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Serve the People: A Stir-fried Journey Through China

by: Lin-liu Jen

Orlando FL: Houghton Mifflin Harcourt Publishing Company 2008, $24.00, Hardbound
ISBN: 978-0-15-101291


Reviewed by: Jacqueline M. Newman
Summer Volume: 2009 Issue: 16(2) page(s): 18 and 19

The author, a food writer living in China, enrolls in a local cooking school with nary a measuring cup nor a drop of heat in the place. Her vivid pictures coupled with humor and a few facts fill the pages of what Nina and Tim Zagat call: A mouth-watering tale–top rated by them.

Endorsements aside, including the one by Edward A. Gargan who is quoted as saying the book is the finest book on Chinese Cuisine–how it is cooked and how it is eaten and why it matters, suffice it to say that this young bright Fulbright-awardee turned food-professional shares some of her experiences (as did Fuschia Dunlop in Shark’s Fin and Sichuan Pepper reviewed in Volume 15(4) on page23). One difference, Jen includes thirty recipes and some reality, along with romantic notions and low-level understandings of what really is Chinese food.

The book includes typical and very simple Chinese recipes that hardly reveal the depth that is Chinese cooking. As an ABC (American-born-Chinese), what Jen knew, if anything, before her cook's tour of poor young folk coming to China's cities from the provinces and the middle class she manages to meet, is hard to tell. Even mentors who take her in tow and teach her a thing or two seem sorely lacking in culinary background.

The book is an easy read and easy to cook from. It is also a way to while away a long rainy afternoon, as we did, when reading through the first time. The second time through, did skip some of the repetitious thoughts.

For those who have read little on China today, this book is a great beginning. The recipes have few complications, and the following one may be the simplest in the book, and printed exactly as found there.
Smashed Cucumbers--Pai Huanggua
Ingredients:
2 cucumbers
4 cloves garlic, minced
1 Tablespoon sesame oil
2 teaspoons Chinese black vinegar
1/4 teaspoon salt
Preparation:
1. Slice the cucumbers crosswise into two-inch pieces. Using the flat side of a cleaver, whack each piece once or twice so it breaks into smaller pieces.
2. Transfer all the pieces into a bowl and toss them with the garlic, sesame oil, vinegar, and the salt. Marinate them for at least fifteen minutes or up to several hours. Then drain and serve.

                                                                                                                                                       
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