This memoir was a great way to finish 2010. It was a private “Madeleine” for me, since the author was in Beijing at about the same period as I was and I share with her a lot of her visual memories and food memories of the place. Her book literally made me salivate, I vibrated at the thought of a good old home-style dumpling, and shed tears at the evocation of a fiery mapo tofu.
But I realize that someone not interested in China and Chinese food would just shrug and say: “a mapo what?”
And the book is definitely not for the faint hearted, or more pointedly, for the normal American stomach. Beware! Readers will encounter dog meat, weird food with weirder names and even a séance of tasting different genitalia at a specialized restaurant. But it’s not (repeat: not) disgusting.
Jen Lin-Liu was a Chinese-American lost in Beijing, someone who looks like everybody else there, but whose culture separates her from the mainstream. Her need to understand the Chinese world and to force her way into this went through food. She decided to learn how to cook Chinese food from scratch, not only to taste it in restaurants and write exotic (read: honest and therefore sometimes negative) reviews in magazines.
So she did something amazing (to me, knowing firsthand how it’s difficult to force the red tape or just the prejudices): she enrolled in a local cooking school. We’re not speaking fancy lessons at the Ritz from chefs with white hats and gleaming equipment. I can visualize very well one of those grim, derelict concrete buildings in the suburbs where a lot of lower-class people live and where a lot of small business flourish.
Cooking school is for the unskilled immigrant (mostly male) workers who want a “plus” on their patchy résumés to land a low-paying, long-hours, despised dirty job. How Jen managed to attend class, undergo hands-on training until the final exam is a credit to her journalism skills and her obstinacy. These chapters are the most fascinating part of the book.
After “graduation” she tries to find a job and navigates between the cuisine of a dingy little noodles eatery (a hole-in-the-wall, may-close-any-day small business, but the only place that would not look twice before hiring a foreigner and a woman), and an internship in a haute cuisine restaurant in Shanghai, where she is not allowed to lift a finger. She clearly is fascinated by high level chefs, but her report is nuanced and the book clearly roots for the little people, as the title points out.
“Serve the people” is a tongue-in-cheek expression, one of those commonplaces inherited from decades of communism, but that seldom makes sense in profit-seeking, individualistic and ambitious China these days.
If you want to travel to China and eat a lot of good stuff for $14, read this book!