Wednesday, July 31, 2013

Book Review: "On the Noodle Road: From Beijing to Rome, with Love and Pasta" by Jen Lin-Liu

Warning: Don't read this book on an empty stomach, or if you're on Atkins, because you'll be craving carbohydrates and your stomach will probably be growling throughout the entire book.

Jen Lin-Liu was a journalist, food writer, and owner of a cooking school in Beijing. While on her honeymoon in Italy, as she marveled over the culinary delights she and her husband enjoyed, she started wondering about pasta. (And who wouldn't?) More specifically, she started wondering about pasta's provenance, given its popularity in so many different cultures.

Who invented the noodle? Was it, as legend and history have said, Marco Polo, who brought the noodle back to Italy from China during his global explorations? Or were mentions of noodle-like substances in the Talmud and Etruscan history, or supposed discoveries of ancient noodles evidence that pasta was enjoyed even earlier in history? Lin-Liu decided to set out on a culinary journey along the Silk Road to discover the origins of pasta.

Her journey takes her through small villages in China and Tibet, Central Asia (Kyrgyzstan and Uzbekistan), Iran, Turkey, Greece, and Italy. She spends time in cooking schools, restaurants, tourist attractions, and even people's homes, learning secrets of rice, pasta, and dumpling dishes the world over, and marveling at their differences and their similarities with the food her cooking school teaches people about in China. But more than that, as she spends time with professional chefs and home cooks, wives and mothers, men and women, she learns a great deal about different cultures and how they view the role of women versus men, as well as the role of food in each of these societies.

At the same time, Lin-Liu, a newlywed, is forced to confront her own issues with her marriage. Spending most of her journey on her own, with her journalist husband elsewhere, she wonders whether this trip was good for her marriage, and what role she should play in their relationship after her travels. With food such a central part of her life, but not nearly such an obsession for her husband, are they doomed to fail?

Lin-Liu cites two points raised by food historian Charles Perry, which illustrated some of what she learned in her travels. "If a people eat much of a dish, this does not mean that they have eaten it forever, [and] if a people eat little of a does not follow that they never ate much of it."

As a huge pasta, noodle, and dumpling lover, I enjoyed reading about Lin-Liu's experiences, and the incredible (and sometimes nauseating) food she was able to eat and cook during her travels. But after a while, I stopped caring about the purpose of her mission (the issue of provenance seems to come and go throughout the book) and just focused on her conversations and her discoveries. She's an excellent writer and describes the things she ate and saw with terrific detail.

But if anything, the weak link in the book is Lin-Liu herself. She is fairly unflinching in writing about her own issues with her marriage and her role as a woman, which doesn't quite endear her to the reader. And when she recounts certain exchanges with her husband you definitely sympathize with him, not her. It takes a lot to write about yourself in an unflattering way.

This is a fascinating book, and the recipes that Lin-Liu includes are well worth the price. If you've ever dreamed of going on a worldwide food journey, but don't think it's something you can afford (financially or weight-wise), live vicariously through Jen Lin-Liu. You'll enjoy yourself, and be super hungry.

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