Q&A: Jen Lin-Liu | June 15, 2013

Longtime travel reviewer Susan G. Baird worked for many years at Oak Lawn Public Library, IL, and has traveled to China and Central Asia. Though Baird is neither a cook nor a foodie, she loves books and travel. When she read On the Noodle Road: From Beijing to Romewith Love and Pasta, she felt she was traveling beside Jen Lin-Liu on her remarkable journey. Baird talked to the author via email about the women she met throughout her travels, how this trip affected her marriage, and her favorite foods.

I think your book will appeal to readers outside of the cooking and foodie communities as well as to food lovers of all sorts. Did you intend it for a wider audience?

Yes, I certainly did. I’ve always thought of myself as more than a food writer: I’m interested in food [because] it offers me a way into people’s lives and [because] cooking is something that all cultures share. I started my career as a writer and journalist covering many different issues, from politics to society, and only got into food writing and cooking after spending several years reporting on other issues in China.

Your sense of humor adds to the pleasure of the book.

That’s definitely a compliment to hear that you got the humor. Being able to laugh in situations is one thing, but being able to communicate that on paper is very difficult and, when it works, very gratifying.

One of the most amusing of your experiences was preparing a meal in Turkey for 20 women, some of whom criticized your recipe. I commend you on your patience.

I was definitely getting a little impatient with the women I was cooking for, but it illustrated how assertive, confident, and smart the women I met in Istanbul were. But the situation of women in Turkey—and all along the Silk Road—ranges a lot. In the east, sometimes it’s not acceptable for a woman to sit on the first floor of restaurants, which are seen as too public…for women. And in Iran, our tour guide told me that most teahouses were not acceptable gathering places for ladies.

Was it difficult to watch the oppression of some of these women?

Yes, definitely. I’ve never given much thought to be[ing] a woman in the West or even living in China, where women, especially in the big cities, have careers and have a lot of control over their own lives. But I came across women in western China and Central Asia who had marriages arranged for them or who didn’t have the opportunity to develop careers. I am hoping that it will change with time; it wasn’t so long ago in more developed places that the same was true for women. We sometimes forget that things have been pretty bad for women overall, everywhere, until recently.

What surprised you most about the journey?

The hospitality and the warmth of people everywhere [on] the Silk Road. I didn’t know much about the places I was traveling through, and the image that I had of many of these places, like Iran, would be that the people would be hostile to Americans, but nothing was further from the truth. My husband and I were…treated to tons of meals and even stayed in the homes of people who’d been strangers just days before.

Another surprise was the gradual realization…that I identify myself by my gender more than my ethnic background (being Chinese American). I’d never given much thought to being a woman up until around the time of my journey and getting married, and the trip reinforced to me [that] people’s lives can be dramatically shaped by their gender.

You were a newlywed at the beginning of the trip and your husband joined you occasionally. Was your marriage changed by the experience?

Certainly seeing different models of marriage along the way gave me insight into my own marriage. And spending time apart and together on the road and knowing that I had a generous husband who supported my dreams and ambitions definitely have made our marriage stronger.

What was your favorite locale?

My favorite country was Iran because it was such a fascinating experience to go to this place that has felt so off-limits and to meet Iranians who were so friendly and kind. And the various delicious rice dishes and khoreshts (long-simmering braises) were a challenge to master. The sights and the long history of the country also made it intellectually very interesting. I also loved Istanbul for its romantic waterfront, the street food, and its incredibly friendly, hospitable people. Naples was another favorite, for its pizza and gorgeous cityscape set along a dramatic bay.

What’s your all-time favorite food?

After the journey, I would have to say noodles! And dumplings. I love that both come in so many endless varieties and that they’ve been adopted into so many different cultures from East to West. And the history of them is fascinating.

What’s on the horizon for you?

I’m thinking of helping to expand Black Sesame Kitchen, a cooking school and restaurant in Beijing that I founded. I also want to devote more time to my one-year-old daughter, who is growing quickly. And I’ll travel wherever my husband wants to go—it’s his turn to decide!—Susan G. Baird