Sunday, May 11, 2014

Cooking and eating in China

Serve the People, Jen Lin-Liu

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.


  1. I'm always drawn to books like this because I find learning about a country through its cooking traditions to be fun and memorable. I have a hard time with the meat stuff, too, though - I stopped reading Mastering the Art of French Eating recently (also by a Chinese American) due to the graphic descriptions of offal preparation. I am squeamish, I suppose! This one sounds very interesting and a good addition to the genre.

  2. I agree with Anbolyn - it is (seemingly) such an accessible way to approach a country through its food (and via the safety of the written word!). But then it can all go horribly wrong, not least when one actually gets to the country. Even meatless dishes can astound, as I discovered when I visited China and my sister, who has lived in Beijing for a decade, ordered a pot of fermented tofu, knowing I liked tofu. Hmmm - let's just say, "Drains. Really old slimy drains." Still, this sounds like a fun book and I wish I'd read it before I went (or maybe I wouldn't have eaten anything then!).

  3. Anbolyn, at one point I read a lot of memoirs centered around cooking and food, but mostly in the US. The travel/food kind is new to me, but I'm enjoying it. I am squeamish too, though! I saw your tweet about giving up on the book and empathized!

    vicki, I remember you writing about a visit to China. I wish I had a sister to visit in Beijing! There was a reference in this book to "stinky" tofu - though not an actual recipe, I think.

  4. I also enjoy books like this and already have On the Noodle Road on my wish list... didn't realize she had another book!

  5. JoAnn, this first book gives a bit of background for the Noodle Road book, but each really stands on its own. I hope you don't have to wish too long :)

  6. It's neat to read books that aren't primarily "about" what it's like to be in a particular place, but you end up picking up tons of stuff about that place. I feel like I don't know nearly enough about what modern China is like. This sounds really interesting!

  7. Jenny, I especially appreciated the perspective on the every-day lives of regular people, and finding out how they experienced all the changes that have come. Most of the articles I've read (generally in the New Yorker) focus on the movers & shakers.

  8. Believe me, Lisa, you don't want a recipe! ;-)

  9. vicki, I am definitely taking your word on that :)


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!