How learning to cook in China enabled the author to embrace her cultural heritage.
Becoming a chef was not her parents’ idea of a successful career, admits Time Out Beijing food correspondent Lin-Liu. They hadn’t emigrated from Taiwan to America and sent their daughter to an Ivy League college so that she could enter the “lowliest of Chinese occupations.” But the author, who moved to China in 2000 to pursue a freelance journalism career, “took up Chinese food with a fervor that came second only to my passion for writing.” She enrolled in the vocational Hualian Cooking School in central Beijing, where she dutifully listened, bowed, copied and even considered cheating on her final exam, as the other, mostly male students did. However, the school’s elderly factotum, Chairman Wang, took Lin-Liu under her wing, imparted valuable traditional cooking methods and gradually shared some staggering details of her life during the Cultural Revolution. The author displays fond respect as she chronicles China’s epic transformation through the stories of the people she met. In one restaurant, she wrapped dumplings next to a divorced woman who lost a fortune paying “snakeheads” to arrange a marriage with a Taiwanese. Despite being female and a foreigner, she managed to get a job in Shanghai’s Whampoa Club, where glamorous, successful chef Jereme Leung pioneered the use of Western presentation styles and foreign ingredients. Moonlighting as a food critic, the author was shocked by the overt bribes restaurant owners offered but undaunted as she sampled exotic fare like puppy and male animals’ genitalia. Besides a smattering of luscious recipes, Lin-Liu peppers her accessible narrative with three “side dishes”: visits to an MSG factory in Henan, to the rice paddies of Ping’an and to Yangzhou, birthplace of one of China’s four main cuisines.
A bright, winning glimpse inside a rapidly changing nation.