At Words Without Borders, Nathalie Handal interviews Jen Lin-Liu, the founder of Black Sesame Kitchen cooking school and the author of Serve the People: A Stir-Fried Journey Through China, about her time in Beijing.
Can you describe the mood of Beijing as you feel/see it?
I’m most familiar with the hutongs, or the old alleys, of Beijing. The hutongs were built before the advent of the car, so they are very narrow and full of pedestrians and bicyclists. My husband and I can walk down the labyrinth-like alleys and run into many neighborhood friends, like Lady Wang, who is often outside bouncing a feather ball on her badminton racket, or the stocky Manchurian guy who runs a teashop out of his living room. Vegetable sellers and rice vendors pedal their wagons through, and I often hear the shuffle of mahjong tiles from the windows of the one-story courtyard homes of the neighborhood.
What is your most heartbreaking memory in this city?
Thankfully, I don’t have much heartbreak to report. I fell in love in the hutongs, with Craig Simons, another American writer and journalist, who is now my husband.
What is the most extraordinary detail, one that goes unnoticed by most, of the city?
There are all kinds of details in the hutongs that I missed until I started thinking about taking a journey along the Silk Road, which became part of my new book, On the Noodle Road. There are many clues of the Silk Road in the food of the Beijing hutongs—from Beijingers’ love of lamb and cumin to the yogurt that comes in ceramic jars with Arabic lettering—made by Muslim Chinese. [Source]