Serve the People—A Book Review

A couple years ago I was in the University of Arizona bookstore browsing when I came across this book. I was immediately interested since it addresses one of my favorite topics—food and eating in China. I admit that I really enjoy eating when I am in China. In fact, I seldom (i.e. almost never) go out to eat Chinese food when I am in the States. I am too often disappointed with American style Chinese food. It’s not necessarily bad food, it’s just very different from authentic Chinese food that you get in China. Students often ask where the best Chinese restaurants are in town, and I have a hard time recommending anything. Usually the best Chinese food in town is made at the home of some Chinese family. Fortunately I am able to travel to China enough to satisfy my cravings for good, authentic Chinese food. I do cook Chinese at home on occasion to keep me happy between trips to China and have collected a few pretty decent Chinese cookbooks, some written in English from American Chinese writers and some in Chinese that I found in bookstores in China.

Now for the review.

Lin-Liu, Jen. Serve the People: A Stir-Fried Journey Through China. Orlando: Harcourt, Inc. 2008.

The author is a Chinese American journalist living in Beijing. It should be noted that she is a fluent speaker of Chinese and it would not have been possible to do the research that she did without good Chinese language skills. I mention this because I think it adds credibility to her research and what she has to say. To be able to interview and interact with people without an interpreter I think is very valuable and will allow one to get stories that would otherwise be unlikely, if not impossible.

The title of the book comes from the socialist slogan coined by Mao Zedong and popularized by the communist party: 为人民服务 weì rénmín fúwù, which literally means “for people serve.” When I first arrived in China in the early eighties you could find lapel pins all over the place with this slogan. Though it is used less these days, you still hear it once in awhile, probably more in official settings.

This book is divided into four parts, 1) Cooking School, 2) Noodle Intern, 3) Fine Dining, and 4) Hutong Cooking. In the first part Lin-Liu describes her experience as a student in the Hualian Cooking School in Beijing, a three month course, Monday through Friday for two hours a day. At the end of the course students take a national cooking exam, are awarded a diploma and can then be hired to work as a cook in a restaurant. This does not mean that you have to have a cooking diploma to work in a restaurant, as I am sure there are countless small mom and pop restaurants all over China where they have received no formal training. The author learns all about Chinese regional cuisines, different kinds of foods, methods of preparation, and so on. She also gives the reader some insight into attitudes and practices of traditional Chinese education. For example, she learned very early in the course, “listen, bow, and copy” and don’t ask questions.

In the second part of the book, Lin-Liu apprentices with a noodle chef from Shanxi Province. She works in his tiny noodle stall in a warehouse district in Southeastern Beijing. Through much hard work she learns how to prepare a variety of different kinds of noodles. I think her goal here was not just to learn how to prepare and cook noodle dishes, but also to experience working in this very vibrant and important part of the Chinese restaurant culture, the food stall, which is really the equivalent of fast food in China.

In Part Three she moves to Shanghai and works in a high end Shanhaiese restaurant on the Bund called The Whampoa Club. Here she learns all about the opposite end of Chinese restaurant culture. The reader gets a glimpse into the high fashion world of Shanghai and the exquisite food that is prepared and consumed by the wealthy, both Chinese and foreigners. It is a completely different world from the noodle shop and yet many of the techniques used are the same.

The book ends with a rather short section on Hutong cooking. A 胡同 hútòng is an alley or lane and is used to identify many of the old Beijing neighborhoods characterized by courtyard houses and mazes of narrow lanes. Unfortunately these historic neighborhoods, which have been around for hundreds of years, are disappearing to new develpment. This part of the book is mostly about these historic neighborhoods and the people that live in them. She also discusses how these friends of hers shop and cook in their small hutong flats. It is an interesting look into these very cool neighborhoods. A couple years ago a friend an I spent a very enjoyable day wandering a hutong neighborhood admiring the architecture, eating at a small restaurant, and chatting with people.

Hutong near the Bell Tower in Beijing

Typical Hutong alley

I really enjoyed this book. Lin-Liu did an excellent job drawing the reader into the world of Chinese food and eating. The book is sprinkled with historical anecdotes and interesting facts, such as how MSG is made and used in Chinese cooking. The reader also sees an intimate portrait of regular Chinese people living ordinary lives in Beijing. Again this would not have been possible without Chinese language skills. I guess my bias as a Chinese language teacher is showing through here, but it goes without saying that learning a foreign language opens all kinds of doors not available to those without foreign language skills. For example, who is going to invite a foreigner to their home if they cannot communicate with them?

I highly recommend this book as a glimpse into contemporary China, particularly with regard to food and eating, which of course, is everything in China.

5 thoughts on “Serve the People—A Book Review

  1. My Chinese friends told me that 为人民服务 has become 为人民币服务Serve Renminbi. I really love old Beijing full of charming and life atmosphere.

  2. As a food junkie and someone who loves Chinese cuisine and Chinese history this book seems interesting and relevant. Definitely going on my wishlist!

  3. How very interesting! I studied abroad in Shanghai this past summer and I went on an old town walking tour that including sampling dishes from many areas. Although they all seemed to look the same to me, they definitely had their own unique flavors, being in Shanghai, most were very sweet, but they each had something different that showed, I don’t know how you would say this but… showed a sincerity, compassion, and felling that went along with each setting. Walking though the old town, and watching this old woman make these noodles I found how sweet and inviting her food shop was, and its flavor still leaves a happy and unforgettable memory. I don’t know if it is the same as in Beijing, but I also have seen old towns, with framework, old-style construction, and homes marked as historical landmarks within Shanghai on the opposite side of the Bund. I remember one story were this man, in service to make peace between Japan and China at the time, traded between the countries, and for service to both they each installed a part of his house making it a very unique yet passionate design. The old frames being square, the corridors being narrow, light peaking through at different courtyards, combined with the smells of the great foods- it all combines into a cultural preservation that books try to romanticize and keep in heart. I think this book would do a great job incorporating the phenomenon.

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