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

Publication Date: 2009

Genre: Food Memoir, Travel

Growing up in the 90s and early 2000s, my family enjoyed having Sunday dinners at Dragon’s Pearl, a Chinese restaurant in Nairobi’s CBD. In its heyday, the place would be packed at lunchtime as it was conveniently located and pocket friendly for business lunches. Sadly, the place has been replaced by a fast-food joint.

But boy, did I eat a lot of stir-fries! Years later in grad school, I recall my feeble attempt at making dumplings when I was invited by my Chinese classmates to celebrate Chinese New Year. Looking back, while I enjoyed the dumplings and their company, I don’t think I really savoured the experience. Now that I am older, (albeit wiser) a plant-based eater with a more adventurous palate, I still want to enjoy Chinese food. Let’s be honest, they have some pretty great stir-fries.

My nostalgia led me to randomly pick Jen Lin-Liu’s Serve the People along the streets of Nairobi (many months before Corona). After grad school, Jen Lin-Liu moves from the US to China to learn more about the land of her grandparents. For her, there’s no better way to immerse herself in the culture than enrolling in a Chinese cooking school. Eventually, she works at a noodle shop, a dumpling house and finally a chic Shanghai restaurant. Along the way, she meets people from all walks of life; co-workers struggling to earn their “rice bowls” the hungry middle-class and unexpected mentors who give her insights into the Chinese way of life and cooking.

Let me be honest: I was not excited by the fact that a lot of the recipes in the book are not vegetarian/vegan friendly.  But, I am used to it; coming from the land of nyama choma,  going to a local restaurant and asking for a vegetarian meal can make you stick out like a sore thumb. Nonetheless, I did find a few recipes like the Dongbei salad that seemed quite accessible and I am still in awe of the daogong cutting technique that’s on my bucket list along with mastering how to use chopsticks, of course.

Reading about pork-laden recipes did not dampen my reading experience because she brings a unique insider-outsider perspective as she reconciles her American upbringing with Chinese culture. Reading the chapter on the two sides of MSG in China made me chuckle when I recalled that it is also found in a common Kenyan seasoning blend. It was also quite interesting to debunk the myth that China is a monolithic nation. This led me down the Youtube rabbit hole and I was glad to find Miriam in China and Amy a.k.a Blondie in China who have been educating me along the way.

After watching so many C-dramas and K-dramas with people slurping all kinds of books, I am looking forward to reading Jen’s other book On the Noodle Road. It would be interesting to learn about noodles in various cultures. I am also crossing my fingers that her book on cooking in Cuba will get published soon.

In the meantime, if you live in Nairobi and have recommendations for great Chinese and/or Asian fusion restaurants that cater to plant-based eaters, please let us know in the comment section below.

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Photo Credit: Jen Lin-Liu

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