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Serve the People: A Stir-Fried Journey Through China

Serve the People: A Stir-Fried Journey Through China

by Jen Lin-Liu

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A memorable and mouthwatering cook’s tour of today’s China

As a freelance journalist and food writer living in Beijing, Jen Lin-Liu already had a ringside seat for China’s exploding food scene. When she decided to enroll in a local cooking school—held in an unheated classroom with nary a measuring cup in sight—she jumped into


A memorable and mouthwatering cook’s tour of today’s China

As a freelance journalist and food writer living in Beijing, Jen Lin-Liu already had a ringside seat for China’s exploding food scene. When she decided to enroll in a local cooking school—held in an unheated classroom with nary a measuring cup in sight—she jumped into the ring herself. Progressing from cooking student to noodle-stall and dumpling-house apprentice to intern at a chic Shanghai restaurant, she finds poor young men and women streaming in from the provinces in search of a “rice bowl” (living wage); a burgeoning urban middle class hungry for luxury after decades of turmoil and privation; and the mentors who take her in hand in the kitchen and beyond. Together they present an unforgettable slice of contemporary China in the full swing of social and economic transformation.

Editorial Reviews

From the Publisher

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

"Serve the People is light fare, a delicately crafted steamed dumpling of a book. 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 mouthwatering tale of the thriving culinary scene in today's China--top rated by Zagat."--Nina and Tim Zagat, co-Founders and co-Chairs of Zagat Survey

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)

Copyright © Reed Business Information, a division of Reed Elsevier Inc. All rights reserved.
Kirkus Reviews
How learning to cook in China enabled the author to embrace her cultural heritage. Becoming a chef was not her parents' idea of a successful career, admits Time Out Beijing food correspondent Lin-Liu. They hadn't emigrated from Taiwan to America and sent their daughter to an Ivy League college so that she could enter the "lowliest of Chinese occupations." But the author, who moved to China in 2000 to pursue a freelance journalism career, "took up Chinese food with a fervor that came second only to my passion for writing." She enrolled in the vocational Hualian Cooking School in central Beijing, where she dutifully listened, bowed, copied and even considered cheating on her final exam, as the other, mostly male students did. However, the school's elderly factotum, Chairman Wang, took Lin-Liu under her wing, imparted valuable traditional cooking methods and gradually shared some staggering details of her life during the Cultural Revolution. The author displays fond respect as she chronicles China's epic transformation through the stories of the people she met. In one restaurant, she wrapped dumplings next to a divorced woman who lost a fortune paying "snakeheads" to arrange a marriage with a Taiwanese. Despite being female and a foreigner, she managed to get a job in Shanghai's Whampoa Club, where glamorous, successful chef Jereme Leung pioneered the use of Western presentation styles and foreign ingredients. Moonlighting as a food critic, the author was shocked by the overt bribes restaurant owners offered but undaunted as she sampled exotic fare like puppy and male animals' genitalia. Besides a smattering of luscious recipes, Lin-Liu peppers her accessible narrative with three "sidedishes": visits to an MSG factory in Henan, to the rice paddies of Ping'an and to Yangzhou, birthplace of one of China's four main cuisines. A bright, winning glimpse inside a rapidly changing nation.
"Lin-Liu is a charming guide to modern China and its kaleidoscopic cuisine."

International Herald Tribune
"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."

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

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

Jan Wong
"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."

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

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

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

Product Details

Houghton Mifflin Harcourt
Publication date:
Edition description:
First Edition
Product dimensions:
5.20(w) x 7.90(h) x 1.10(d)

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Read an Excerpt

In cooking class, I learned a startling array of facts: Eating fish head will repair your brain cells. Spicy food is good for your complexion. Monosodium glutamate is best thrown in a dish just before it comes off the wok. Americans are fat because they eat bread, while Chinese are slim because they eat rice. If you work as a cook in America for three years, you can come back to China and buy a house.
I bicycled down a narrow alley, past a public toilet and through a gate with a scowling security guard to get to the cooking school. I enrolled in October 2005, in my fifth year of living in China. Lectures were held in a classroom rented from a high school, and the unheated room felt colder by the minute. Everyone else was used to the lack of heat and insulation in public schools and dressed accordingly, in down jackets. I shivered in my thin coat.
My classmates slumped in their seats, seeming bored and detached, holding their pens limply. They were all men, ranging in age from twenty to fifty. Most hadn’t completed high school. Teacher Zhang didn’t mind that they answered their cell phones in class. Once I heard a student clipping his fingernails, the snip of the scissors punctuating the cadences of the lecture. Teacher Zhang often narrowed his eyes at me while he spoke, however. He didn’t like that I was different from the others.
I interrupted him with questions. I didn’t bother to raise my hand because that custom didn’t exist in this classroom—students weren’t supposed to have questions. So I just spoke up, as loudly as I could. "Could you write that character more clearly?" I often asked.
Teacher Zhang grunted and wiped the chalkboard with the back of his hand, then rewrote the character in the Chinese equivalent of block letters, the chalk screeching against the surface.
Sometimes I was so busy copying down what Teacher Zhang said that I didn’t stop to question it. Later, reviewing my notes, I discovered a strange mix of pop psychology and old Chinese clichés.
"Your taste buds are influenced by several different factors," Teacher Zhang declared, and enumerated them. Age, sex, occupation, and mental state, I dutifully wrote. Women liked lighter foods and men preferred spicy foods, he explained. Women–light, men–spicy, I scribbled in English.
"If you’re a farmer working in the fields and doing a lot of heavy lifting, your taste buds will be different from someone who works in an office," he added. Uh-huh, I thought as I transcribed the information into my notebook. Looking back on my notes later, I wished I had asked him to elaborate further.
But when I asked questions, Teacher Zhang shot me annoyed glances, and the other students shifted uncomfortably in their seats. I learned to behave like the rest: listen, bow, and copy.

