“There are a lot of things in China that are hard to relate to,” Jen Lin-Liu says. “I don’t understand Chinese opera,” She jokes; but food is easy for Liu to understand.
The young founder of Beijing’s Black Sesame Kitchen, and author of Serve the People: A Stir-Fried Journey Through China, Jen Lin-Liu believes food can help her relate to Chinese culture, as well as better understand her Chinese roots. Though her family is originally Cantonese, Liu grew up in America with a mother who wasn’t a big fan of cooking. “It’s a generational thing,” Liu says. Though previous generations of women felt pressure to cook for their families, most women today can choose. “I like to cook because I’m not forced to cook,” Liu says.
Liu’s Chinese-American colleague, Candice Lee, has similar memories. “When I asked my mom how to cook Ma po dou fu, (Mapo tofu),” Candice recalls, “she said to go to the store and buy a box!” Both Liu and Candice agree that Chinese don’t consider cooking an art form; for many Chinese, food is merely sustenance.
At her previous job, as a journalist for Newsweek in Shanghai, Liu was required to report on a wide range of stories. “Reporters in China have to cover everything” Liu wanted a focus. In 2005, Liu started taking cooking lessons; soon after she started rethinking her career. It turns out Chinese food was just the focus Liu was looking for.
But going into the food business has been surprising for both women. “I’ve always been interested in food,” Candice says. “But I didn’t know it would become a career!”
Liu thinks Chinese food is improving. Beijing is an international hub, and according to her good ingredients are easier to find than they used to be. “I used to be really picky,” Liu says. She remembers being intolerant of certain Chinese foods like la jiao (peppers). But that doesn’t seem to be the case anymore. Though remote regions have a more difficult time getting access to quality ingredients, that hasn’t stopped Liu from doing extensive foodie research. She recently got back from three months on the road. Starting in China, moving through central Asia and ending in Iran, Liu learned a lot about various regional cuisine, as well as culture. She plans to pick up her tour again in the spring, sampling even more regional foods.
Mm, I can’t wait to taste that next dish…
Taylor is a member of WildChina’s operations team. She works in our Beijing office and can be contacted at email@example.com. Photo from China Daily.