Serve the People

A Chinese-American journalist steps into the heat and adventure of Beijing's kitchens.

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One of the great joys of the foreign correspondent’s profession is the variety of opportunities it offers to eat. I have been munching my way around the world, and incidentally reporting for The Christian Science Monitor, for the past 30 years. From Veracruz to Vladivostok and from Helsinki to Cape Horn I have run the culinary gamut.

But it is here, in China, that I have finally found a cuisine to match the journalistic attractions of my beat. And that, for me, is what makes Jen Lin-Liu’s new book, Serve the People: A Stir-Fried Journey through China, such a pleasure to read.

Lin-Liu is the sort of cook who writes without embarrassment of “the beauty of noodles” and “the power of dumplings.” Her feel for the physicality of food preparation springs from every page of this lively account of learning to cook in China.

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Lin-Liu, a Chinese American, was working as a journalist in Shanghai and having trouble with her dual identity when she sought a solution in the kitchen. “If I can’t connect with the people,” she decided, “at least I’m going to connect with the food.”

That might seem like a reasonable enough idea to you or me, but she and her aspirations ran into utter disbelief at the Beijing cooking school where she enrolled. Cooks do not enjoy much status in China and her fellow students could not understand why a college graduate was not doing some cushy job in an office.

Lin-Liu persevered though, and did indeed find cooking and eating the right way to relate to China. What she learned about the country along the way, and the vivid portrait of today’s China that she paints, make this a book that will appeal to more than just a foodie audience.

There is certainly much for foodies to enjoy, however, both in the book and in the country. Where else might you hear a flight attendant telling you not just to fasten your seat belts as the plane begins its descent into Lanzhou, but that you will soon be landing in “the home of the famous hand-pulled beef noodles”?

Predictably, Lin-Liu goes in search of these noodles, and finds them in the sort of scruffy and unpretentious eatery where she seems to feel most comfortable. (I must say, I share her tastes; not far from my home is a dingy little restaurant whose pork and fennel fried dumplings explode in your mouth with such fragrance you forget that the walls are rather grubby.)

After earning her cooking school diploma (the only student to do so without cheating), the author wangled herself a series of internships. Her experiences, and the infectious fun she had as she learned to shop for unfamiliar ingredients, fashion dumpling skins, and grate handmade noodles from a slab of dough make up the heart of the book.

She appears to have had less fun behind the scenes at the upscale Whampoa Club in Shanghai, one of modern China’s first restaurants with world-class aspirations to luxury.

Although her American side was relieved to find hand soap at the kitchen sink for the first time, her Chinese side sounds nostalgic for the key ingredient that distinguishes great restaurants in the Chinese mind:
re nao.

The words literally mean “warm noise,” and they conjure up the friendly chaos of a popular and busy restaurant where conversation is not always easy above the shouts for a waitress’s attention, the clatter of chopsticks and chinaware, and the general hubbub of appreciative diners getting stuck into their feed.

That was very much not the atmosphere Lin-Liu found at the Whampoa Club, where international celebrity chef Jereme Leung presided over the kitchen not just as a chef but as CEO of “Jereme Leung Concepts.”

She learned some seriously haute Chinese cuisine there, however, and she passes on some of Leung’s recipes, along with a great many more from simpler kitchens. You don’t need much in the way of equipment – Chinese cooks cope with nothing more than a wok and a cleaver – and the recipes are clearly written.

Or you can simply read the book for the fun of it, and for the delightful glimpses it offers into contemporary China through a prism that the Chinese hold sacred: their food.

Peter Ford is the Monitor’s Beijing bureau chief.

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