Jen Lin-Liu will be speaking at the Bookworm on Tuesday evening, and we're proud to be hosting a ticket giveaway for this event! See bottom of the post for more information.
After five years of working as a journalist in Beijing, American Jen Lin-Liu decided to enroll in cooking school in 2005. The experience wasn't quite what she had been hoping for, but she earned her certificate and began apprenticing in restaurants. Her first book, Serve the People: A Stir-Fried Journey through China, chronicles that period. Along the way she opened up the cooking school and restaurant Black Sesame Kitchen in Beijing. Her second book, On the Noodle Road: From Beijing to Rome, with Love and Pasta, is a culinary travelogue that follows Lin-Liu and her husband on their journey along the Silk Road to find out whether there is any connection between Italian pasta and Chinese noodles. It's set to be published in July.
You've talked about your parents' expectations for you, as a first-generation Chinese American, and those didn't involve pursuing a writing career and moving to China! So what do they think about your cooking—and your career—now?
They think it's fine. They love the jiaozi. I think that they prefer southern food, like they grew up with, and my cooking tends to be more northern or Sichuan. They're happy with the way things turned out. I think, as a parent—I can understand it now—having a child of my own, you want them to be happy, and your parents sometimes think they know what'll make you happy. But at the end of the day if I'm happy, then I think they're happy.
What do you think about the state of food writing in China?
I think domestically it's a profession in China that hasn't gotten a lot of respect. People don't really believe reviews; they think critics are getting paid off and that kind of thing. I hope that will change and that food writing will become something that's taken more seriously in China as it is now in the west and many developed countries.
The genre of foreigners writing about China is largely constituted of white males. Obviously, you don't fit this stereotype.
I think it's changed a lot in the last decade that I've been here. I think there used to be a much greater proportion of white men in the profession, and that's changed, starting in the '70s and '80s, and now, I think there are a lot of female voices. I think there are a lot of Asian Americans and Asians of any kind of descent who are writing about China for a wider audience, so that's encouraging. I think that everyone comes in with their own perspective, whether you do have a background with China or you don't have a background in China and you use that to your advantage. Everybody has to have a niche, so it's not like one is better than the other. Certainly some people have more connections or know the industry better, but I think if you work hard at it and you find a unique perspective, I think it's still a place that outsiders are interested in understanding, and I think there's lots of room for differences.
How do you feel about being compared to Fuchsia Dunlop?
I think it's an honor. I think she's written amazing cookbooks, and she knows a lot about Chinese food. I think she's done great things for the understanding of Chinese food. I haven't met her in person, but we've certainly crossed paths and had acquaintances and friends in common, and I'm sure I'll have the chance to meet her someday.
Would you count her as an inspiration for your work?
I think I'm doing something a little different—I thought about writing cookbooks, but I haven't really gone in that direction yet. I take more of an anthropological approach in my own writing; I'm not just interested in food—I'm interested in the things that go on around food, and I think that comes across a lot in the book I'm working on now.
Chengdu is often described as a culinary capital. Do you think this title has merit?
I need to explore more! I haven't really done enough to give you a qualified answer. I do find it interesting that the Sichuan food that my husband and I know from Beijing is kind of different from what people eat here. I was really surprised, like the love of rabbit—I didn't know there would be so much rabbit and rabbit head. Some of the dishes my husband and I liked to eat are sometimes hard to find, like your kungpao chicken or the Chongqing laziji. It seems there's a huge amount of hotpot, and that sometimes gets old. I think we definitely need to do more exploring, and I'm confident we'll find the good places to go.
What do you make when you cook at home?
We do a mix—since it's hard to find good Western food here, we probably do that a little more. It varies. But our daughter likes spicy food, so that's encouraging.
Anybody you're looking forward to seeing at the Lit Fest?
My husband, Craig Simon. Who else? Chad Harbach ... he's been getting a lot of attention this year. Derek Sandhaus.
Any final thoughts for our readers?
Send me good restaurant tips! Anyone can send them to me; I'd love to hear from people!
Bookworm International Literary Festival Ticket Giveaway
Jen Lin-Liu speaks as part of a panel on writing about China at the Bookworm International Literary Festival on Sunday, March 10, at 7:30 p.m., and about her books on Tuesday, March 13, at 7:30 p.m. Entrance to these events is RMB50 per event and includes one drink, but two lucky GoChengdoo readers will get in to Jen Lin-Liu's Tuesday talk FREE!
Here are six easy steps to possible success:
1. Click here to send us a message.
2. Type in your name and e-mail address in their respective fields.
3. In the subject line field, type "Noodle Roaders."
4. In the body of the message, type your mobile number.
5. Press "send" before noon on Monday, March 11, 2013.
6. That's it! Two lucky winners will be selected at random from all those received by the deadline. Winners will be notified via e-mail and text message.
This article was first published in CHENGDOO citylife Magazine, issue 62 ("year of the snake"). Photos by Jen Lin-Jiu
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