Monday, December 29, 2008

Makin' a List, Checkin' it Twice

Well, the best of the year lists and reading goals and resolutions have been popping up. You're going to have to wait a few days--I'm still working on mine, although, if you're dying to know, the List of Doom for 2009 has been posted. As part of this end-of-the-year reflection, coupled with graduation, I've been thinking a lot about what I want to do next, in terms of my reading and blogging year. Lots of thoughts and ideas swirling around at the moment.

But, until I get things a little more gelled, let's review some books! It's non-fiction Monday, even though this is an adult book, I did enjoy it!

Serve the People: A Stir-Fried Journey Through China Jen Lin-Liu

This is similar to Shark's Fin and Sichuan Pepper in that it tells the story of an ex-pat living in China and enrolling in cooking school, and then having many food-based adventures in China and including recipes.

It's different in a few respects. Dunlop was British and living in Sichuan at a time when there were not a lot of foreigners in China. Jen is Chinese-American and living in Beijing in the last few years, which is a very different China.

Jen's account is more immediate and focuses less on her own story and more on the stories of the people she meets through her kitchen work. While this is a love letter to food, it is also the story of the people who make China's restaurant industry, and the changing face of Chinese cuisine. Here we meet Chairman Wang, who tutors Jen through her cooking school exams and guides her through the corruption of the system. There is Chef Zhang, the migrant noodle maker and his struggles to make it in the new Beijing. There are the waitresses at the large restaurants and the rice farmers who still farm by hand. And there is Jereme, the high end chef of the critically acclaimed Whangpoa Club. (Even though he's not there anymore) Through these people and their stories, as well as their approach to food, Jen puts several faces on modern China.

While it gets a little sappy at the end, when she meets her fiance and falls in luuuuurve, it's still incredibly readable and very enjoyable.

Also, the lamb and squash dumplings are scrumdiddilyumptious and pretty easy to make (if you use store bought wrappers. I can't master making the wrappers yet. It was fun trying though!) I made these again on Christmas Day with my parents and some friends of ours. We also pan friend a few, which worked really well. OM NOM NOM NOM NOM.

If you like reading about food and/or the changing face of China, or just want a really good dumpling recipe, check this one out.

This next one isn't nonfiction at all, but it has the same title, so I couldn't resist blogging these two together.

Serve the People!: A Novel Yan Lianke

This is a long novella/short novel that was banned in China for slandering the Chairman's name and sex.

This is a delicious satire that pits the commander's lonely wife against the lowly orderly during the height of the Cultural Revolution. Whenever the Wu Dawang (the orderly) sees the sign with the Maoist slogan "Serve the People" moved, it's time to well... serve the needs of the commander's wife. All of his life Wu has worked hard, trying to move up the ranks so he can move his family to the city, like his wife demands. In his barracks, he has been taught that serving the commander in his private house, he IS serving the people.

On one hand, we have a tragic love affair that is part lust, part power struggle, and part genuine affection. On the other, a scathing look at the hypocrisy of Mao's China and communism, the personality cult surrounding Mao, and Mao himself.

Some background in the politics of this time period might be helpful, but I really did like this one. The prose is spare and light, something that is common in a lot of Chinese literature that isn't written by Mo Yan. The characters are both at once likable and repulsive--you want to hate them, but you also totally understand why they are the way they are and why they make the awful choices that they do. The setting is spot-on and Yan's descriptions of creeping twilight are perfect and make me long for summer.

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