu also had to grapple initially with Chinese food as cooked and served in China, "menus [that] were full of items with beautiful, ornate names but arrived in the form of innards, claws and tongues," with "flavors that felt too chaotic, too intense." As she began adjusting to (and then craving) the food, she also began to write about it, and to want to cook it herself. This led her to a cooking school in Beijing. Most of her fellow students were male, and they were studying for a certificate that would help get them work. Cooking was seen as a low-status job. For decades the authorities had assigned people to become cooks, who had no aptitude or interest. Food shortages had made restaurant work even less appealing, both to cooks and customers. This was slowly starting to change, with the relaxation of government controls and the development of private enterprise. Beijing in particular was becoming a city of restaurants, many of them staffed by immigrants from rural areas.
After intense study, including sessions with a private tutor, Ms.Lin-Liu easily passed the cooking exam and earned her certificate. But she found that it was not a passport to a good job. Instead, she began taking restaurant work wherever she could find it, overcoming resistance to hiring an unskilled foreigner, talking her way in by sheer persistence. She worked at a noodle stand in an industrial food court that was open ten hours a day, seven days a week; and at a high-profile and expensive destination restaurant in Shanghai, serving a new type of fusion menu. Along the way she talked to cooks and customers, honed her skills, and collected recipes. She also ate in a variety of restaurants, bringing both a cook's eye and a food critic's palate to the food she was served.
I knew going in to this book that the "Chinese" food I grew up with is very Americanized. One of my college roommates was born in China, and she was pretty blunt about the "Chinese" food available in our small college town. I learned a lot about food in China from this book, though I find hard to keep all the regional cuisines straight (or the regions themselves). Personally, I found some of the food described rather disturbing, particularly the visit Ms.Lin-Liu made with friends to restaurants serving animal genitalia and dog meat, not to mention the discussion of cooking a civet cat. The recipes included are much less exotic, but since most are meat-based I don't plan to try them.
In addition to its food, I learned more about China itself in this book, including its geography. I am embarrassed to admit that I needed an atlas to find Shanghai and Hong Kong. (On my mental map, I had Hong Kong up near Taiwan.) In the acknowledgements, Ms. Lin-Liu mentioned Peter Hessler and Evan Osnos, who for many years wrote on China for The New Yorker. In fact, I have Peter Hessler's book River Town, about his stint in the Peace Corps, on the TBR stacks; I should move it up.