On the Noodle Road: From Beijing to Rome with Love and Pasta by Jen Lin-Liu
Just in case you’re pressed for time, let me offer this short-cut alternative up front: if you’re looking for a fabulous foodie book that takes you to unexpected corners of the world, bypass Noodle Road and try Jennifer 8. Lee’s The Fortune Cookie Chronicles instead.
If you’re curiously persistent about Noodle, here’s the premise: Peripatetic Chinese American food writer and chef Jen Lin-Liu who founded the Beijing cooking school/restaurant, Black Sesame Kitchen, embarks on a culinary quest to “investigate how noodles had made their way along the Silk Road.” Her east-to-west journey entails eating, comparing, and cooking meals of local specialties with friends, old and new. From Beijing to Rome, she searches for “the links [that] made up the chain connecting two of the world’s greatest cuisines.” For the too many misinformed, Lin-Liu definitively clarifies on page 3 that Marco Polo did not introduce pasta from China to his native Italy.
As she logs thousands of miles through China, Central Asia, Iran, Turkey, and Italy, her food explorations dovetail with her own developing thoughts on a major event that has recently occurred in her life – becoming a wife: “I’d never had to take into account the impact of an extended journey on my partner, or my relationship.” Amidst her spouseless peregrinations (parts of Central Asia, Iran, and Italy reunite the new couple; husband is China policy scholar Craig Simons, former Asian bureau chief of Cox Newspapers and Newsweek China correspondent), she examines what being a partner means, beyond the expectations of society, extended family, and even her own self.
After meeting “the guardian of … a four-thousand-year-old noodle, proof that China was the rightful inventor of the widespread staple” in Beijing, Lin-Liu leaves the capital with two of her Black Sesame employees who are returning to their spouses and their native villages for a brief break from their solo career-driven city lives. Delivering them ‘home’ after sharing noodles and dumplings (whose outside wraps are akin to oversized flour-and-water noodles), Lin-Liu’s destinations take on a similar pattern: meeting locals, shopping and sampling the local fare, learning a few recipes (each chapter ends with a few), all the while observing the interactions between the diverse people who pass through the many kitchens she visits.
She eats endless variations on noodles, rice, and dumplings, as well as unexpected fare best discovered by the reader. She has the requisite bout of tummy shock, even after she declares herself immune to her concerned mother-in-law. Perhaps more memorable than the food are the people she encounters, from a Chinese American friend’s “crazy aunt” who lives alone in a remote Tibetan community, to a “lackadaisical” Iranian guide and translator (the Iran chapter is especially intriguing), to an internationally popular home chef and teacher in Istanbul, to a Chinese transplant in Rome who runs one of the few Chinese Italian restaurants in the world, to an Italian chef and his American Midwestern fiancée who “think too much success was a bad thing.”
Promising ingredients aside, Noodle is more a meandering travel diary than a well-defined memoir. The two narrative strands – culinary and personal – never quite mesh: the noodle search proves haphazard, any relationship insights feel forced. Another major edit surely could have refined this recipe into a more satisfying read.