Serve the People: a Stir-Fried Journey Through China is a self-described “cooks’ tour” of China by freelance journalist and writer Jen Lin-Liu. Lin-Liu is also founder of the Black Sesame Kitchen cooking school in Beijing (where she employs two of the chefs featured in her book). The memoir, geared toward foodies and travel lovers, is divided into three parts and two “Side Dishes,” where the author diverges from the main topic to explore 1) the controversial food additive MSG and 2) the rice harvest in rural Ping’an, Guangxi province.
Recipes, from Fish-Fragrant Pork Shreds (Yuxiang Rousi) to Cold-Tossed Shredded Tofu (Liangbian Doufu Si), intersperse the text—adding a much-appreciated drool factor. I love having English translations of these recipes; they bring the surrounding stories to life and make readers feel like they, too, have a shot at reproducing the food Lin-Liu describes.
In Part 1, the author enrolls in a Beijing cooking school where she asks one the school’s instructors Chairman Wang for private lessons. Under Wang’s careful eye, Lin-Liu learns how to make jiaozi and gets the inside scoop on shopping in Beijing's wet markets.
Part 2 finds the author interning at a noodle stall run by Shanxi native Chef Zhang on the outskirts of Beijing. Here, Lin-Liu learns the ins and outs of the noodle stall business and masters the technique of knife-grating noodles (A recipe is included should you want to try your hand at this).
In Part 3, Lin-Liu interns at Jereme Leung’s acclaimed Whampoa Club restaurant on the Bund in Shanghai (which she describes as Beijing’s “manicured female cousin”). Here, Lin-Liu observes (because she’s not allowed to cook) the precise orchestration of the kitchen staff as they pull off fine dining masterpieces.
5 things I love about this book:
1. This is not merely a book about food and one person’s love of food. In each section, Lin-Liu tells the story behind each chef she mentors, and in effect, ties in Chinese history, politics, and culture.
2. Although the author sees herself as an outsider in the many kitchens she interns (due to her U.S. citizenship), you definitely feel as if you’re getting an insider’s view.
3. Many side stories intersperse the main sections, adding texture and depth (trying exotic foods as part of her job as a restaurant critic, learning how to cook from Chef Dan of Shanghai’s elegant Yi restaurant, and searching for the best Xiao Long Bao around Shanghai).
4. Although Lin-Liu approaches exotic food territory, everyday (i.e. "the people's") food is the main focus of her book.
5. Did I mention the recipes? Liu doesn’t shy away from complicated or involved recipes. I’m excited to give some of them a try!
I wasn’t planning on liking this book as much as I did (the first chapters started a little slow for my liking), but, at the end, I found myself turning pages, looking for more. I became lost in the stories and food, and that’s exactly what I love in a good food/travel memoir!