You surely know about the Silk Road, even if (like me) you went to school before courses like World History existed. But do you know about the Noodle Road? If not, you should read Jen Lin-Liu’s excellent memoir, On the Noodle Road: From Beijing to Rome with Love and Pasta. Actually, come to think of it, you should read it anyway, even if you think you know the Noodle Road. Also watch the PBS series Confucius Was a Foodie.
What do these have in common?
East-to-West cultural transmission, of course. After reading the book and watching the TV series, you will come away with more questions than answers — a good thing, to my mind.
Since I will be comparing and contrasting back and forth, we need a convenient way to refer to the book and the TV series: let’s call them OTNR and CWF respectively. The Big Idea behind both of these works is that we have long known that Marco Polo brought noodles from China to Italy — but sometimes what we think we know turns out to be untrue. Did the Chinese really invent noodles? Did they really come to Europe through Marco Polo’s travels? Maybe, maybe not. On these questions hang a couple of culinary travelogues that are well worth your time reading and viewing.
OTNR is based pretty directly on the Silk Road. Newly married food writer Jen Lin-Liu, an ABC whose family hails from Taiwan, decides to trace the path of the original Silk Road from east to west in order to follow the route originally taken by noodles. The result is part travelogue, part culinary history. As you can gather from the map, most of the territory she passes through is dominated by Muslims, a recurrent theme throughout the memoir. If you think you’re going to find no pork and no alcohol, think again. Lin-Liu travels through Kyrgyzstan, Uzbekistan, Turkmenistan, Iran… all of which may make you, the reader, a bit nervous. You’ll learn more about social mores and the roles of women than you will about noodles, but that’s fine. You’ll feel at home in Italy and you’ll learn why Italians don’t get fat after eating their four-hour meals that always contain pasta or rice.
CWF is a different kettle of fish, to mix a metaphor or two. The origin of noodles, including the Marco Polo myth (or history?), does come up a lot, as it does in OTNR. And the fact that the host, Christine Cushing, is neither Chinese nor Italian has some effect on the show. (She’s actually Greek-Canadian.) Cushing travels from one locale to another, both in China and in the Chinese diaspora, to explore the different cuisines and to relate them to two central points: the transmission of noodles (yes, of course) and the teachings of Confucius (that’s not at all of course, except that the title is a complete spoiler). Who knew that Confucius preached foodie principles such as eating local, eating what’s in season, and eating what’s delicious? Not I, at least. Anyway, you’ll learn a lot from watching CWF, especially the interactions with Cushing’s guests and her many experiences helping the local chefs with their cooking. (This practice appears throughout ONTR as well, but it’s less vivid, probably because of the difference between the written word and the visual.)
In both CWF and OTNR we learn at least as much about culture as we do about cuisine. Whichever interest dominates in your mind, check out both of them.