Having just finished On the Noodle Road by Jen Lin-Liu, I have a different perspective of traveling the Silk Road. It’s a journey I’ve long wanted to take, and I’ve read numerous travel books of people who have gone before, but this is a foodie book of the Silk Road. Lin-Liu decided to trace the noodle from China to Italy and figure out just where it originated and how it got to looking the way it does today in both Chinese dishes and Italian pasta.
She started in China, where she has lived for a number of years, working as a food writer and creating her own Chinese cooking school. From there it’s on to Central Asia, through Iran to Turkey and eventually Italy. I found her descriptions of western China interesting. It makes sense, but I never thought of the region as being populated with Muslims who look more like Europeans than Asians. They live right across the border from Afghanistan and Pakistan, but somehow I thought it would still be a bunch of Asian-looking people slurping noodles. How ignorant of me, when China is about the same size as the United States and has many ethnic groups. Lin-Liu doesn’t pull any punches when she describes the Chinese government’s various discrimination and dehumanizing tactics in this region.
I have to say I’ve always wanted to visit Central Asia, although from Lin-Liu’s description, I think I’d better stick with the trekking part and forget the culinary part, because the food sounds to be sadly lacking. From her description and pictures I’ve seen, the beauty of the countryside in the mountains more than makes up for the food.
Things improved considerably upon entering Iran, culinary-wise anyway. Seeing Iran is a journey I want to take one day, one I’ll have to set aside for a little while, considering the political situation right now. Though I have to say that every book I have read about an American going to Iran always says how wonderful and welcoming the people are. Yes, the government and the restrictions, especially for women, are a pain, but the people and the hospitality are in sharp contrast. Lin-Liu found the same when she reached the Iran portion of her trip. As much as I adore Persian food, her description of what she had to go through just to be in Iran means I’ll be waiting for the restrictions to lift considerably before I take my trekking and culinary trip through this country.
The surprise I had was how alluring Turkey was, based on her account. The different culinary and cultural regions in Turkey sound amazing and made me want to spend a month eating my way through the country. I’ve often thought that about Italy and Spain, even Lebanon, but never thought I’d get to that point about Turkey. That’s good news because of the countries that have an Arab background to their cuisine, Turkey is one of the safest to visit. I’m hoping that in the near future the conditions in the Middle East will change and I will be able to travel to and freely enjoy these fabulous culinary regions.
Lin-Liu weaves her own personal journey throughout the entire book, interspersing descriptions of meals with philosophical questions of what it means to be a woman and a wife. Being a newlywed and embarking on this trip in part solo and in part with her husband made her question a lot of things in her life, and it was this aspect of the book that brought the trip and the food to a more human level. After all, food is what brings people together. No matter the culture or cuisine, you’re always going to have family and friends sitting around enjoying a meal.