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The City and the Writer: In Beijing with Jen Lin-Liu

By Nathalie Handal

If each city is like a game of chess, the day when I have learned the rules, I shall finally possess my empire, even if I shall never succeed in knowing all the cities it contains.

                    —Italo Calvino, Invisible Cities

Can you describe the mood of Beijing as you feel/see it?

I’m most familiar with the hutongs, or the old alleys, of Beijing. The hutongs were built before the advent of the car, so they are very narrow and full of pedestrians and bicyclists. My husband and I can walk down the labyrinth-like alleys and run into many neighborhood friends, like Lady Wang, who is often outside bouncing a feather ball on her badminton racket, or the stocky Manchurian guy who runs a teashop out of his living room. Vegetable sellers and rice vendors pedal their wagons through, and I often hear the shuffle of mahjong tiles from the windows of the one-story courtyard homes of the neighborhood.

What is your most heartbreaking memory in this city?

Thankfully, I don’t have much heartbreak to report. I fell in love in the hutongs, with Craig Simons, another American writer and journalist, who is now my husband.

What is the most extraordinary detail, one that goes unnoticed by most, of the city?

There are all kinds of details in the hutongs that I missed until I started thinking about taking a journey along the Silk Road, which became part of my new book, On the Noodle Road. There are many clues of the Silk Road in the food of the Beijing hutongs—from Beijingers’ love of lamb and cumin to the yogurt that comes in ceramic jars with Arabic lettering—made by Muslim Chinese.

What writer(s) from here should we read?

Another person who writes well about the hutongs is Michael Meyer (The Last Days of Old Beijing). A Chinese writer named Mo Dun lived one block away from our home in the hutongs. And another well-known Chinese writer named Lao She, also lived nearby.

Is there a place here you return to often?

Yes, the cooking school I founded, called Black Sesame Kitchen. It is also a communal dining restaurant, with an open kitchen where you can watch the cooking and chat with our chefs. 

Is there an iconic literary place we should know?

The homes of Mo Dun and Lao She are open to the public and worth walking through to see how Chinese lived in the hutongs.

Are there hidden cities within this city that have intrigued or seduced you?

I’ve always heard about the tunnels under Beijing that Mao Zedong set up as escape routes in case of attack but I have never visited them.

Where does passion live here?

Beijingers are passionate people but not particularly melodramatic.

What is the title of one of your works about Beijing and what inspired it exactly?

Serve the People, my first book, was inspired by my desire to connect with China through its food. It’s about my journey learning how to cook, from a vocational cooking school to interning at various restaurants in Beijing. 

Inspired by Levi, “Outside Beijing does an outside exist?”

Yes, though fortunately in the hutongs, you can escape the horrendous traffic and enormous developments that are overtaking most of Beijing.

Jen Lin-Liu was born in Chicago and raised in Southern California. She attended Columbia University and then went to China as a Fulbright fellow. The founder of Black Sesame Kitchen, a Beijing cooking school, she is the author of Serve the People: A Stir-Fried Journey Through China and On the Noodle Road. She has written about food, culture, and travel for the New York Times, the Wall Street JournalSaveurNewsweekTravel + Leisure, and other publications. She lives in Chengdu, China.


NH’s Discovery: The last time I went to Beijing was in 2009 with my co-editor Tina Chang. Our W.W. Norton anthology, Language for a New Century: Contemporary Poetry from the Middle East, Asia and Beyond had just been published and we were going to read at the Bookworm Literary Festival. Tina was pregnant and going to her ancestral country for the first time. I felt it was my duty as a friend, to do whatever she wanted, including following her culinary route (and she was on a mission to eat anything and everything served in restaurants and by street food vendors alike).  We are both foodies (and Tina thinks life without pork is no life). The one huge problem I had was my pre-conceived notion that most Chinese dishes have mushroom. And tragically, I am (deadly) allergic. It didn’t help that everyone there looked at me strangely when I flashed the card on which Tina’s mother kindly wrote in Chinese for me, “I am allergic to mushroom.” I never could tell what they were thinking, maybe she’s mad or what the hell is she talking about, or both.

Thankfully, the first week, Tina was mostly craving dumplings and noodles— pretty safe zone for me. Except, seven days of noodles, lunch and dinner, started getting to me. And by the end of our trip, I thought I would never eat noodles again. While reading Jen Lin-Liu’s new book, On the Noodle Road: From Beijing to Rome with Love and Pasta (she writes about noodles in China, Central Asia, Iraq, Turkey and Italy), I smiled while reading the passage on Turkey. She says that coming “from pork-obsessed China,” she went with pre-conceived notions about pork in a Muslim country. But discovered things were different. Well, I went with pre-conceived notions of Chinese food and discovered such a diverse and rich culinary world, from Mongolian hotpot to spicy Sichuan dishes to Hunan to Fujian to Xinjiang or Uyghur cuisine (Muslim Chinese)—which reminded me of various typical Turkish dishes—all still only a small portion of the many regional cuisines. I dream of going back, and truly exploring Chinese food.

Meanwhile, I have Chinese poetry to keep me occupied. Zhang Er writes: “smoke drink coffee or tea listen to the snow’s / soft voice your finger stained / with ink from the other side of the river / where paper houses are folded / into a mystery of life and death you can’t refuse.”

Published Aug 1, 2013   Copyright 2013 Nathalie Handal

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