We're sitting down with our favorite writers and cooks to talk about their upcoming cookbooks, their best food memories, and just about anything else.
It may seem that there are no two cuisines more different than Italian and Chinese. But when writer Jen Lin-Liu traveled to Italy on her honeymoon, she couldn't help but be reminded of the food of China, where she'd lived for more than a decade. She was particularly curious about noodles -- known to Italians as pasta -- and so she set off on a 7000-mile, six month journey retracing the migration of the noodle along the Silk Road thousands of years ago.
Jen lives in China, where she founded Black Sesame Kitchen, a Beijing cooking school and restaurant. And as you'll read, she's on a mission to teach more people how to make noodles.
Why do you think that noodle making is unfamiliar (and daunting) to most Americans?
It’s an interesting question -- noodle making takes just a few more steps than, say, making pizza or bread, but most people seem intimidated by it. It might have to do with the fact that dried pastas were only mass produced in the United States in the 1920s and 1930s and dishes like spaghetti and meatballs were still a novelty to most Americans back then. Nowadays, the availability of dried pasta makes it easy to reach for a bag at the supermarket rather than make your own from scratch. But I’m on a mission to change that -- actually, one of my dreams is to open a pasta school, somewhere, someday.
What's your go-to piece of interesting noodle trivia that you share at dinner parties?
The story of Marco Polo bringing pasta from China to Italy is a myth. It was invented in an American pasta manufacturer’s trade publication called the Macaroni Journal in 1929 to spur the consumption of pasta in the U.S. -- and it certainly did a good job. And the myth has traveled around the world -- I heard people repeat it many places on my journey. The Chinese added their own twist to the story: Marco Polo also tried meat-filled buns called baozi in China and when he recreated them back at home, he forgot how to fold them and Italy ended up with a second-rate mess-of-a-bun called pizza.
More: Make your own Afghan dumplings with lamb kofta and yogurt sauce.
Was there any part of your research findings that completely contradicted your predictions?
On my journey, noodles almost entirely disappeared in Iran, where rice dishes completely dominate the cuisine. I did have a couple of noodle dishes there: one is called ash-e-reshteh, which is long, thin strands of noodle in a slightly sour soup with greens; another was a lamb version of spaghetti bolognese. But I didn’t meet any cooks who made noodles from scratch -- Iranians almost always use packaged noodles. Interestingly, I had read in history books that Persia had a tradition of noodle making as early as the 11th and 12th century. I had even found a poem from around the 15th century that talks about how noodles and saffron rice battle each other and rice wins out, describing what happened in Persian cuisine.
Is there a recipe that you picked up while researching this book that you've made most frequently?
I have been a big Chinese dumpling maker since I wrote my first book, Serve the People, and since this trip, I’ve really gotten into making tortellini, which is basically the same concept, but with eggs in the pasta and Parmigiano-Reggiano, ricotta, and parsley as the filling. I love making a super easy sage butter or pesto sauce to go with them. They are infinitely better than any dried tortellini you'll find!
More: A recipe for pasta-perfect pesto.
Which country or region among your travels are you most eager to return to for more eating?
It’s a toss up between Iran and Turkey. Both have such interesting food cultures that aren’t well known to Americans. I love the street food culture of Turkey and the diversity of the food -- you get lots of meat and grain-heavy cuisine in the central and eastern areas, but then on the coast, the food reminded me of what I thought of as Greek and Mediterranean. I would love to spend more time in Iran to master all of the rice dishes.
Photos of Jen by Lucy Cavender, all other photos by James Ransom
We're giving away 3 copies of On the Noodle Road! To enter, let us about your favorite noodle dish in the comments below. We'll choose the lucky winners by this Friday, August 2nd at 4 PM EST.