Not only is the timing of this book delicious, coming right with the dynamic Olympics XXIX in Beijing, but the writing, recipes and cuisine are delightful. Seldom does a book come along that feeds a multitude of senses, but Lin-Liu’s remarkable volume evokes a plethora of responses in the reader. Your taste buds salivate, your eyes find a feast in Lin-Liu’s great prose, and your sense of the culture and beauty of China leads you into a deeper appreciation of all things Chinese.
Jen Lin-Liu is an American born to Taiwanese parents, so she, too, had to overcome some cultural barriers upon her move to Beijing. Her passion for food, along with her concurrent passion for journalism (she is a Journalism grad from Columbia University), led her to explore the aspects of both. Serve the People is salted with great passages on food, cultural insights and even love. Lin-Liu looks for authenticity in her searches – a perspective of a China rapidly spinning toward modernism and technology, while hanging onto provincial cooking and traditions. The book is divided into four sections, each dealing with a different aspect of Jen’s learning:
Each section has its own recipes, from the fabulously yummy-sounding Guita Liji (Pan-Fried Pork Tenderloin) to tofu, rice and noodle recipes. The list of recipes right after the Table of Contents page is a great way for the reader to go back and find the recipes after reading the book. There is also a short section on recommended sources that you might want to view, to give a more in-depth look at Jen Lin-Liu’s topics, characters and recipes.
- Cooking School (including a close-up look at MSG, and how it is grown)
- Noodle Intern (with a look at Rice and the harvest)
- Fine Dining (the upscale aspect of Chinese cosmopolitan cooking)
- Hutong Cooking
In addition, perhaps it needs to be said that the characters that Jen meets on her travels are as uniquely enchanting as her writing. Traveling back and forth between Shanghai and Beijing, she starts the narrative with her exasperating but eventually gratifying schooling at Hualian Cooking School in Beijing. Apprenticed there to one of the school’s founders, Chairman Wang, (a traditional chef brought up during the Cultural Revolution), Lin-Liu is taught the bare-bone basics of shopping for the best ingredients, how to wield a cleaver, and how to pass the final examination. In fact, Jen Lin-Liu’s note following the last page states, “Unless otherwise noted, the only special equipment needed to prepare the recipes in this book are a cleaver and a wok...”
The cultural and culinary journeys continue with Jen’s apprenticeship at a noodle stall dishing up noodle dishes to migrant workers. She continues her training and cultural immersion at a trendy dumpling house, Xian'r Lao Man, then later manages to land a desirable internship at Jereme Leung's chic Shanghai bistro, Whampoa Club. With each new experience, Jen makes new friends and is honored with personal recipes and cooking techniques of her co-workers. Despite the fact that neither women nor “foreigners” (for while Chinese, she is an American by birth) are welcomed or even respected in cooking careers, she finds her way through the maze, making many friends and writing a terrific book along the way.
Integrating accounts of the Chinese with whom she worked, as well as taking some fascinating side trips to the MSG plant in Henan and the rice-growing Guangxi region, Lin-Liu offers a meticulous yet lively observance the modern China and the traditional ways. The reviewer highly recommends the recipe for Lamb and Pumpkin Dumpling Filling (p. 72) which she used as a filling for fried won ton. Enjoy!