on July 25th 2013
Genres: Cooking, Nonfiction
Published by Riverhead Books
Setting: China, Turkmenistan, Uzbekistan, Kzyrgystan, Iran, Turkey, Greece, Italy
Feasting her way through an Italian honeymoon, Jen Lin-Liu was struck by culinary echoes of the delicacies she ate and cooked back in China, where she’d lived for more than a decade. Who really invented the noodle? she wondered, like many before her. But also: How had food and culture moved along the Silk Road, the ancient trade route linking Asia to Europe—and what could still be felt of those long-ago migrations?
The journey takes Lin-Liu into the private kitchens where the headscarves come off and women not only knead and simmer but also confess and confide. The thin rounds of dough stuffed with meat that are dumplings in Beijing evolve into manti in Turkey—their tiny size the measure of a bride’s worth—and end as tortellini in Italy. And as she stirs and samples, listening to the women talk about their lives and longings, Lin-Liu gains a new appreciation of her own marriage, learning to savor the sweetness of love freely chosen.
A travel book about noodles? I had to read this book as soon as I heard of it. Add in the fact that in 2017 I’m trying to read more Asian authors and books set in Central Asia and this book was perfect for me. It took me forever to read it though. I think I found this book so soothing that I would fall asleep after a few pages. It wasn’t boring. It just relaxed me.
The author is a Chinese-American journalist who lives in Beijing with her white American husband. She owns a cooking school. While most people in the west think of rice when they think of staple dishes of China, noodles are more common in the cuisine of northern China. She decides to follow the path of the Silk Road to see how noodles spread between China and Italy. Who invented them?
First of all, the old story about Marco Polo discovering noodles in Asia and bringing them to Italy is not true. The true history of noodles turns out to be very difficult to figure out. The author travels from China through central Asia and into Iran and Turkey interviewing chefs and home cooks. She is taught to cook dishes that amaze her and dishes that she learns to dread like plov, a central Asian rice dish that she was fed at every meal. I thought plov sounded really good if you left out all the dead animal parts that she kept being served. For a book that was supposed to be about noodles, it was very heavy on the meat. She had sheep killed in her honor and a lot of time was spent sourcing and waxing poetic over pork in Muslim countries.
There is also a lot of discussion about relationships and the role of women in society. At the time she started this trip, the author was recently married and was considering whether or not to have children. She is very conflicted about what her role should be in her marriage. Both she and her husband travel for work. Can they keep doing that? Should they stay in China? Does being married automatically mean giving up her independence? She spends part of the trip traveling alone and part of it with her husband. She talks to women as they cook about what their relationships are like. She realizes that her love of homemade noodles means that someone has to spend all that time making them. Younger women with jobs outside the house tend not to learn those skills.
This book does have many recipes if you would like to try making different types of noodles and dishes featuring noodles. It even has recipes for plov. It won’t give you the answer though to where the noodle originated. That answer is lost in time.