Jen Lin-Liu was on vacation with her husband when she began considering the similarities between orecchiette, angel hair pasta, and tortellini, which she was seeing in Italy, and the hand-pulled noodles and dumplings of her adopted home in China. US-born Lin-Liu moved to Beijing in 2000 as a Fulbright fellow, worked as a journalist for Newsweek and other publications, and at the time, had recently embarked on an adventure to learn to cook in China. With thoughts of cooking and culture fresh in her mind, and a journalist’s curiosity driving her, Lin-Liu decided to set out on a journey along the Silk Road to find out who invented the noodle.
In “On the Noodle Road: From Beijing to Rome with Love and Pasta,” Lin-Liu tells the story of exploring connections among cultures and foods as she traveled through China, Kyrgyzstan, Turkmenistan, Iran, Turkey, and Italy, learning to cook local noodle dishes. Lin-Liu, 37, lives with her husband, Craig Simons, and two children in Beijing, where she writes and operates the Black Sesame kitchen, a reservation-only dinner spot.
Q. When did your interest in food begin?
A. The food thing came about in China. It’s difficult to get people to open up when you talk about things like politics. But food was always an easy subject to start a conversation. I am Chinese-American and the food here was so different from the Chinese food I had grown up with in the States.
Q. Why did you decide to make the trip from China to Italy to research this book?
A. I think what I’m good at as a writer is befriending people, getting to know them, writing about their stories, learning about their motivations. So, that’s why I needed to take the journey — not only to get some insight into where noodles came from, but also to have a compelling story to tell.
Q. The logistics of the trip must have been complex. How did you plan it?
A. I started the planning in Cambridge, when my husband was a fellow at MIT. He was in the science journalism program and I was able to use the Schlesinger Library at Radcliffe. I did my research there through cookbooks, a lot of cookbooks, a lot of food history books, and then, of course, all the connections that Harvard University had in terms of its program in central Asian studies.
Q. Could you talk about some of the more unusual places you cooked?
A. In the northwestern region of China there’s an autonomous zone called Xinjiang, which is known for its minority population called Uighur, a Muslim minority that’s Turkic. They used a bare-bones kitchen that was actually in their backyard. They had this open flame fire and a pit for roasting lamb. In Iran I was able to make my way into a women-only cooking school. Iran was particularly tough because my husband and I had to travel with a minder. He would follow us from the moment we woke up until the evening. But I was able to escape him because he was not allowed in the cooking school. The women there were very different than what I had imaged Iranian women to be. They were very outspoken and independent. Many of them had careers. They had a lot of admiration for the west and for America.
Q. When you cooked at a restaurant in Turkey, you discovered a different appreciation of Chinese food.
A. Turkey doesn’t have the whole culture of cheap Chinese takeout restaurants. They think of Chinese food as being very high class. They have a saying that Chinese food is one of the three best cuisines in the worl: Chinese food, French food, and Turkish food. Chinese food is treated there the same way that Americans treat French food.
Q. Did you find a noodle dish that connected all the cultures?
A. Yeah. Most people don’t think of it as a noodle dish, but dumplings that are made out of noodle dough are a thread that made its way all the way through to Italy. Chinese dumplings evolved into a dish called manti in central Asia, and that evolved into manti in Turkey, both of which are similar to tortellini.
Q. So did Marco Polo go to China and bring pasta back to Italy?
A. The whole Marco Polo myth is not true, of course, that he brought noodles from China to Italy. That is dispelled quite quickly in the beginning of the book, especially because of the sheer proof that Italians were eating pasta much earlier than the birth of Marco Polo.
Q. If not Marco Polo, what was the link that connected the cultures?
A. I subscribe to the theory that Genghis Khan and the Mongolian conquest from east to west may have had something to do with the spread of this dish. There was a story that I heard in Turkey that was echoed once I got to Italy. It is about how you can tell how well a daughter-in-law is trained by how many manti she can fold and fit onto a spoon.