On the noodle road : from Beijing to Rome, with love and pasta

When humanity moved past being hunter-gatherers and began to cultivate and harvest crops, one of the basic products of these efforts was bread which became a primary food source.  Noodles and dumplings are several steps up on the culinary register, but are based on a similar food product, dough, basically made of flour and water, and enriched with other ingredients if available.  Add sauces, fillings made from grains, vegetables, bits of meat, poultry or fish, seasonings, and these foods have moved way beyond sustenance to pleasure and are often basic to fine cuisines around the world.  What country or place is the origin of the noodle, aka pasta, and to which should credit be given--China or Italy, or does it matter?

Jen Lin-Liu is founder of a Beijing cooking school and author of Serve the people:  a stir-fried journey through China, an exploration of food, culture, customs and life in modern China, and she sets out to answer the noodle question in her new book.  The accepted story is that Marco Polo went to China and brought the noodle back to Italy.  She travels from east to west, starting in western China, moving through central Asia, Iran, Turkey, Greece and Italy,  and retraces selected parts of the Silk Route whose travelers became the great disseminators of products and ideas.  Not only silk, but other goods spread from continent to continent, and in addition stories, ideas and food were exchanged and shared as merchants and travelers rested in caravanserai. Over six months there are similar experiences for Lin-Liu as she travels and eats, takes part in cooking with home cooks and professional cooks who are welcoming about food and the pleasures of sharing food, cooking, and opinionated about other types of food within their own countries and neighborhoods, and about life. Thrown off her original quest, she learns more than she could have imagined about the varieties of noodles, dumplings, cooking techniques and relays it all in hunger-evoking details and includes numerous recipes.  In addition there are the traditions relating to food served to guests; a woman's place in the kitchen and in the community; surprising facts such as the food of Kyrgyz and Italy are very similar in that both cultures consume similar quantities of dairy and noodles (Maybe Marco Polo stopped in Kyrgyz.); there might be indications the noodle originated in ancient Constantinople; in order to prepare a Chinese meal for her guests in Istanbul, will Lin-Liu be able to find pork in a Muslim country; and just when she thought she had eaten some generous meals, it is a feast in Rome that is overwhelming.  As for the answer to the noodle's origin,  she concludes that because of the travel and trade on the Silk Route, "The answer was lost in the steppes of Central Asia, the deserts of Iran, and the mountains and valleys of Asia Minor."  These were the places she had traveled through and eaten the foods of the various regions. Filled with adventure this is not a book just for foodies.

By coincidence last week on NPR, August 26th through September 1st, it was Dumpling Week,  with their journalists on a search for neat little packages of delicious food, prepared in so many differnet ways with stories and memories included; plus a story on a Mexican specialty, a type of dumpling--tlacoyos.

The following are two recent read-alikes:

Fortune cookie chronicles: adventures in the world of Chinese food by Jennifer 8. Lee who wanted to understand the popularity of Chinese food all over the world; about the people who cook it; and to dog down the origins of the fortune cookie.

Eddie Huang’s irreverent and passionate Fresh off the boat : a memoir