Serve the People: A Stir-Fried Journey Through China
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Serve the People: A Stir-Fried Journey Through China

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3.83 of 5 stars 3.83  ·  rating details  ·  585 ratings  ·  121 reviews
A memorable and mouthwatering cook’s tour of today’s China



As a freelance journalist and food writer living in Beijing, Jen Lin-Liu already had a ringside seat for China’s exploding food scene. When she decided to enroll in a local cooking school—held in an unheated classroom with nary a measuring cup in sight—she jumped into the ring herself. Progressing from cooking stud...more
Paperback, 352 pages
Published May 22nd 2009 by Mariner Books (first published July 14th 2008)
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Corinne
I've read many different memoirs about life in China during the Cultural Revolution and enjoyed all of them. This book, however, is my first foray into Chinese life in the modern day - a current and compelling look at life and, especially, eating and cooking in 21st century China.

Jen, the author, is a Chinese-American journalist and food critic by trade. For a chance to explore, not only her roots, but the esoteric underworld of the Chinese food and restaurant industry, she decides to enroll in...more
Helene
What initially attracted me to this book was the title: the writer claimed to be taking a journey throughout China for the food culture. But, I was disappointed to find out that Jen Lin-Liu seemed to mainly focus on the cuisine in the northern part of the country, Beijing and Shanghai.

Call me a little biased, but I would have liked to learn more about food from the Guangdong region, where my family originates from. Maybe I'm just not aware that there are already plenty of books out there about C...more
Matt
The second most disturbing part of this book was learning that the secret ingredient to the highly addictive xiao long bao I obsess over is probably jellied pork skin.

The most disturbing part was that I then immediately googled ways to make jellied pork skin.

If you are the type of person that systematically rates buffets on their dumpling choices, seeks out Chinese restaurants which offer more than the generic and ubiquitous one page paper menu, or has contemplated naming your firstborn Dim Sum;...more
Lindsay
Jun 11, 2009 Lindsay rated it 5 of 5 stars  ·  review of another edition
Recommended to Lindsay by: Borders Bargin Bin
My mother came back from her first trip to China with tales of duck tongue and fried chicken feet being offered up as authentic dishes for diners. Personally, I found this both fascinating and a little disgusting - it was this mix of wonder and dread that led me to pick up this book penned by Jen Lin-Liu, a Chinese-American journalist trying to find her culinary way in the cities and towns of China. Beginning in a Beijing cooking school where she struggles to be taken seriously, to a tiny noodle...more
Cathie
As a Chinese American journalist living in China, she attends the local cooking school, interns at establishments, and writes for Time Out Beijing.

Questions came up but where eventually answered as I progressed through the story (ie., why she started a cooking school in Beijing instead of Shanghai; what her parents in San Francisco thought of her move to China instead of staying in The States).

I'm not sure why I didn't like it, it was ok. Perhaps I would've liked for her to delve more into what...more
Elizabeth
This is the world's longest Vogue or Vanity Fair article. You know the kind -- the author talks about how she is Totally Fascinated By Something, The Something's Personal Meaning to Her, and goes off on a Quest to Discover the Something. In this case, the Something is Chinese food, and I give Lin-Liu credit for learning a king hell of a lot. The recipes in this sound delicious. But while this is more aware of its author's privilege than most Vogue/Vanity Fair articles ("yes, $gazillion is a lot...more
Rick
This book is a nice light read. (I actually started reading it on an airplane, the perfect setting.) After reading the last half of it, I'd really like to visit Shanghai. No, I have no desire to start cooking...
Melissa Yuan-Innes
I’ve been called a banana, which is slang for “yellow” on the outside and “white” on the inside, but recently, I’ve become more interested in exploring my roots. Plus I love to eat Chinese food, as well as every other kind of food.

So I picked up this book, written by Jen Lin-Liu, a Fullbright scholar who was born in the U.S., but who moved to Beijing to explore the cuisine. She made me nostalgic for a China that probably no longer exists, razed by capitalism. For example, she bought a cleaver th...more
Snail in Danger (Sid) Nicolaides
This book started slowly, but it was excellent once it got going. It reminded me that we really are our food, and our food is us. (This probably sounds incredibly pretentious. But what can I say. Too much time spent around historical food geeks, and reading Anthony Bourdain.)