When we weren’t in the classroom taking notes on the world according to Teacher Zhang, we were in the kitchen. The kitchen was created out of another classroom by installing a burner, gas tank, countertop, sink, and refrigerator. With those simple fixtures, it became a larger version of the typical home kitchen in China. Though spacious, it wasn’t the kind of room where you let your eyes wander, lest they settle on a patch of scum on the tile wall that had probably not been scrubbed for a good five years. I figured the time we would spend in the kitchen learning real things would make up for the time wasted on the lectures. I had never been in a professional Chinese kitchen, which was notoriously off-limits to diners. I now found myself in a room full of cutting boards, woks, cleavers, and bottles of chili oil and oyster sauce. But I quickly found out that even in this kitchen, certain things were not permitted to students. Like cooking.
Instead of cooking, we sat on a set of bleachers across the room, observing Chef Gao’s every move. Chef Gao was an old-school chef who worked at a Soviet-style, government-run hotel that had seen its glory days pass with the end of the state-planned economy. Gao was a relic of the old system, and he continued the time-honored Chinese traditions of using MSG and copious amounts of soybean oil. Despite the MSG and the oil—or maybe because of them—his cooking was delicious.
We watched as Chef Gao fanned out his skinny arms and elbows like a grasshopper as he cooked. We listened to him chirp the recipes in a folksy Beijing accent as he wrote them on the chalkboard, dividing the ingredients into three categories: main ingredients, supplementary ingredients, and seasonings. Occasionally, he noted quantities next to the main ingredients, but usually he threw things in by intuition. The kitchen didn’t contain a single measuring cup or spoon anyway.
We scrutinized his equipment, which was limited to a wok, a cutting board, and a cleaver with an eight-inch-long and four-inch-tall blade. Once in a while he’d pull out something more sophisticated, like a fryer basket. "You see this basket and handle? It’s all one piece, so it will never break. I bought this in the 1960s, and the factory has been closed for years. They don’t make baskets like this anymore!" he hollered with a disdain that suggested that the old days, when China was dirt poor, were better.
We gazed, captivated, as Chef Gao demonstrated his skills at the wok. He lined the curved pan with thin slices of pork tenderloin that had been marinated in rice wine and placed it over a moderately high flame, swirling the juices around. When one side was cooked, he picked up the wok and flipped the pork in a single sheet, like a pancake. He repeated the maneuver— swirl, flip, swirl. Seasoned with leeks and ginger, this tender and flavorful guota liji (sunken-wok tenderloin) displayed the fundamentals of Chinese cooking: freshness and simplicity above all else.
When all the day’s dishes were cooked, we went into action. We jumped off the bleachers, gathered around the cooking station, and swooped in with chopsticks that we had brought from home, attacking the food with a unified strategy. The smallest dishes went first, especially expensive items like seafood. We moved on to the dish giving off the most steam, and then we finished off the rest. In three minutes flat, everything was gone. At the end of one class, I barely beat someone to the last skewer of deep-fried scallops. He ended up with an empty stick as the scallops slid off into my greedy grasp. I had already learned that I couldn’t stand around waiting for anything to be handed to me.


3/4 pound pork tenderloin, thinly sliced against the grain
2 tablespoons rice wine or sherry
½ teaspoon salt
½ teaspoon freshly ground white pepper
2 large eggs
½ cup all-purpose flour
¼ cup vegetable oil plus 1 tablespoon for drizzling
2 tablespoons chicken stock
1 leek, white part only, cut in half lengthwise and shredded
2 thumb-sized pieces of ginger, peeled and shredded
2 teaspoons sesame oil

Marinate the pork in 1 tablespoon of the rice wine, ¼ teaspoon of salt, and ¼ teaspoon of pepper for 10 minutes. In a bowl, beat the eggs and set them next to the stove.
Place the flour on a plate. When the pork has marinated, coat each slice with flour on both sides, patting to remove the excess. Set the slices on a plate next to the eggs.
Place a wok over medium heat and add ¼ cup of oil, swirling it to coat the sides. When the oil is hot, quickly dip each piece of pork in the beaten egg and place it in the wok, arranging the slices so they cover the bottom and sides in a thin sheet. With a spatula, gently loosen the pork, then drizzle a little oil around the wok from time to time so the meat doesn’t stick as it cooks. When the bottom of the pork sheet has turned a light golden brown, flip it over. (Don’t worry if it doesn’t flip in a single sheet; just make sure to turn over each piece.) Add any remaining oil, the remaining 1 tablespoon wine, the rest of the salt and pepper, and the chicken stock.
Sprinkle the shredded leek and ginger over the pork, and drizzle sesame oil over all. When the second side of the pork is browned, remove the wok from the heat and slide the pork onto a plate. Serve immediately.

Meet the Author

Jen Lin-Liu was raised in southern California, graduated from Columbia University, and came to China in 2000 on a Fulbright fellowship. A food critic for Time Out Beijing and the coauthor of Frommer's Beijing, she has also written for Newsweek, the New York Times, the Wall Street Journal, Saveur, and Food & Wine. She is the founder of Black Sesame Cooking School in Beijing.

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