When the domestic exchequer is empty and the summer holidays are still some way off, there is nothing better than making yourself comfortable and doing some armchair travelling.
I have recently enjoyed travelling vicariously from China to Italy over the ancient silk roads which cross central Asia by means of Jen Lin-Liu’s book, On the Noodle Road: from Beijing to Rome with Love and Pasta.
Jen Lin-Liu is an ABC (American born Chinese) who came to China some years ago and studied cooking. She became so adept that she founded a cookery school here in BJ called Black Sesame Kitchen which teaches foreigners how to cook Chinese food. She also wrote a very interesting and amusing book about her travails called Serve the People.
After marrying an American chap she met in China, she decided she wanted to do something challenging before settling down to married life; she wanted to find an answer to a question which often comes up: Did Marco Polo take the concept of pasta from China back to Italy?
And so, sometimes joined by her new husband, she embarked on a long journey across Asia from East to West, tracing the history of ‘pasta/noodles’ in the cuisine of all the various Chinese regions and the other countries she travelled through.
And what a fascinating journey it is. After leaving Xinjiang Province in the extreme west of China, and moving into ‘the stans’ (as I call them), the quality and variety of food deteriorates. Because of the many years of Soviet domination of the whole area, the influence of Russian foods is very marked – and not in a good way. Noodles/pasta as a staple die out completely and bread, rice or potato become the dominant carbohydrate . JLL’s descriptions of the foods she eats during her travels, and the ways of cooking are vivid; you feel you are sitting at the table eating with her. The various regions/countries each have their own section in the book, and at the end of each section she includes recipes for dishes she has been taught along the way. I made the recipe for Fesenjun (chicken in walnut and pomegranate sauce) which she learnt in Iran, and it was absolutely delicious.
Whilst writing about food across this huge region, she also writes about herself and her anxieties about how being married will constrain her own life (I must admit that this aspect of her memoir did not engage me nearly as much). However, I learnt a great deal about the lives of women in Central Asia from her observations. Often marginalized, or hidden within their own societies thanks to tradition and religion – they still manage to be a strong force within their communities. As Jen travels, she ponders on marriage and the role of the Mother-in-Law in such societies, and she comes to realise how fortunate she is to have a liberal American as her M-i-L.
Journeying westwards, the daily food gets more and more boring/repetitive.
There is a rice dish a variation of which seems to be served in just about every country in Central Asia – plov (a type of pilaf). Just when you are flagging and think that one more dish of greasy lamb and plov and you’ll chuck the book at the wall, Jen reaches Iran, and despite the difficulties of travelling within that country, gastronomically things improve hugely.
From Iran she travels to Turkey where she meets some amazingly emancipated Muslim women and is introduced to fine Turkish cuisine. From Turkey she journeys to Italy via Greece and from Greece it is just a hop skip and jump across the Adriatic to Puglia in southern Italy, the land of pasta. The hospitality showered upon her is almost overwhelming, ‘I had no idea eating could be so exhausting‘ she says. Here she is taught to make various pastas including orecchiette and cavatelli. She then travels northwards through Italy to Emilia-Romagna, learning more about pasta all the time;and then it is on to Rome, the end of her long journey from Beijing.
Does she think she found the answer to the original question? no not really.
What she learned on her travels make it seem unlikely that pasta/noodles travelled from China to Italy along the overland silk roads. It seems more likely that it evolved spontaneously in what is now Italy, albeit later than it was being eaten in China. Marco Polo almost certainly had nothing to do with it.
I enjoyed this book because I am interested in food and how it has evolved over time, and of course living in China I eat a lot of noodles. I think anyone who is interested in the history of food or interested in travel would enjoy it too.
One thing that definitely resulted from reading it was that it killed stone-dead any thought of ever going to visit the Central Asian countries. Arm-chair travelling there was quite enough for me!