Travels through the great wok of China
The book, which follows a young Chinese-American woman’s discovery of her native culture’s culinary tradition, is rife with delicious descriptions and recipes that will make even the most finicky eater leap at the nearest steamer basket of dumplings.
Yet author Jen Lin-Liu, a journalist by trade, manages to balance this mouthwatering writing with some very blunt, and sometimes disgusting, truths about cooking in China.
In one passage, Lin-Liu describes the process of her desensitization against hair in restaurant food.
“I had seen plenty of hair in my food in my years of living in China. The first few times, I had been horrified. Then I was merely annoyed. Eventually, I simply picked them out or ate around them.”
After my experience of finding a hair — and a pig nose — in my beef soup in Macao, I’m pretty sure the author is telling the truth.
At another point, Lin-Liu describes the slippery ethics of working as a restaurant reviewer in Beijing.
Although she worked for a Western publication, her Chinese counterparts “always announced their arrival; they never had to pay for a meal. If the food was bad, they wrote about the ambiance. ... After enjoying the free meal, they often received a hong bao, a ‘gift’ tucked in a red envelope, to ensure the review would be positive.”
That’s not how it’s supposed to be done.
Yet, as nasty as some of these truths are, Lin-Liu writes in a good-natured, pleasant tone. It’s obvious from the content of Serve the People that Lin-Liu loves China, its flaws and all.
Although she’s an outsider distinguished by her American passport, Lin-Liu’s command of Mandarin (which improves throughout the book) gets her inside China’s culinary world.
She starts off enrolling at a cooking school in Beijing, where she is the only foreigner. The class, which consists mainly of lectures and watching demonstrations, proves to be too hands-off to Lin-Liu, who enlists the help of a cooking school employee, a Chairman Wang, who agrees to private cooking lessons.
With Wang’s help, Lin-Liu learns to decipher the “nonsensical babbling” of her lecturer, like the assertion that a farmer’s taste buds are different from those of an office worker’s.
But Serve the People isn’t perfect. Lin-Liu tries to cram a lot in, like her apprenticeship at several restaurants, including Shanghai’s luxurious Whampoa Club.
On top of being a memoir, Serve the People also contains awkwardly placed chapters that are almost like long-form features articles about food-related topics such as MSG production. These sections seem out of place in Lin-Liu’s greater tale of cultural and gustatory enlightenment.
I’ve never been a fan of recipes included in “real” books, either. Let’s be honest, no one’s going to pull out James Carville’s mama’s recipe from “Buck Up, Suck Up... and Come Back When You Foul Up.” I found Lin-Liu’s detailed recipes to be skippable, especially after reading about the intuition and practiced skills needed to produce most of these dishes.
Plus, it seems strange to have precise measurements for the recipes when the author finds her own “American attentiveness to measurements sounded strangely obsessive to Chinese.”
Serve the People is a fun, easy read, but to me, its cover image of fresh produce and a pristine dumpling seemed to represent Lin-Liu’s awfully rosy personal account, which frankly clashes with the chaotic, messy reality of Chinese cooking described within its pages.