Aug. 14 (Bloomberg) -- Rhubarb originated in China, and Marco Polo prized the plant enough to list it in his will. Uzbeks wash their infants’ hair with basil to make it thicker. Italians in Modena like to drizzle 25-year-old balsamic vinegar on their gelato.
Readers will find plenty more intriguing details in Jen Lin-Liu’s delightful “On the Noodle Road,” which is part travelogue, part culinary history and part cookbook.
She got the idea during a noodle-making class in Rome where she was struck by the similarities between Italian and Chinese pastas; she decides to retrace the ancient Silk Road in hope of finding out how noodles first made their way to Italy.
She quickly debunks the myth that Marco Polo was responsible: Pasta figured in Italian diets long before the Venetian ever headed east.
Her quest takes her through China, Kyrgyzstan, Uzbekistan, Turkmenistan, Iran and Turkey and finally back to Rome. A Chinese-American chef and food writer who started a cooking school in Beijing, she trades her culinary skills with other women she meets along the way.
In the intimacy of their kitchens, the women confide in Lin-Liu, giving her entirely new insights into questions of identity, marriage, motherhood and career -- questions she is grappling with herself as a newlywed.
She bridles at the word “wife,” which reminds her of a woman who “wore hair curlers and a robe and yelled at neighborhood cats,” and lives in fear of turning into a trailing spouse -- though she’s happy to have her husband along during a good chunk of her travels.
Lin-Liu’s storytelling comes alive with well-chosen details: a Chinese cook pouring instant noodles from his thermos on an ancestor’s grave; a butcher in Turkmenistan pausing in the middle of slaughtering a sheep to answer his mobile phone with a bloody hand.
Her writing displays wonderful flourishes too. Hand-pulled-noodle makers in China twirl the dough “around itself like a dance partner” and an Iranian woman kneads the kebab “as ferociously as a lion attacking its prey.”
If, like me, you have more in common with Lin-Liu’s husband, who can survive for days on peanuts, reading this book might turn you into a born-again epicurean. It includes some 30 recipes for tempting dishes like Chinese dumplings with lamb and pumpkin, Persian chicken with walnut-and-pomegranate sauce and orecchiette with turnip tops from Italy.
If the book has a flaw, it’s the title. Lin-Liu finds that the noodle trail more or less goes dead by the time she gets to Central Asia and Iran, where pasta is supplanted by bread and rice, and doesn’t pick up again until Turkey, albeit faintly.
The subtitle -- “From Beijing to Rome With Love and Pasta” -- sounds a bit too much like a publisher’s idea of pitching the book to readers of ‘‘Eat, Pray, Love.” For all its strengths, I’d be very surprised to see Lin-Liu’s book turned into a Hollywood blockbuster.
“On the Noodle Road” is published by Riverhead (388 pages, $27.95). To buy this book in North America click here.
(Frederik Balfour is a reporter-at-large for Muse, the arts and leisure section of Bloomberg News. Opinions expressed are his own.)
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