I felt like I got a better grasp on China by reading this than I did by reading things like China Shakes the World and The China Price.
Donna
Jan 16, 2009 Donna rated it 3 of 5 stars  ·  review of another edition
Recommended to Donna by: Tony Lam
This is a light and enjoyable read, yet she manages to pack in a lot of fascinating Chinese cultural and historical details. She's a very straightforward writer--I'd say she has a better eye for detail than an ear for clever or charming prose, but I'll take simple over garish anyday (we can't all be Calvin Trillin).
Brenna
This took the longest time for me to read, mostly because I kept thinking to myself it was worth finishing. DO NOT MAKE THIS MISTAKE.

It's not as if Serve the People is a badly written book. It's just way too long and it's like listening to someone repeat the same story over and over but changed it up every few times in case someone wanted to bow out and check out of that convo quick.

I'm trying to think of what could have made this better. And honestly it really just comes to length. Also she's n...more
Arjun
Between the recipes and the author's detailed account of Chinese kitchens, I salivated my way through the book. Her take on "nouveau" cuisine in general is astute - there's something very universal about the Chinese experience as it relates to food and something sad and ironic as well. In some ways, this can be seen as a book about the corrupting influence of "status" on any society, while also showing what decades of privation do to a proud people. But in the end, this is a book about a woman's...more
Katie
It took me several weeks longer than I would have expected to finish this book. Partly because life got in the way and partly because it definitely lost momentum. The best part is the beginning when the author attends a vocational cooking school, where she must prove herself as a woman and foreigner. At the school, she also befriends Chairman Wang and through her, hears a firsthand account of life during the Cultural Revolution. The story of Chairman Wang's life brings the historical context to...more
Kimberly
Jen is a Chinese-American journalist who decides to move to Beijing, having never been there, as a writer and food critic. After being there a few years she decides to enroll in a local cooking school. It is a fascinating look at modern China with the interesting twist of how a non-native Chinese speaker (struggling at first) who looks Chinese finds her place in China and the stories of the people she meets--Wang, who grew up in the cultural revolution; Zhang, who was given away by his parents a...more
itpdx
For me, history and current events are much easier to understand at a personal level. This book does this for modern China from an unique perspective. The author, as a Chinese-American, has some cultural background from her parents, who arrived in the US via Taiwan. Also I think the Chinese respond to her differently because she does not "look American".
The people that she meets during her quest to understand Chinese cuisine range from those who were nearly adults at the time the Cultural Revol...more
Rebecca
Super fun and fascinating cultural-history/foodie-memoir. Come for the food, stay for the intimate tour of modern China and the human drama. Lin-Liu, in addition to eating (well, usually while eating), does a lot of thinking about her insider-outsider identity and befriends seasoned cooks, wise teachers, bright-eyed waitresses, and a cast of extras from every walk of life. Juggling all these elements and indulging in researchy asides (MSG, regional cuisines) makes for a slightly uneven read, but...more
Megan
After living in China for several years, the author decides to take a cooking course. She has recently relocated to Bejing from Shanghai and is interested in the local cuisine.

We follow her journey as she struggles with taking notes in class (in chinese), hires a tutor to help her with her cooking and begins working in the food industry.

As we meet people we get glimpses in to life during the revolution as well as how capitalism effects life in China today.

The book was slow to start (I almost...more
Beth
I'm currently living in a hutong in Beijing and the author describes it perfectly . Highly recommend for anyone who wants to know more about China, both recent past and present. While the author's goals are food related, the stories and come out on the way are about so much more. Because the author is American but has a Chinese heritage so looks Chinese and speaks Mandarin she has a rare perspective. I can both relate to her, and am given access to Chinese people's stories and experiences that I...more
Margaret
After graduating from journalism school in the U.S., Lin-Liu moved to China to freelance for American newspapers and magazines. She became obsessed (her word) with Chinese food and decided to sign up for Chinese cooking school...and that's only the beginning of her journey, which takes her through cooking school, one-on-one lessons, apprenticeships in noodle stalls and dumpling houses, and finally an internship in a gourmet Shanghai restaurant.

The book is mostly (and deliciously) about food, bu...more
Megan
Not terrible, but not fantastic. I realized that my main problem with this book is that it's about food, but I never get a sufficient sense of the author's passion for food like I do from someone like Jeffrey Steingarten. She may be immersed in a country and visiting a lot of fascinating culinary places--but it's still not as interesting as one gets the sense it could be. Instead, I always felt a little irritated by the author's voice, which seemed sometimes condescending, obvious, or just...bor...more
Jess
Dear Jen Lin-Liu, you are great. I started the book with a fair dose of skepticism... the first bit seemed a little slow and like it might turn into an ego-centric coming-of-age / back-to-my-cultural roots story without much depth in terms of food or culture, but by the end, I was smitten by the combination of warm, highly personal voice, intense attention to detail, and contextualization within the broader historical, cultural and social moment in China. It may be that I liked this better than...more
Giedra
I know SO LITTLE about contemporary China!

