Photo credit: Thad Ross
Noodles, stews, pilafs and pizzas, oh my! Jen Lin-Liu’s newest book is not the book for you if you’ve just started a new diet or are hungry in the least- it’s like shopping on an empty stomach. From China to Italy, she covers follows the Silk Road in a quest to find where noodles originated, but along the way also discovers ties that bind women together across geographic boundaries and just how central food is the any given region’s history and culture.
When I first picked up this book, as a non-foodie (I’m about as far from it as one can get, as I would gladly subsist on cold cereal for the rest of my life), I was worried that the focus on meals would not hold my interest for an entire book, but as it turns out, that wasn’t a problem at all! While the food is the core of the book, with each chapter including several well-laid out recipes, the tale weaves a story of travel, a first year of marriage and thoughts about what it means to be a woman in our 21st century world.
I was particularly fascinated with Lin-Liu’s time in Iran, as it is a place we hear so much about in the news, but almost always it is portrayed in a negative light. To hear the stories of women creating lives there and providing for families there was a fascinating look into a world that is normally off-limits to westerners. This same ideas rings true throughout the book, as the author has the opportunity to weave her way into the lives of the women she visits, giving her a much more intimate look at each culture than a traveler would get if they were just passing through the country on a tour or visiting the highlighted sites of the land. I think it is that intimacy of the stories, both her own and that of her subjects that makes this book most appealing.
On Noodle Road is an eclectic mix of travelogue, food writing and memoir, crossing genre-created boundaries in a way that draws in loyal readers from each category. While I am partial to the travel/memoir sections of the story, Jen Lin-Liu bring something to the proverbial table that nearly everyone would enjoy. (Okay, if she brought dumplings to literal table, we might all be even more thrilled.)Because I appreciated the genre-bending nature of the book and really loved traveling the Silk Road with Lin-Liu, On Noodle Road: From Beijing to Rome, with Love and Pasta earns a solid:
Once upon a time, not so much during my Peace Corps service, but much more as I’ve been living in Chengdu with the Foreign Service, I’ve heard mythical-sounding tales of a land called Taiwan. The fairy tales from this far away land include mentions of easy access to western food, an abundance of bookstores and streets where one can walk without needing to be on high-alert for slick phlegm deposits.
I didn’t buy into the story. A princess can’t kiss a frog and end up with a prince, nor can she slide her foot into a glass slipper and live happily ever after. (Although, there are some beautiful heels that I have often thought could grace my closet and at least make my wardrobe happy until the next season.) And, in no world, make-believe or real, can China possibly be spit-free.
Yes Virginia, there is a Taiwan. It took only three days to turn me into a believer.
Taiwan was beautiful and I feel like we barely scratched the surface of the wonders it has to offer with our short long-weekend trip.
On the first full day we were there, our wonderful hosts took us to waffles (mine slathered in peanut butter and bananas) for breakfast and then to a local grocery store where the dairy section had not only several types of cheese to choose from, but also milk that required refrigeration. That was followed by a bike ride where waiting at crosswalks to cross a road was the norm and everyone stuck with the right-hand side of the street. Our little adventure took us to a frozen yogurt parlor and then on to a fabulous bookstore where I meandered through aisles of various volumes, fanning them in front of my face to smell the gluey, musty paper smell that can only be created by a book. The evening included dinner at an Italian-style pizzeria and then a stroll through the night market where I bought a sundress (we had just learned that morning of our new posting to KL, so my mind was on equatorial-appropriate outfits) and a bag of fun-shaped waffles. (I’m not sure what it is with the Taiwanese and their overwhelming affection for waffles, but who can argue with pig and elephant shaped mini-waffles?)
Day two saw us visiting Taipei 101, a giant building in the center of town that has a 91st floor observation deck and is home to the world’s fastest elevator. (I could really use one of those in my apartment building! It would make the daily trip up and down from the 24th floor so much quicker.) Oh, yes, and another trip to a bookstore that was filled with English-language books. The luggage weight allotted to Mainland la jiao sauce for Lulu was quickly replaced by book weight. It’s a fair trade!
