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Serve the People: A Stir-Fried Journey Through China Hardcover – July 14, 2008

4.3 out of 5 stars 34 customer reviews

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Editorial Reviews

From Publishers Weekly

Chinese-American journalist Lin-Liu's delightful mixture of memoir and cookbook records her years living and working in Shanghai and Beijing, when she attended a vocational cooking school and discovered a passion for Chinese cooking and culture. Growing up in the U.S. to Taiwan-born parents, the author admits feeling alienated from her heritage when she first moved to China in 2000; a graduate of an American journalism school, she eventually became the food editor at TimeOut Beijing. Moving between Shanghai and Beijing, she begins her account with her frustrating yet ultimately rewarding study at the Hualian Cooking School in Beijing, where she apprenticed to one of the school's instructors, Chairman Wang, an old-style cook raised during the Cultural Revolution, who taught the author the rudiments of chopping, shopping and how to pass the cooking exam. Despite the flimsy certificate, bias against women working in professional kitchens and the reluctance to hire foreigners, Lin-Liu found work at Chef Zhang's noodle stall serving migrant workers and at the popular dumpling house Xian'r Lao Man; she later snagged a plum internship at Jereme Leung's upscale Shanghai restaurant, Whampoa Club. Incorporating stories of many of the Chinese she worked alongside (and their recipes), as well as trips to the MSG factory in Henan or to the rice-growing Guangxi province, Lin-Liu offers a thoroughgoing, spirited celebration of overcoming cultural barriers. (July)
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Review

"Lin-Liu is a charming guide to modern China and its kaleidoscopic cuisine." (People)

"a delicately crafted steamed dumpling of a book. ... Serve the People is the sort of happy-go-lucky, multicultural, foodie type of writing that readers (and publishers) love. It''s peppered with delicious descriptions, authentic recipes, humorous anecdotes and all the goodness of a young woman who finds her way in life, and even falls in love." (International Herald Tribune)

"A wonderfully funny and fascinating look at one of the world's great food cultures." (Peter Hessler)

"A mouthwatering tale of the thriving culinary scene in today's China ... top-rated by ZAGAT." (Nina and Tim Zagat)

"Set against the backdrop of China''s booming capitalist economy, Jen Lin-Liu's memoir is deliciously authentic. And what a cast of characters! I loved this book." (Jan Wong)

"Jen Lin-Liu gives a wonderfully vivid picture of Chinese society along with its cuisine." (Jung Chang)

"The finest book on Chinese food - how it is cooked and eaten and why it matters - in decades." (Ed Gargan)

"A humorous and insightful look at China through its most famous export: its cuisine." (Ian Johnson)
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Product Details

  • Hardcover: 352 pages
  • Publisher: Houghton Mifflin Harcourt; 1 edition (July 14, 2008)
  • Language: English
  • ISBN-10: 0151012911
  • ISBN-13: 978-0151012916
  • Product Dimensions: 8.2 x 7.1 x 1.2 inches
  • Shipping Weight: 1.3 pounds
  • Average Customer Review: 4.3 out of 5 stars  See all reviews (34 customer reviews)
  • Amazon Best Sellers Rank: #297,904 in Books (See Top 100 in Books)

Customer Reviews

Top Customer Reviews

By Lynn Harnett VINE VOICE on August 12, 2008
Format: Hardcover
A Chinese American whose family fled to Taiwan (and later the US) after the revolution, journalist, food-writer and now cooking school owner, Lin-Liu knew little about cooking when she came to China in 2000. She soon realized that food was such an integral part of Chinese life, she would better understand the culture if she understood the food.

Enrolling in a Beijing vocational cooking school teaches her just how alien and American she is. The other students are male, they question nothing in class and do the minimum to get by. She, in contrast, seems loud, pushy and rich.

Humorous and energetic, her account of getting through school (with much help and great difficulty) and then apprenticing first at a noodle stall and later, in Shanghai, at a fancy restaurant, illuminates much about everyday life in China's cities. Staffed by migrants from China's rural provinces, restaurants offer diverse cuisines and backbreaking labor, perfectionalism and cut corners.

Lin-Liu learns stories about the Cultural Revolution while cooking, finds a long history of hardship in "exotic" ingredients like eyeballs and jellyfish, discovers China's cultural diversity in its many cuisines, and Chinese provincialism in tourists' unwillingness to eat anything but their own foods.

Her enthusiastic culinary tour of the culture is peppered with recipes for dumpling fillings, noodles and traditional favorites like Drunken Chicken and Fish Fragrant Pork Shreds as well as the (mostly difficult) stories of the individuals she meets.

Entertaining and eye-opening, Lin-Liu's portrait of modern China reflects its changing trends and attitudes and its timeless cuisine.
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Format: Hardcover
Between this wonderful book and another I'd also highly recommend, Why the Chinese Don't Count Calories, I have become immersed in Chinese food culture recently, to the point that my kids tease me about becoming Chinese. Luckily I live in NYC and have a few Chinatowns to choose from, so it's been congee on the way to work for a couple of months now.

Jen's personal search to learn Chinese cooking (and to practice it) is inspiring...telling about her travels and travails through a China in a tug of war between its culinary past and its current rush towards modernization.

I could tell just by looking at them that the dozen or 20 recipes, relating to each chapter of Jen's journey, would be delicious and the few I've tried so far more than live up to their promise.
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Format: Paperback
I really liked the beginning of this book. In the beginning I felt I was learning more complete stories about the people of China and the culture. I loved the recipes throughout, though I have not tried any - I can tell that they are possible and would taste pretty good. Towards the end, it almost felt like she just wanted to get the book done with. I didn't feel the engagement towards the characters as I did at the beginning and it hopped around a bit more. I didn't feel complete at the end, it just kind of ended. Overall, it was a good read with great recipes.
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Format: Paperback
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. In the second part of the book, Lin-Liu apprentices with a noodle chef from Shanxi Province. In Part Three she moves to Shanghai and works in a high end Shanhaiese restaurant on the Bund called The Whampoa Club. 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.

I really enjoyed this book. Lin-Liu did an excellent job drawing the reader into the world of Chinese food and eating.
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Format: Hardcover
My mother returned from China with tales of duck tongue and fried chicken feet being offered up as authentic dishes for diners. Personally, I found this both fascinating and a little disgusting - it was this mix of wonder and dread that led me to pick up this book penned by Jen Lin-Liu, a Chinese-American journalist trying to find her culinary way in the cities and towns of China. Beginning in a Beijing cooking school where she struggles to be taken seriously, to a tiny noodle shop, to the kitchen of a famous fine dining establishment in Shanghai, Jen Lin-Liu provides a well-written account of her search to understand multifaceted, often obfuscated China. Our stomachs become the vehicle to uncover how China has changed politically, socially, economically, and gastronomically since its "liberation." The people introduced in this book have remarkable stories and the short esposés scattered throughout the text (on MSG among other things)demonstrate Lin-Liu's strength as a journalist. Her aptitude as a chef is evident through the inclusion of numerous recipes discussed in the body of her writing.

There are a number of things to admire in this text as well and as a few things that might turn the average American reader's stomach; Lin-Liu is induced to try a number if unappetizing things including dog meat and animal genitalia. If you can get beyond the "ick" factor of these brief encounters, this book has a great deal to offer in terms of its unique insight. The only time if fell short for me was near the very end when Lin-Liu falls in love and her writing moves from descriptive to mushy (a different type of "ick" factor). In my mind it took away from an otherwise polished story of self discovery set against the backdrop of cultural exploration.
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