On the Noodle Road chronicles Chinese-American chef Jen Lin-Liu’s experience eating her way across the Silk Road in search of the disputed origin of noodles. Along the way, she witnesses fettucini-making in Italy, encounters the world’s alleged oldest noodle, a 4,000-year-old specimen in Eastern China, and more – finding surprising parallels between seemingly opposite countries’ noodle and dumpling cultures. We caught up her to ask about her adventures and revelations during the trip.
What initially inspired you to go on the expedition? Other than the desire to eat your way across Asia?
The impetus for the journey was a trip that my husband and I took to Italy not long after we’d married. He treated me to a pasta class in Rome and I discovered in the class that the method for making Italian fettuccine is exactly the same as it is for making Chinese noodles. I also saw a lot of parallels in other pasta shapes, the sauces, and the ingredients that Italians and northern Chinese used, and I was intrigued by the similarities.
Also, I’ve loved Italian cuisine from an early age and I’ve always felt torn between my Eastern heritage and growing up in the West. I also hoped that a journey from Asia to Europe would somehow help me come to terms with my identity.
What is the biggest myth or misconception in your opinion surrounding the history of noodles?
The biggest myth is that Marco Polo brought noodles from China to Italy. Italians were eating pasta long before Marco Polo lived, so it simply isn’t true. Most food historians trace the Marco Polo story back to a 1929 American trade publication called the Macaroni Journal. A story appears in that issue that describes how the Venetian explorer came across a destination that sounds more South Pacific than Chinese and sees natives drying long strands of noodles.
Do you find that there is a certain degree of Eurocentrism in popular culinary history (the French restaurant revolution, Marco Polo supposedly importing pasta from China, etc)? Does the West ignore or underplay contributions made by Eastern chefs and cuisines?
Yes, of course the West still doesn’t pay enough attention to Asian cuisine – too often we think of Asian food as Chinese takeout or pho at a casual Vietnamese restaurant. I was just reading an article on Buzzfeed about the top cookbooks recommended by chefs and food professionals today and not one of them was Asian. But I think it’s changing slowly, and hopefully Americans and other Westerners will want to learn more about Asian cooking. We certainly see that interest at Black Sesame Kitchen, my cooking school in Beijing. Visitors and expats are constantly booking out our cooking classes and our demonstration dinners.
What were some of the most fascinating examples of culinary cross-pollination/fusion that you saw as a result of different culture mingling for hundreds/thousands of years?
One of the most intriguing examples was in Kyrgyzstan, a Central Asian country that borders China but was been part of the Soviet Union. I found restaurants where an ethnicity called Dungans, who are Chinese Muslims, fry wontons and serve them with sour cream and serve a delicious dish of traditional wheat noodles mixed with gelatinous cornstarch noodles tossed in a spicy chili sauce with dill and scrambled eggs. It sounds a bit strange but it works!
You talk a fair amount about Han crackdowns on the Uyghurs and Tibetans. Did this manifest itself in Uyghur and Tibetan Cuisine? Were they more Hanified?
Uighurs and Tibetans have really kept up food traditions that are quite distinct from Han Chinese. One obvious example is that Uighurs really don’t eat pork at all; Tibetans stick to their traditional staples of yak and yak meat.
Favourite food(s) you tried on the journey?
My favorites dishes were the varied dumplings I tried along the journey. The manta in Uighur areas of China and in Central Asia were steamed dumplings filled with mutton or pumpkin, seasoned with black pepper and cumin, and served with clotted cream. The manti in Turkey were smaller version of those dumplings, filled with beef, and served with butter, paprika, and walnuts and a yogurt sauce made with mint and garlic. Those dumplings morphed into tortellini once I got to Italy.
Were your perceptions of certain cuisines changed on your trip, either for worse or better?
Yes, I learned a lot about Persian food and Turkish food – but are much more varied than I knew from my experiences at Persian and Turkish restaurants overseas. I was really impressed with the way that Iranians cook rice – even though rice has been a staple from my Chinese childhood, I never had rice as good as in Iran. There’s so many steps to making it – you have to clean the rice, boil it, steam it, and sprinkle it with saffron. And that’s just the beginning. Turkish food had an amazing variety, which I saw going from east to west across the country. In the east, the food was much more meat and grain heavy and similar to the cuisine of Iran and Central Asia, but once you got to the Agean and the Mediterranean, it tasted much more Greek.
Benjamin Cost is Shanghaiist’s Food Editor. Email tips, recommendations, and news updates on Shanghai’s dining scene to [email protected].