On the Noodle Road: From Beijing to Rome, with Love and Pasta
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A food writer travels the Silk Road, immersing herself in a moveable feast of foods and cultures and discovering some surprising truths about commitment, independence, and love.
As a newlywed traveling in Italy, Jen Lin-Liu was struck by culinary echoes of the delicacies she ate and cooked back in China, where she’d lived for more than a decade. Who really invented the noodle? she wondered, like many before her. But also: How had food and culture moved along the Silk Road, the ancient trade route linking Asia to Europe—and what could still be felt of those long-ago migrations? With her new husband’s blessing, she set out to discover the connections, both historical and personal, eating a path through western China and on into Central Asia, Iran, Turkey, and across the Mediterranean.
The journey takes Lin-Liu into the private kitchens where the headscarves come off and women not only knead and simmer but also confess and confide. The thin rounds of dough stuffed with meat that are dumplings in Beijing evolve into manti in Turkey—their tiny size the measure of a bride’s worth—and end as tortellini in Italy. And as she stirs and samples, listening to the women talk about their lives and longings, Lin-Liu gains a new appreciation of her own marriage, learning to savor the sweetness of love freely chosen.
waiters and bellhops, for a tip, speed-dialed enterprising guides whenever clueless people like us blew into town.) We invited Harun to sit down, and a waiter, unprompted, brought him a glass of hot milk. Harun, like most of the town, was Kurdish. Kurds were not so different from Turks, he told us. “We look the same, we eat the same,” he said. The chief difference, he said, was language. Some Kurds were still disgruntled with the government and wanted their own homeland, he allowed. But
its all to the sauce. But she set out veal meatballs she’d made, to be eaten on the side, along with grilled zucchini doused with olive oil. Everyone poured themselves glasses of wine and water. Marina groaned when her family kept their eyes glued to the soccer game as they ate, in violation of the etiquette I’d learned. “I only have peace in the summer, when football season is over,” she said. Marina scrutinized her food. “How do you like it?” she asked, frowning. “It’s good,” I said,
opportunity to eat plov would come up soon enough. • • • I learned more about Uzbek marriages when I took cooking lessons in a Tashkent home. The man of the house, Murad, was middle-aged and of average build, with a domineering attitude that reminded me of Al Pacino’s character in The Godfather. Even though he didn’t cook, he was always present at my lessons, lording over them while his dark-haired wife, Shaista, did all the work. They had two grown children and lived in a pleasant
to eat just Chinese, a cuisine I’d immersed myself in for years. We shopped at a foreign market called Jenny Lou’s and dined at new restaurants that served everything from Vietnamese to Spanish to South American, a reflection of how international Beijing had become. But whenever Craig and I were back in America, I found that I didn’t quite fit in there, either. I missed the commotion of Beijing, what Chinese call renao: the loud restaurants, the feeling that things were fluid and always
sprinkled with crushed pistachios, which in Iran were roasted to perfection, exuding equal notes of sweetness, saltiness, and butteriness and killing my ability to enjoy them anywhere else. Addictively crunchy dime-sized cookies called hajji badam flavored with cardamom and nutmeg complemented the tea as well. Dinner began with dizi, a traditional Iranian soup served in a heavy stone bowl. The waiter fished out fatty chunks of mutton, potatoes, and chickpeas and mashed them into a paste to