If you love food, you don’t read the title of this book so much as see the key items beam out to you like code words: “Noodle”, “Love”, “Pasta”– Access Granted. You know instantly whether the book will be of interest to you. For this reason and several others, On the Noodle Road is hard for a self-selecting audience not to like. Readers will identify with Jen Lin-Liu’s love of food, a love that spurs her to embark on an overland journey from China to Italy, in search of a cohesive history of the noodle. She follows the Silk Road, “a tangle of overland paths that undulated through Central Asia and the Middle East before reaching Italy via the Mediterranean Sea”. Lin-Liu theorizes that by eating and cooking with home cooks in the countries through which she travels, she can trace the history of the noodle in all its incarnations. As a counterpoint to her culinary narrative, Lin-Liu relates her concerns about her new marriage in the wake of her decision to make a mostly solitary expedition.
As founder of a Beijing cooking school, Lin-Liu is in her element writing about the eating or preparation of food. Foodies will recognize her greedy lust for a good meal. Her descriptions of the thinness of a knife, or the translucence of a dumpling wrapper, speak to the level of quality of the delicacies she consumes. One’s appetite is well whet for the recipes Lin-Liu includes at the end of each chapter. (I followed the recipe for “Chef Zhang’s Pork Belly Sauce”; it was simple and excellent.)
Her love of food is almost matched by her knowledge of it. Her expertise allows her to draw insightful connections between the cuisines of various cultures. In Turkey, Lin-Liu realizes that the word manti, which indicates a kind of dumpling, sounds like manta, a steamed dumpling from Kashgar, a far west Chinese city inhabited largely by Turkic Muslims (the Uighur). She notes that one Chinese word for steamed buns is mantou. She makes these connections seemingly spontaneously, as if she is so steeped in knowledge of her subject that similarities occur to her effortlessly.
Other aspects of the book are more labored. Lin-Liu’s doubts about her marriage fail to generate any plot tension, partly because her husband is only vaguely characterized, but also because Lin-Liu is not able to create suspense about the outcome of their relationship. When she expresses her worry, it is usually in the form of a question about whether she and her husband could manage to ever work together in one location, as opposed to moving back and forth from the U.S. to China in different lines of work: “But what if there were disagreements? Who would prevail?” These questions sound like pointless hand-wringing, as Lin-Liu and her husband continue to meet up in various countries, enjoy one another’s company, part ways amicably, and look forward to seeing each other in the next locale. Even aside from this under-dramatized plot thread, Lin-Liu over-relies on questioning as a narrative device: “Were we really just about to enter the Islamic Republic of Iran?” (Spoiler: Yes.). It becomes tiresome.
Lin-Liu does experience some actual drama, stemming not from her marriage but from cultural differences between herself and the people she meets. At one point, a young Uzbekistani woman asks Lin-Liu whether she can help her get to America. The author, understandably at a loss, replies, “What about your family?” The moment is tense and uncomfortable. While it’s clear that there’s no easy real-world solution to such a situation, it would have been interesting to hear more about Lin-Liu’s private reactions to such events. When she does reflect on the treatment of women or the state of marriage in certain countries, it is mainly to compare them to her own marriage and sense of independence. For a book that describes the author’s travels through some of the most repressive regimes on earth, Noodle Road remains noticeably apolitical.
With its underdeveloped subplot and episodic treatment of some of the more compelling material it does contain, Noodle Road lacks focus. At one point we lose the history of the noodle altogether, when Lin-Liu forgoes thematic unity in favor of detailing large portions of her trip that could have been condensed or elided altogether. When she asks, on page 304 of this nearly 400-page book, “What exactly was I pursuing? Was I still trying to discover where noodles came from, or was I just asserting my independence?” one wishes she had come to clearer terms before she wrote the book. It’s hard to follow someone all the way from Beijing to Turkey and find out she’s not really sure where she’s going. Fortunately, Jen Lin-Liu is otherwise a well-informed and likable guide. And the food is certainly good enough to make On the Noodle Road worth the trip.