This book is by a Chinese-American woman who goes to China as a freelance writer (doing mostly restaurant reviews for an English-language magazine). She decides to go to Chinese cooking school, and takes the reader through her experiences at the school and becoming friends with one of the school administrators, who gave her private cooking lessons, and later interning at several different types of restaurants, including a noodle stand and a high-end Shan...more
Sparrowfall
I enjoyed learning about China's recent history and (parts of) its food culture. I also appreciated the recipes interspersed throughout the book and I look forward to trying them. The author also did a good job of fitting her story, as a Chinese American going to China to learn how to cook, into the story. Although the romantic developments at the very end seemed out of place.
Soonhar
A thoroughly enjoyable book about the food and recent history of China (Cultural Revolution and post-), told in readable bites through Lin-Liu's memoir of living in China as a young journalist and going to cooking school to learn to be a chef. An ivy-league student who went to Beijing in 2000 on a Fulbright Scholarship, Lin-Liu ended up falling in love with the cooking of her ancestors and opening a cooking school herself. I recognized so many things about Chinese culinary culture (the Chinese w...more
Drew Macaulay
The good: A Chinese-American woman returns to China to become a journalist and attend cooking school. Perspectives on Chinese culture and how race relates to self-identity, interspersed with traditional Chinese recipes. So far, so good. This book is my antidote to the propaganda about China accompanying the Olympics. Author Jen Lin-Liu paints vibrant pictures of both places and people.

The bad: Kind of slow going in the last quarter. The good part was about her learning to cook and adjusting to...more
Michael
Lin-Liu's book is a memoir of a second generation Chinese American with a graduate degree in journalism who emmigrates back to mainland China.

To the dismay of her family, she pitches a successful career in journalism to attend a vocational cooking school in Bejing. I don't want to give too much away -- I really like this book.

Also, this book contains the best description of the construction of Shanghai Soup Dumplings (Xiao Long Bao) that I have ever read -- they are one of my favorite foods.

...more
Alexa
I loved the focus on the cultural differences between being a chef in America (or in Europe, or basically anywhere else) versus being a chef in China and the author's. There are recipes but unless you want to run out and buy pork belly and stew it up, they probably aren't for you. I might have given this book another star if it hadn't ended up with the author falling love, with a guy, not food. Why do all the authors of these books about food have to fall in love by the end? Is it a prerequisite...more
Natalie
It was an alright read. It waffles between informative and intimate, but ultimately is unsatisfying in both regards (at least to me.) I think some of the best parts are her cooking school portion and her quest for the best xiao long bao. Some parts (her internships) are repetitive and could have been condensed down into one chapter/ article. At times, her pieces seem formulaic and wooden, especially if you read it one sitting. You can tell she has been taught to write with certain ratios of pers...more
Steven Tomcavage
This was a fascinating book, though my experience of it was a bit jumbled because the edition I had was missing pages. Every now and then I'd come across a passage that didn't make sense, only to discover that 2 or 3 pages were missing. But aside from that, I really enjoyed reading the author's experiences in different culinary environments in China. It's fascinating to read about the food culture of another country, and this book does not disappoint. Plus, recipes are sprinkled throughout the b...more
Robert Wright
Part personal story, part cookbook, part food essay, part history.

In the main, they work together harmoniously.

An enjoyable read that lets itself unfold meditatively. So many books rush and want to push you through consuming them. While this roller coaster ride approach may work for the latest thriller-du-jour, the more contemplative pacing here makes for a good respite on the reading list.

Recommended for: foodies and those interested in Chinese culture

Not for: those looking for a Chinese cookbo...more
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Jen Lin-Liu is the author of Serve the People: A Stir-Fried Journey Through China and the founder of the cooking school Black Sesame Kitchen in Beijing. She was raised in southern California, graduated from Columbia University, and went to China in 2000 on a Fulbright fellowship. A food critic for Time Out Beijing and the coauthor of Frommer’s Beijing, she has also written for Newsweek, the New Yo...more
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