Book review: On the Noodle Road
Jen Lin-Liu is a food writer with a love of pasta and Chinese noodles, and a burning desire to find out if the dishes share a common ancestry. She is also a Chinese who grew up in California, married a Caucasian and moved to Beijing.
Despite their comfortable existence - her cookery school is a success and husband Craig Simmons is a well-regarded journalist eyeing a move to the US diplomatic service - she starts to feel uncomfortable in her own skin.
Her solution is to take a trip down the Silk Road to see for herself the role of noodles, marriage and women in the societies she encounters along the way.
This could be the premise for an interesting book. Certainly Lin-Liu does the food bits well. Her enthusiasm for the much richer culinary heritages of Iran, Turkey and Italy is evident and catching. Her recipe for Iranian saffron fried chicken is a winner, earning the book one of its two and a half stars.
There are other interesting recipes here, although it's doubtful the world needs another one for lasagne. The Chinese hand-rolled noodles are a fiddly proposition for the home chef but worth the effort, as are the Turkish manti dumplings, although you need to be a fan - these recipes produce large quantities of food. The lady's thigh meat patties are excellent.
Lin-Liu makes intriguing connections between the names and recipes of varieties of noodle and stuffed doughs that share similarities and differences across the length of the Silk Road, but she comes to the slightly lame conclusion that while it is certainly untrue that Marco Polo brought noodles from China to Italy, the real links will remain inconclusive, buried in the mists of time.
Lame conclusions are the problem with the rest of the book. What exactly is it that troubles the writer about being a Chinese married to a Caucasian? We are little wiser at the end of the book than at the beginning. What about the role of women? In societies in which their role is heavily proscribed by religion and tradition, they are less independent and have fewer choices than in other societies, even if some feistier women will carve out what space for themselves that they can.
Insights on marriage are barely less banal. The keys to accepting her marriage are good communication (Simmons likes hiking and she doesn't); willingness to compromise; a shared willingness to support each other's aspirations and the realisation it might be better to suffer together than suffer apart.
But the mix of travel and memoir doesn't quite gel and Lin-Liu ends up trying to stuff too much material into the same skin. The book ends up an over-stuffed dumpling.