After passing on the opportunity to ride the dazhi (a Ferris wheel on the top of a building), we hit up another night market, where again I indulged in some fun-shaped waffles. (This time I went with a motorcycle and a gun. I must admit, eating a gun waffle is pretty awesome. I wonder if I could qualify for NRA membership…)
To round out our weekend in Taipei, John took us to the city’s public library. That’s right! I’d nearly forgotten what one of those was. The building was six stories of stories, including an entire section of English books. (He even had his own library card and favorite reading nook!) Not only that, but outside the front door of the main entrance was an amazing invention- a book vending machine! It was filled with books on a spinner. Using their library card and the touch screen, patrons can choose a book and have it dropped into the delivery slot, making for a quick literary getaway! (Looking back, this paragraph is filled with way too many exclamation points, but I was that excited by the availability of books in Taiwan. F. Scott Fitzgerald said, “An exclamation point is like laughing at your own joke.” I understand the sentiment, but to be fair, I am not sure he ever lived for two years in a place without easy access to libraries and bookstores. I would like to think he’d understand, and forgive, my enthusiasm.)
Three days of Taiwan meant three days of beautiful blue skies and sunshine, three days of fabulous food (and probably at least three gained pounds), three days of literature-filled outings (and many more than three books purchased.)
But, most importantly, Taiwan meant a weekend of happily ever after with our great friends John and Lulu, living the Foreign Service fairy tale.
Venn diagrams are awesome! I used to make my students create them to compare and sort an array of different things, from vocabulary words to literary character traits to ideas for writing essays. So, as I wandered the grocery store last week, in my mind I thought about how I could make a Venn diagram to describe the similarities and differences between shopping in an American grocery store and shopping in a Chinese one. (I often write blog posts in my head when I am out and about in town. My daily taxi ride home seems to be a hotbed for blog ideas, some of which turn out to be great, but others of which turn out to be mere ramblings about excessive horn honking or women wearing control-top pantyhose with shorts so short I can see the control top. I should get a cute “blog” notebook and carry it around with me everywhere I go so I can record these brilliant insights bring them home and form them into coherent written thoughts!)
But, back to Venn diagrams and the supermarket.
My plan was to draw up a cute little overlapping set of circles (probably in well-coordinated colors like pink and blue so the center was a lovely purple) and fill them with shopping habits. It didn’t take long though, before I ran into a major roadblock with my diagram- my circles never crossed!
Yes, I could overlap with words like “food,” but that’s a 6th graders way out and would never have flown in my classroom, so there is no way it could go here. While there food at each supermarket, the food items are vastly different. For instance, my local Idaho Albertson’s, never have I seen live fish jumping out of their aquariums, flopping on the market floor and never once did I see bottle after bottle, shelf after shelf and aisle after aisle of high priced baijiu liquor displayed in fancy red boxes. But, on the other hand, in China, I’m never forced to choose between twenty-odd types of sandwich bread just to make a PB&J or have to discern the difference between a hundred different boxes of cereal.
I also considered putting grocery carts in my central Venn section, but again, a little more thought pushed them out of the running as well. Grocery carts- It seems easy enough, and yes, they exist in both countries, but Chinese grocery carts are made with some serious maneuverability in mind. Rather than having two set wheels and two free ones, the carts here have all four wheels able to go in any direction, meaning pushing a cart can make you look a bit like Bambi when he walks on ice for the first time. It is easy to get splayed out on the slick floor of the supermarket, holding on to the cart handle for dear (deer!) life. And, as the cart gets fuller (and heavier) the exaggerated movements it takes to keep the basket on course becomes only more hyperbolic.
Even payment can’t fall into the pretty purple at the heart of my Venn diagram. China, at least western China, is still very much a cash economy. There is no easy swipe of the debit card or quick signature on the credit card slip to have you on your way. Nope. Here, cash is still king. It’s not all a bad thing though. There is an advantage to grocery shopping in cash only. Going into the store, I know exactly how much money is in my wallet and there can be no giving in to the temptation to buy a box of doughnuts or a bag of Cheetos, as funds are limited to what came with me from home. (Although, if I somehow stumbled across a box of doughnuts, I’d probably just dump the million-year shelf-life milk out of my crazy cart and make room for the sugary goodness of chocolate and sprinkles!)
