Wednesday, January 21, 2009

Review: Serve the People: A Stir-Fried Journey Through China by Jen Lin-Liu

book 1 of 3 for the Well Seasoned Reader Challenge
book 2 of 26 for the A to Z 2009 Challenge (country: China)

genre: food/travel/memoir
rating: 5/5

I've read many different memoirs about life in China during the Cultural Revolution and enjoyed all of them. This book, however, is my first foray into Chinese life in the modern day - a current and compelling look at life and, especially, eating and cooking in 21st century China.

Jen, the author, is a Chinese-American journalist and food critic by trade. For a chance to explore, not only her roots, but the esoteric underworld of the Chinese food and restaurant industry, she decides to enroll in a cooking school in Beijing. In a male-dominated classroom she learns the art of chopping and stir-frying, and with the help of a teacher outside the classroom works on making the perfect dumpling.

Cooking school is only the beginning for Jen, who then heads out into China, talking her way into various cooking internships in restaurants as varied as a tiny noodle shop in a canteen to a high end restaurant in Shanghai, she even heads to the mountains to help with the rice harvest. Her cooking experiences and the people she meets are fascinating and all the while she is teaching us Chinese history, culture and legend, usually through the personal experiences of the chefs and waitresses with whom she crosses paths. Explanations about the variations in Chinese cuisine and food preparation based on geography were particularly compelling, probably because the cuisine of the culture I've grown up in feels infantile compared to the dishes I read about.

Many other reviews of the book described is as humorous. I can't say that I found things particularly funny, sometimes more, a-hem, unappetizing to my taste - but her writing style was very pleasant and readable. I was always happy to pick the book up and despite its choppy style (many in-depth recipes are sprinkled throughout and things aren't always completely chronological) I found it a very satisfying read.


bermudaonion said...

I love books set in other cultures and think this one sounds wonderful.

bethany said...

oh, the cover is great!! I am really curious what others found funny that wasn't your taste of humor. That was a very good way of putting it :)

I love international books, thanks for another great review!

Trish said...

I'm putting this book on my list RIGHT NOW. I've been looking for a book about China and this sounds exactly what I was looking for. Thanks for the great review-and I agree with Bethany, the cover is really awesome.

Melissa said...

The downside of hosting a challenge is that my TBR list grows by leaps and bounds. Thanks for the recommendation!

erin sheely said...

I'm glad you liked it! Maybe I'll have to borrow it from you.

Dim Sum, Bagels, and Crawfish said...

This has been on my list for awhile...thanks for the review. Have you read Fortune Cookie Chronicles yet? i think you would enjoy that one, too.

Corinne said...

Lucia - thanks for the recommendation! I've added it to my ever expanding list :)

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