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Dishing out the cuisine and characters of Chinese kitchens

WHEN American Jen Lin Liu first came to China in 2000, she was a budding reporter eager to engage with a fast-changing China. But even as she wrote about many aspects of Chinese culture and development, she found herself on the outside of local life and living in an "expat bubble."

It was five years before she found the ideal window into Chinese life and culture: food.

For over a year she went on a journey to learn about the myriad Chinese cuisines and how they are consumed.

"My subconscious thinking went something like this: If I can't connect with the people, at least I'm going to connect with the food," Liu writes in the opening chapter of her book that chronicles this journey.

"Serving the People: A Stir-fried Journey through China" (2008) follows Liu from Beijing cooking school student, to lowly noodle stall assistant, to intern at a swanky Shanghai restaurant.

Along the way, it depicts the colorful characters Liu meets and details the recipes of dishes she has learned to prepare. It offers "side dishes" of little chapters into pertinent subjects as the mysteries of MSG.

Liu will discuss her book tomorrow at the Shanghai International Literature Festival at M on the Bund.

"Food is my way into China. Talking about food is a great ice breaker with Chinese people °?- it seems three quarters of their conversations are about food," Liu says. "It inspires passion."

Food also demonstrates the great diversity of China: both geographically and socially.

Liu first came to China in 2000 to study, moving onto freelance journalism for several US publications. Her interest in food started with an article that explored the emergence of private restaurants that were replacing traditional state-owned restaurant enterprises.

Liu decided to specialize in food writing. But feeling the need for hands-on experience, and having no pre-existing cooking skills, she embarked on a six-month vocational cooking course in Beijing. That was in the fall of 2005.

Throughout the next year she interned at Chinese eateries.

It was a grueling experience. The reality of the cooking industry is that cooking, even fine cooking, is considered a low-status occupation and not many chefs do it out of passion, she writes.

There are even fewer women in the kitchen due to the physical demands of working woks and pulling noodles. While normally chefs work two shifts a day, each of five to seven hours long, Liu often found herself exhausted after just one shift.

She was rewarded, however, with knowledge of the great diversity of Chinese cuisine. Tempting recipes in the book include the candied apples and dumplings of northern China, the red-braised pork of Shanghai, and the hand-pulled noodles of the northwest.

Liu worked in eateries of vastly different price ranges, attesting to the wide income gap. Through this varied experience she met many characters who, even more than the food, are the meat of the book.

There is Chairman Wang, her mentor at the cooking school; Chef Zhang, the migrant worker who owns a noodle stall, and the ambitious young, female chef Little Han. Wang and Zhang have ended up as teachers at Liu's new cooking school, Black Sesame Kitchen, in Beijing.


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