On the Noodle Road: From Beijing to Rome With Love and Pasta by Jen Lin-Liu



On the Noodle Road: From Beijing to Rome With Love and Pasta by Jen Lin-Liu reviewed by Angelo Paratico – 3 August 2013 — Chicago-born Jen Lin-Liu has written extensively about food, culture and travel for the New York Times, The Wall Street Journal and Newsweek. Her latest book, On the Noodle Road, is a travelogue dedicated to noodles and pasta across the length of what is known today as the Silk Road.It all began, she tell us, with a cooking class given by Andrea, the chef of Le Fate, a restaurant in the old Roman quarter of Trastevere. “Americans,” said Andrea, “think that Italians use a lot of garlic. We do not use a lot of garlic, delete this information from your brain!”After this frank opening, he proceeded to teach Jen how to prepare dough and pull it into fine spaghetti. Anyone Chinese, of course, would find that strikingly familiar. Andrea went on to show how to prepare orecchiette—which she recognized as something the Chinese call “cat’s ears”—and then tagliatelle. Jen found that Chinese cuisine had something similar to each type of Italian pasta he presented.

The idea that all pasta had a common origin fascinated her even after research indicated that it was an elusive subject. Might Marco Polo be responsible for bringing spaghetti back from China—as one hears repeated in China over and over? Certainly not, because Italian pasta predates the Venetian traveller. So, where and when did this cross-insemination happen?

In China the oldest noodles were found in a grave dating to two thousand years before Christ, in Lajia, near Lanzhou. As soon as thesealed bowl that contained them was opened, however, the noodles crumbled to dust. But it nevertheless seems that Chinese claims to have invented the first noodles might have some validity, not merely due to this particular archaeological find but also because of the extensive mention of them in historical written records.

After Italy, Jen Lin-Ju moved to Beijing with her American husband, who did not share her enthusiasm for her plan to return to Rome via the “noodle trail” on the Silk Road. However, as we all know, an unenthusiastic husband is no match for a determined wife, and off she went. She travelled one end of the Silk Road to the other, sampling the various different noodles along the way—and then recounting in On the Noodle Road all the details of what she found. Her pages are full of flashbacks about her life, family, politics, culture,bringing a touch of Marcel Proust to the humble noodle.

On the Noodle Road is far more than mere culinary research; she explains why food is culture and that people truly are what they eat. Recipes are provided at the end of each chapter enabling all armchair travellers to sense, if not see, everywhere from Kashgar to Samarkand, Teheran to Bodrum on the Turkish shores of the Mediterranean.

Jen seems however to have missed Hong Kong’s contribution to noodle culture. The now ubiquitous instant noodles were created at the end of the second World War, not by the Japanese but by an Italo-American priest by the name of Fr. John (Giovanni) Romaniello who was feeding refugees and the poor in Hong Kong. Flour in the form of noodles was easiest for people to cook. He was nicknamed “the noodle priest” as a result: an interesting if little known—even in Hong Kong—chapter in the noodle love-story between China and Italy.

Jen writes extremely well using a colorful and meticulous prose. I was gratified to note that all the Italian names are spelled correctly in her book, something rather uncommon in American publications.

On the Noodle Road is a great read for everyone interested in cultural contacts between West and East. At least as far as a plate of spaghetti is concerned, the twain will always meet and become one.


Angelo Paratico is an Italian journalist living in Hong Kong. He is 
the author of several books in Italian and English, the most recent 
of which is Nero: An Exemplary Life; his website is angeloparatico.com.

On the Noodle Road: From Beijing to Rome, with Love and Pasta, Jen Lin-Liu (Riverhead Books, July 2013)

© 2013 The Asian Review of Books.


4 commenti su “On the Noodle Road: From Beijing to Rome With Love and Pasta by Jen Lin-Liu

  1. Hey Angelo,

    I’ve just read my first article on beyondthirtynine.com, yours, and really liked it. Looking forward to reading more!

    Take care,

  2. Hi, Giovanni. Thanks, I am also recommending to you articles by a writer called Ciriaco. You will find his style original, engaging and, above all, familiar. Enjoy the holidays. Angelo

  3. Thank you, Angelo, very good review. The book would not be in my priorities, given the subject matter, but thanks to your review I have learned all I needed to know on the history, legend and myths of Marco Polo, Chinese noodles and Italian pasta. And in an amusing way. And I have also learned something worthy and unexpected: the invention of instant noodles by Fr. Romaniello in Hong Kong, first a relief for the needy, now a convenience. That I also learned thanks to you as well in the book “500 years of Italians in Hong Kong and Macao”. I have never eaten instant noodles, but my son does.

    Coming from a traditional Spanish family impervious to foreign influences I seldom ate pasta at home. Russian salad was more often on the menu during the summer, however, though I later learned that my mother’s version was far far superior than the real thing. My full exposure to pasta came during my pilgrimage to Rome as a first year university student. Madrid-Rome on a bus, and comeback. For 7 days in Italy, pasta morning and night morning and night, pasta in every form. I really had a bad time, felt like an imposed mortification, while the obligations of Lent became easier. Eating pasta and looking out of the window to a splendorous beautiful piazza was like incongruous to me. Perhaps what I had was pasta on-a-budget or monastic pasta, given the nature of my trip. Much later I started to appreciate pasta could be good, and that from long-time to long-time is okay.

Lascia un commento

Questo sito usa Akismet per ridurre lo spam. Scopri come i tuoi dati vengono elaborati.