Welcome to Imprint Friday and today's featured imprint: Riverhead Books.
Stop by each week to be introduced to a must-read title from one of
my favorite imprints. I know you'll be adding many of these
books to your wish list.
Once I learned that Jen Lin-Lui's new book, On the Noodle Road, combined travel writing with food history, I knew I had to read it. Before I tell you more about her fascinating journey along the Silk Road, from Asia to Europe, take a look at the publisher's summary:
Feasting her way through an Italian honeymoon, Jen Lin-Liu was struck by culinary echoes of the delicacies she ate and cooked back in China, where she'd lived for more than a decade. Who really invented the noodle? she wondered, like many before her. But also: How had food and culture moved along the Silk Road, the ancient trade route linking Asia to Europe—and what could still be felt of those long-ago migrations? With her new husband’s blessing, she set out to discover the connections, both historical and personal, eating a path through western China and on into Central Asia, Iran, Turkey, and across the Mediterranean.Lin-Liu, an established food writer and cooking school founder, wanted to know the truth behind the common idea that Marco Polo was responsible for introducing noodles to Italy. Tracking the noodle, in all its forms, was the principal motivation for her six-month journey. Although in the end she was unable to definitively pinpoint the origin of noodles, she learned much about the food and people spanning the vast distance between the Far East and Europe.
The journey takes Lin-Liu into the private kitchens where the headscarves come off and women not only knead and simmer but also confess and confide. The thin rounds of dough stuffed with meat that are dumplings in Beijing evolve into manti in Turkey—their tiny size the measure of a bride’s worth—and end as tortellini in Italy. And as she stirs and samples, listening to the women talk about their lives and longings, Lin-Liu gains a new appreciation of her own marriage, learning to savor the sweetness of love freely chosen.
Let me be frank. I'm not a huge fan of inspirational memoirs in which a woman goes traipsing across the world with half-made plans in search of love or spiritual peace or self-discovery. Fortunately, Lin-Liu had no such goals in mind when she began planning her trip. Neither was she searching for the perfect meal, the best restaurant, or the most secret cafe.
Instead, she wanted to meet with chefs, teachers, scholars, and families to learn regional noodle dishes and document how those foods slowly morphed as one moved across the ancient trading routes. Although she and her husband (who joined her on several legs of the journey) ate street food and wandered a bit to discover local eateries, for the most part, Lin-Liu's trip was carefully planned. She set up cooking classes ahead of time and often stayed in private homes.
On the Noodle Road is a well-written account of Lin-Liu's experiences, both in and out of the kitchen. Some of the most interesting scenes had little to do with noodles and more to do with local customs, women's rights and expectations, families, and marriage. Taking an anthropologist's perspective, Lin-Liu talks about the plight of the women she met in Iran, the fashionable lives of urban woman in Turkey, and the daily routines of country women in the China hinterlands. Yet she never loses sight of the fact that East or West, rich or poor, women everywhere are surprisingly alike.
Food lovers will delight in Lin-Liu's descriptions of the fancy and plain meals she ate over the months of her travel. Not everything was wonderful: some foods were bland and others were just too weird for her tastes. Sometimes she was served variations of the same meal night after night. Reading about Lin-Liu's many hours spent in foreign kitchens, rolling dough, chopping peppers, and making dumplings will have you craving almost everything that can be found along the Silk Road. Fortunately, the book includes some recipes.
On the Noodle Road touches on a number of other themes more personal to the author. For example, travel was not always easy or even safe, and Lin-Liu talks openly about her fears and concerns. She also shares her feelings about her husband and what it's like to be a first-generation American born to Chinese parents.
On the Noodle Road is perfect for anyone who loves to travel, has an interest in food, or enjoys learning about other cultures. I'm thankful Jen Lin-Liu made the arduous journey for me and then was generous enough to share her experiences, introducing me to the gracious people she met and the wonderful dishes she ate along the way.
For those who are so inclined, the unabridged audiobook edition (Tantor Audio; 11 hr, 42 min) was read by Coleen Marlo. Although I cannot truly judge her accents and pronunciations, she seemed comfortable with the many foreign words in a number of different languages and dialects. Marlo's performance was engaging and held my interest. Listeners will miss out on the recipes, however.
For more about Jen Lin-Liu and her cooking school, visit her website.
Riverhead Books is a featured imprint on Beth Fish Reads. For more information about the imprint, visit the Riverhead website. While there, explore their terrific book list, check out authors in the news, and view some fun videos. Stay in the know by following them on Tumblr, Facebook, and Twitter.
Published by Penguin USA / Riverhead, 2013
Copyright © cbl for Beth Fish Reads, all rights reserved (see review policy).