For me, the best travel writing always comes with a generous portion of food writing whipped into the narrative. It hardly seems possible to convey the soul of a culture without describing what its people eat each day. Chinese-American author Jen Lin-Liu seems to agree. Five years after her “Serve the People: A Stir Fried Journey Through China,” in which she chronicled her path from freelance journalist to cooking school owner in China, Lin-Liu is back with "On the Noodle Road: From Beijing to Rome with Love and Pasta." This is an even more ambitious adventure.
Her path is the Silk Road, where she seeks the origin of the noodle and a better understanding of culinary links that wind through the ancient trade route. Her quest gains her entry into professional and domestic kitchens throughout western China, Central Asia, Iran, Turkey and, finally, Italy, where she takes meticulous notes on preparations for dumplings, noodles, breads and rice as well as the lives of the women who make them.
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The concept sounds tantalizing, and Lin-Liu serves up several tasty and insightful tidbits along the way. The book features more than a dozen recipes as well non-stop descriptions of the food (good and bad) in every town she visits. Her solid knowledge of ingredients and preparation serves Lin-Liu well. By the time readers get done with the book, they should have a solid grasp on the major culinary traditions of several Silk Road cities.
Hand-stretched noodles grow coarser and then virtually disappear in western Uzbekistan, where rice and bread culture take over. Lin-Liu discovers that the dumpling proves stronger than the noodle on this road, popping up throughout the journey as the wonton, chuchara, chuchvara, manti and tortellini.
Readers learn a lot, too, about hospitality along the Silk Road, where guests are honored and cared for, no matter how meager the means of the host. We learn local strategies for buying at the market and preparing the best meals. We meet local cooks who live contented lives but many others who are desperate to leave their marriages, jobs and even their country.
Most of these cooks are women whose stories form one of the strongest strands in the book — a cross-cultural examination of women's roles from China to Italy. Lin-Liu seems fascinated by these ladies' stories but also indebted to them for sharing their recipes, kitchens and time.
Through her kitchen chats, the author gains perspective on the choices the women have made to be with their husbands or not. She gets to see up close the sometimes abusive "mother-in-law" culture of Central Asia where brides serve as virtual slaves until they have daughters-in-law of their own. And she reflects on what it means for her own new marriage to a fellow American journalist.
Lin-Liu, like a lot of women her age, is trying to figure out where she fits in. Does she want to be the trailing wife to a foreign correspondent? Could she be his business partner in her cooking school? And even though she loves cooking, what does it mean that she does almost all of it alone in her home?
As a Chinese-American writer who also traveled much of the Silk Road with her Caucasian husband (one whose anthropological work is cited in Lin-Liu's bibliography), I can relate to Lin-Liu and her frustration over constant questions about her mixed marriage, independence, identity and nationality. But I also wonder if that should have been another book.
Even if "On the Noodle Road" had limited its ambitions to travelogue, food history, political commentary, cookbook, ethnography and study of the role of women in seven countries, it might have piled too much on its literary plate. But adding a heavy layer of soul-searching makes the book feel disjointed. Is the focus food, feminism, travel, or occupational and marital angst?
While there may be pressure in the publishing world to crank out another "Eat Pray Love," I don't think every journey lends itself to such a model — especially when it already covers more than 2,000 miles and attempts to detail the culinary experiences at each stop.
Perhaps it should have been broken up into three books so the stories of each country and its women could have room to breathe. Packed together like this, some of the stories and perfunctory points — what Lin-Liu ate, how she found cooking instructors, who the instructors were, what their relationships were like, how they made their food — start to feel repetitive.
The volume of the people Lin-Liu meets along this multi-month journey and their myriad moving tales start to diminish the impact in the same way visiting all of the masterpieces in Florence over one day can dull your appreciation for their individual beauty.
I understand the responsibility one feels to people who have given journalists their time and help, especially on the road. And I can understand how bad one might feel about leaving some of them out. But books about long, often repetitive journeys should not have to feel that way to the reader, and this one occasionally does.
My advice would be to read this book section by section, take in a country at a time. Relish the flavors of the area, enjoy the stories of the women, learn the history of the region, see how Lin-Liu applies them to her own situation and read the recipes. Then give yourself time to rest in between these numerous and rich literary meals.
Monica Eng is a Tribune reporter who focuses on food and consumer issues.
"On the Noodle Road"
By Jen Lin-Liu, Penguin, 400 pages, $27.95Copyright © 2015, RedEye