Fri, Oct. 24th, 2008, 09:31 pm || Lin-Liu, Jen - Serve the People: A Stir-Fried Journey Through China

add to memories

After living in China for a few years, Jen Lin-Liu decides to take a class in Chinese cooking and ends up interning at fancy restaurants and noodle stands, all the while dealing with class, gender, and race in a rapidly changing nation. The book's a combination of memoir, food journalism, and China studies, and it includes recipes.

My very favorite parts were, of course, about the food, particularly Lin-Liu's stint as a noodle-maker, in which she worked at a street-side shaved noodle stand! Though I also loved a look at the fancy Shanghainese restaurant she later interned at, part of me wished she had done a working tour of many different street stands and/or small, hole-in-the-wall restaurants. But mostly, I loved reading about making dumplings, the quest for the perfect xiao long bao in Shanghai, discovering Huaiyang cuisine, and adventurous eating. She tries dog, yes, but the meal that probably takes the cake is one that serves penis in everything. I got the impression that the meals including dog and penis and whatnot were considered weird by Chinese standards as well, whereas ones including offal or various internal organs or fish heads are not. I am guessing this holds in Taiwan as well, as I do not know anyone who's eaten the first two and many people who have eaten the latter, myself included.

Also, fish head is tasty.

The bits when the author learns more about China's history and the aftermath of the Communist Revolution were interesting to me, but slightly less so, possibly because I've heard a lot of stories of the Cultural Revolution growing up, and possibly because I was just in Shanghai this summer. I do like the way she writes things up, but there's always the barrier of her Chinese-American childhood and class, as even her paltry salary as a journalist in China put her solidly in the upper-middle class. The class issues are particularly emphasized when she is in cooking class, as it's a vocational class for an non-prestigious, difficult job.

She also writes about migrants from more rural areas coming to Beijing to try to make it and how they're frequently talked about like immigrants (legal and illegal) are talked about in the US. And, well, there's a lot of stuff in the book. There was an incidence of ablism that was disturbing, and there's the class thing, but I did think that Lin-Liu was trying to think about these issues, as well as think about her own role as a Chinese-American woman living in China.

And did I mention the food? Reading this made me so hungry and homesick that I went through old trip photos to drool.