With three China years under my belt, there are still times that supermarkets here overwhelm me and send me straight out the door with nothing to show for my trip. I can only imagine what a Chinese person on vacation in the US would think if they walked into a Costco where food is sold by the case lot, carts are upgraded for flatbed trolleys and it’s nearly impossible to get out of the store for under $100! Their mental diagram would have no more middle ground than the one planned out in my brain as I swerved and skidded up First Ring Road in my taxi last Friday.
This is not going to come as a shock to those of you who know me well, but I’m just stating the facts. I am not a cook, a chef, a baker or any other synonym for one who makes food. My idea of cooking is going online and ordering food to be delivered to my house. (I’m so far away from being a cook that even calling in an order on the telephone is too close to actual food preparation.) When I open those steaming packages of take-out, it counts as cooking in my book. Whenever there was a family event that involved everyone bringing something to add to the spread, I always tried to be first to reply to the invitation email so I could call dibs on the potato chips if it was a barbeque or the rolls if it was a sit-down dinner. Either way, the “cooking” involved dropping by Albertson’s grocery store on the way to the meal, running in and getting my assigned item and heading out to where the real food was being prepared. Even Thanksgiving, which we were kind of in charge of on Thad’s side of the family, I got out of the real work by offering up my giant kitchen (which was pristine, since it never got used) and buying the bird and fixings. It was a price I was more than happy to pay.
It was a system that was working out pretty well for me when we were living in Idaho, because I had enough real cooks around me that I could always fall back on their food creations for a real meal once in a while. My parents are always good for a meatloaf or grilled burgers, especially when my brother, the baby of the family, calls up and requests dinner. All I have to do is piggy-back on his call. My sister-in-law is always trying out new recipes and has a dining room table big enough for a few extra diners. And I am assuming my older sister knows that all holiday meal gatherings are eventually going to end up at her house. It is part of her predestined roll as the oldest child. (Don’t worry Melys, I’ll bring the rolls!)
But what happens when I am just under 10,000 miles away from home and want to make a homemade birthday dinner for Thad? Usually I just suggest a lasagna dinner from either his mom or my mom, whoever asks about his birthday first. This year, a mom-sanga wasn’t an option, so I thought maybe it was time to step up to the plate and figure out how to make a “real” lasagna dinner myself. (“Real” gets put in quotation marks because everything is relative in China. You do the best with what you have here.)
With the goal of homemade lasagna in mind, I took the subway to a new supermarket in town that has a lot of western goods available. For a price. But that is a whole different story. Last time I was there, I noticed the butcher block at this store had some decent looking ground beef, so I picked up a few small packages of that, along with lasagna noodles. I already had mozzarella cheese, which we buy in bulk from a different store in town, then cut up into blocks and freeze. My back bedroom, which is filled with random goodies from Costco had a couple jars of spaghetti sauce, which I figured could be a stand in for the tomato sauce. I looked all over but couldn’t find any ricotta cheese, cottage cheese or sour cream, but again, this is China-style lasagna.
Sunday was Thad’s actual birthday, but he wasn’t feeling super great, so we put off the homemade dinner until tonight. I made sure to have everything at work wrapped up right at four so I could skitter out the door and head home to get dinner in the oven. I remember from watching my mom make lasagna about a million times that it is a bit of a process.
It is less of a process when you make the “easy” version. Apparently, the noodles I bought (the only ones the store had) are pan-ready, which means I didn’t have to boil them before making the meal. That saved me one step! Plus, having less ingredients made the whole preparation a little faster than I expected.
After cooking the ground beef (which was actually decent quality- no chunks of fat or slivers of bone to be found!), and adding the spaghetti sauce, I embarked on the Lincoln-Log-esque process of building the lasagna, layer by layer. I started with sauce on the bottom of the pan, thinking that would help cook these strange oven-ready noodles I bought. Then came noodles, burger-mix, cheese and back to noodles.
Italy isn’t going to come calling anytime soon, asking for my recipe to add to their national cookbook, but I do have to say I was rather pleased with the results. Many times I start these cooking projects with high hopes, only to have my dreams of a homemade meal come crashing down, but tonight, it actually worked out. Not only did the lasagna *look* like a lasagna, but the taste was a pretty decent replication as well. It wasn’t my mom’s lasagna, but it wasn’t a total embarrassment either!
And, guess what we’ll be having for lunch tomorrow. Birthday lasagna- China style! (With just the two of us, I still have 2/3 of a pan left.)
Happy 36th birthday, Thad!