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Serve the People: A Stir-Fried Journey Through China

3.85  ·  Rating Details ·  833 Ratings  ·  138 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 f

Paperback, 352 pages
Published May 22nd 2009 by Mariner Books (first published July 14th 2008)
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Community Reviews

(showing 1-30)
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Mar 31, 2012 Petra rated it really liked it  ·  review of another edition
Shelves: non-fiction
I enjoyed this look at the food and people of China in the early 2000s. Jen goes to China as a free-lance journalist from America. She's American-Chinese. This gives her a unique perspective: American born/raised and looks Chinese. She's accepted in ways that other Americans wouldn't perhaps be, yet she struggles with the language & customs, putting her outside the "norm" of the people she meets and keeping her slightly apart. She's also privileged in the sense that her journalist job pays h ...more
Apr 11, 2010 Helene rated it liked it  ·  review of another edition
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
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
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
Jul 04, 2014 Rick rated it liked it
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...
Erin Maher
I knew so little about Chinese cuisine and history going into this book; coming out of it, I know a bit more -- though many things were still somewhat unclear, either because of my lack of knowledge or Lin-Liu's sometimes meandering writing or a combination of the two -- and was entertained along the way. I actually found the palate cleanser "side dish" chapters in between the main sections of Lin-Liu's journey to be some of the most interesting parts.
Jun 01, 2009 Lindsay rated it it was amazing  ·  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
Dec 27, 2009 Matt rated it liked it  ·  review of another edition
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;
Jan 12, 2012 Cathie rated it it was ok  ·  review of another edition
Shelves: 2012-rc-goal, fft-bc
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
Hannah Notess
I really enjoyed this book - it's an interesting and entertaining account from a Chinese American woman who moves to China and wants to learn about cooking Chinese food. Along the way, she works in fancy restaurants and roadside noodle stands, getting to know all sorts of interesting people from different parts of China and different social classes — who are all passionate about food. In that way it reminded me a bit of Bill Buford's book "Heat." This was a great window into Chinese food and cul ...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.
Jan 05, 2009 Donna rated it liked it  ·  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).
bibliotekker Holman
A mix of journalism, travelouge and cookbook, this is an engaging read.
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
May 20, 2009 Katie rated it really liked it  ·  review of another edition
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
Feb 15, 2009 Arjun rated it really liked it  ·  review of another edition
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
Jul 27, 2013 Brenna rated it it was ok  ·  review of another edition
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
Oct 04, 2009 itpdx rated it really liked it  ·  review of another edition
Shelves: non-fiction
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
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
Feb 13, 2015 Eva rated it it was ok  ·  review of another edition
I thought this book was a compelling look at different types of regional Chinese cuisines, especially Northern styles I'm unfamiliar with as a Cantonese-American. The first half of the book, where Jen is learning at the cooking school and interning at the noodle shop, was much more interesting than the world of five-star hotels she explores in the second half. I enjoyed meeting characters like Chairman Wang and Chef Zhang who are passionate about cooking but began their culinary careers out of e ...more
Dec 22, 2009 Rebecca rated it really liked it  ·  review of another edition
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
Sep 18, 2008 Megan rated it liked it  ·  review of another edition
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
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
Mar 21, 2015 Jay rated it liked it  ·  review of another edition
This was just ok. Like many memoirs, this suffers from a lack of focus, a lack of narrative through-line. For as much as this was about her wanting to learn how to cook, I never got the sense that she was actually successful at it or that it was anything more than a lark for her. So, how she managed to start a cooking school, I find kind of baffling, unless she was just the money person. I found the parts about the lives of the people she befriended the most interesting, but I can understand why ...more
Jun 23, 2009 Giedra rated it liked it  ·  review of another edition
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
Aug 07, 2011 Jess rated it liked it  ·  review of another edition
Shelves: food
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
Aug 03, 2010 Soonhar rated it liked it
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
Jun 26, 2008 Alexa rated it liked it  ·  review of another edition
Shelves: food
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
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
Feb 14, 2009 Michael rated it really liked it  ·  review of another edition
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.

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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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