Back in 2012, my brother and I were walking somewhere in Hong Kong (I think it was Nathan Road), he was looking for 'chops' to give as a souvenir for a friend back home. While wandering the streets of Hong Kong, we stumbled into this quaint and unassuming eatery and had a perfectly good lunch. The thing that I recalled about that lunch was its simplicity: choose your own ingredients of meats, vegetables, dumpling and feast. Our lunch somewhere in the streets of Hong Kong was the rough equivalent of a Filipino-style carinderia and I really enjoyed it.
Flash forward to the present and I stumble on this book in Mt. Cloud by Jen Lin-Liu titled "Serve the People: A stir-fried journey through China", the cover was what got me interested because of its Maoist-era propaganda cover (always a sucker for former/still-communist countries in Asia) and its catching title. I dispensed with the blurb and started reading just to satisfy my interest.
My knowledge of Chinese cuisine is somewhat limited to the stapled restaurants we have here in Manila, but oftentimes I have equated Chinese cuisine with two things, mainly dumplings and noodles. Over the course of my life I have ate many a siomai, guzzled down a lot of siopao's, and drank my hearty share of wanton soups. At the same time, little introductions to Peking Duck and variants of dumplings would catch my interest but I never held the cuisine in the same regard as Japanese cuisine.
While reading Jen Lin-Liu's autobiography, Chinese cuisine and I have now been more formally introduced. Jen and I took on a personal journey into China's culinary world to learn all that there is to know about their food. Her journey takes her from lowly culinary trainee in Beijing to the heights of Chinese haute cuisine in metropolitan Shanghai. It was exciting as every page was an insight into how the little things we eat are described in detail, the workmanship and the sweat of making noodles and wanton wrappers.
Alongside mine and Jen's journey through culinary China are interesting mentors she meets along the way, the affable and matronly Chairman Wang, fatalistic noodle-maker Chef Zhang, the sophisticated celebrity chef Jereme. The novel certainly makes use of these people to drive out a point: the grit of living simply, wanting little, and pursuing culinary dreams. The mentors themselves are beautiful expositions into the convoluted world of Mao and the failed Cultural Revolution.
I may never be a chef or have the guts to face the stove and try out recipes Jen did during her culinary journey in China. But I thoroughly enjoyed getting glimpses, stories, snippets, anecdotes of China's transformation in a different and less complicated way.
My name is Alfonso your nerdy history teacher, bookworm and lover of all things cultural and exciting. You can find me in a weekend market, in a bookshop, or eating in Japanese restos during the weekends.