Monday, September 30, 2013

Traveling the Silk Road, in search of noodles and much more

On the Noodle Road, Jen Lin-Liu

The subtitle of this book is "From Beijing to Rome with Love and Pasta." It opens in Rome, where the author had traveled with her husband Craig from their home in Beijing.  In a pasta-making class that she attended, and in restaurants across Italy, she found surprising "parallels and similarities" between the Chinese food that she had spent many years cooking and studying, and the food of Italy that she was discovering.  She began to investigate the history of pasta, particularly the myth that Marco Polo brought noodles from China to Italy in the late 1300s.  (Lin-Liu also related a second myth I hadn't heard before, about a failed attempt to re-create China's meat-filled bao buns: "But he couldn't remember how to fold the dough, and Italy ended up with a second-rate mess-of-a-bun called pizza.")

Lin-Liu found that there are many conflicting theories about where pasta was first developed, and how it spread.  But most theories place its history in areas adjacent to "the seven-thousand-mile-long network of trade routes that connected Europe and Asia known as the Silk Road."  It wasn't a single road, of course, but "a tangle of overland paths that undulated through Central Asia and the Middle East before reaching Italy via the Mediterranean Sea."  Lin-Liu decided to travel the Silk Road herself:
I'd go to Rome again, but journeying overland this time, starting from my longtime residence of Beijing. In contrast to previous explorers, I would pursue a culinary mission: I'd investigate how noodles had made their way along the Silk Road; document and savor the changes in food and people as I moved from east to west; learn what remained constant, what tied together the disparate cultures of the Silk Road, and what links made up the chain connecting two of the world's greatest cuisines.  I would seek out home cooks, young and old, to see how recipes had been passed down and learn not only their culinary secrets but their stories as well.
There are two other elements to this story, personal ones, hinted at in the subtitle.  As Lin-Liu prepared for her travels, she was facing a question of identity.  Born in America to Chinese immigrant parents, she grew up in a Southern California community with few Asians, feeling always marked by differences.  She moved to China after college, working in journalism and studying the country's food before she opened a cooking school in Beijing.  In China, where she could blend in with the population, she still felt thoroughly American, yet when she returned to America, she "didn't quite fit in there, either."  She felt like she could not answer the simple question, "Where are you from?"
So as much as this was a sensory journey from East to West, I wanted also to explore what it meant to be "Eastern" or "Western" in a more conceptual way - I wanted to discover where the ideas converged and conflicted. Traveling through cultures that straddled the East and West, I figured, might reconcile what I'd felt were opposing forces in my life; maybe I would find others who could relate to my struggles.
At the same time, in the early days of marriage, she and her American (non-Asian) husband were working out their balance as husband and wife, and trying to decide if they wanted to stay in China. Craig had also worked there for years and was currently researching a book.  He couldn't drop his work to travel with her for several months, nor was he as interested in food and cooking as she was.  Friends questioned whether it was wise to spend so much time away from him, a concern her husband shared.  Despite some reservations, Lin-Liu decided that this trip was too important to her to give up.

Her carefully-planned route took her west from Beijing, traveling through communities of China's minority populations, like the Muslim Hui and Uighurs, and into Tibet.  Along the way, she found markets and restaurants, investigating local dishes, particularly the noodle-based ones.  She visited private homes whenever she could, finding a warm welcome in many kitchens with the cooks, and she also took classes in any cooking schools she came across. (In return, outside of China she was often asked to demonstrate Chinese cooking.) This was the pattern she would follow as she moved into Central Asia, crossing Kyrgyzstan, Uzbekistan, and Turkmenistan, before venturing into Iran.  (Her husband joined her on these legs of the trip.)  After a short break, she then picked up her trip again in Turkey, before moving on to Greece and ending in Italy.

I enjoyed this book very much, starting with Lin-Liu's description of life in Beijing, an increasingly cosmopolitan city where she and Craig lived in a small close-knit community.  Her book is divided into sections, covering the different parts of her travels, each of which includes recipes for some of the dishes she learned.  The section on her travels in Central Asia was particularly fascinating, since this is a part of the world I know very little about.  I was also very interested in her travels in Iran and Turkey, given the current situations in those countries. Wherever she went, she found that cooking was primarily the women's responsibility, outside of restaurants at least, and spending time with the cooks gave her a chance to assess the place of women in those societies and in Islam.  She found that cooking schools could be an important source of income, but also an opportunity for women to gather in a safe and private place.

Strange to say, the least appealing aspect of this book for me was the food itself.  I am not a complete vegetarian (due to a fatal weakness for bacon), but I do not eat beef or lamb (let alone mutton), the bases for most of the recipes included from China and the Muslim areas.  At least Lin-Liu skipped the recipe for the yak-filled dumplings she ate in Tibet and the lamb's brains in Tehran (of which she wrote that one bite was enough).  I did note the recipe for Turkish karniyarik, or split-belly eggplant.  I'm trying to figure out what could replace the ground beef in the stuffing.  I am a fan of Turkish food, which has some wonderful vegetarian options. After reading this book, I'm also determined finally to try a Persian restaurant that a friend has been recommending for some time.  And I'm looking forward to reading Jen Lin-Liu's previous book, Serve the People: A Stir-Fried Journey Through China.


  1. This sounds very interesting. I always think the Silk Road sounds so romantic - but I don't know anything about it apart from it was a trade route. By coincidence yesterday I ordered The Silk Road by Colin Thubron, so I'm looking forward to learning more about it.

  2. This sounds like a book I'd love - the combination of food, history, and memoir is so appealing!

  3. Joanne, we had a wonderful exhibit here a couple of years ago about the Silk Road, which piqued my interest. I'd like to read more, so I'll look for the book you mention as well.

    JoAnn, it's a wonderful mix! I think you'd like it - and I bet you'd want to try some of the recipes.

  4. I like travel/food memoirs and have seen this on the New Books shelf at my library - it caught my eye. I haven't read any nonfiction lately so I will keep this in mind. I know what you mean about the meat descriptions - I loved My Life in France by Julia Child, but couldn't stomach the passages where she writes about preparing parts of animals I would never think to eat!

  5. Anbolyn, I saw your tweet about must-read non-fiction, and I debated mentioning this. It's not quite "must-read" but it's really good. and I had the same reaction to reading Julia Child!

  6. This sounds fascinating - I went to a bao-making class in Beijing last year, and I can pretty much attest to the flat results of not managing that technique!

  7. vicki, one of my college roommates introduced me to bao our freshman year, and I was immediately addicted - and then I badgered her to bring some back after every trip home (just from Seattle, not China). I have a recipe, but I've never been brave enough to try making them on my own.


Thank you for taking the time to read, and to comment. I always enjoy hearing different points of view about the books I am reading, even if we disagree!