The book is Serve the People and it is sub-titled A Stir Fried Journey Through China but neither of these does it full justice. It is about Chinese food and cooking but it’s also a travel book that offers fascinating glimpses of life in China AND it contains recipes. It succeeds at many levels and is a must read for anyone interested in China and/or Chinese food.
The author, Jen Lin-Liu , a Chinese -American who was raised in Southern California, graduated from Columbia University and headed toChina on a Fulbright scholarship back in 2000. While working as a freelance journalist in Beijing, she decided to join a cooking school and that was the start of the adventures which culminated in this book. Cooking schools in China are very different from their American counterparts and resulted in some harrowing moments as Lin-Liu tried to fit in. Most of her fellow students were young men and women from the poverty-stricken provinces, trying to qualify for a job that would pay them a living wage. At the cooking school, students would observe from seats in the bleachers while the teacher prepared dishes using rudimentary equipment. Recipes were interspersed with bits of kitchen ‘wisdom’ and pop psychology ; measurements were ‘by eye’ and questions were discouraged. At the end of the class, students would descend from the bleachers , chopsticks at the ready to gobble up the chef’s creations. There was almost no hands-on experience, so Miss Lin-Liu contracted for private lessons with ‘Chairman’ Wang, the elderly woman who served as the chef’s aide.
I think of myself as a fairly good cook, able to turn out a decent Chinese meal, but reading this book taught me how little I really know. The nuances of cutting vegetables and meats, of rolling and making dumplings and noodles and the intricacies of flavoring will forever be beyond my limited skills. It is fun though to read about Lin -Liu’s struggles and realize that if it is so difficult for an ethnic Chinese I, as a non-Chinese, have nothing to be ashamed about. The recipes included in this book are a treat. With few exceptions, they are not the traditional types one finds in regular cookbooks. They are clearly written , easy to follow and cry out to be tried. I fully intend to.
From Chairman Wang Lin-Liu not only learnt to make some of the standard dishes but also things like shopping at the ‘wet’ market, the etiquette of cycling, the sharpening of knives and the myriad nuances of living in Beijing. As she got to know Chairman Wang better, the latter opened up about her personal life: the privations of growing up during the Cultural Revolution, the atrocities of the Red Guards, the inadequate health-care system, her views on growing old in China and her philosophy of life.
Having gained confidence in her cooking skills, Lin- Liu apprenticed herself to a Chef Zhang, owner of a struggling noodle stall, then worked as an unpaid apprentice cook at a dumpling restaurant, and finally interned at the Whampoa Club, a top-end fine-dining restaurant on The Bund in Shanghai.In between she paid a visit to a MSG manufacturing plant and traveled to a remote village in the South to observe the rice harvest. Along the way, she met and befriended a host of people from all walks of life. It is these encounters and her observations about them that are the most interesting part of the book because they provide an insight into daily life in present day China that we could never have hoped to get otherwise. Through Lin-Liu, we come to know such diverse characters as Mrs. Zhao, the rich housewife who joins the cooking classes for fun and is not really serious about learning; Teacher Zhang at the cooking school , who has difficulty comprehending Lin-Liu’s Chinese-American background;’Uncle and ‘Auntie’ Liao who run a tourist guesthouse in Ping’An,the rice farming village that Lin-Liu visits; the widowed farm laborer whose name translates as Dragon Moves Dirt; Jereme , the chef -entrepreneur who runs the Whampoa Club ; Qin, the young girl who is trying to make a living as a waitress, and Chef Dan and Teacher Jiang and a host of others. Life in modern China is very hard and we cannot but admire them as they struggle to keep afloat.Through it all, they keep their sense of perspective and never lose their hope for the future. As Chairman Wang tells the author ” Sour, sweet, bitter, spicy. In my life, I’ve tasted them all.”, but is still able to say things are hai xing, not bad. At the end of the book, the author is engaged to a fellow American whom she has met in Beijing and is about to open a cooking school of her own. She comes across as a plucky young woman with an engaging personality and a sense of adventure and I wish her much success and happiness.
Serve the People; A Stir-fried Journey Through China . Jen Lin-Liu. Harcourt Inc. (2008). $ 24.