Noodling is fishing for catfish using only bare hands, practiced primarily in the southern United States. The noodler places his hand inside a discovered catfish hole, whereupon the catfish will swim forward and latch onto the hand. It’s an odd thing and even odder to me that they call it “noodling,” because what does it have to do with noodles really? This brings me to a book I finished recently by Jen Lin-Liu, On the Noodle Road: From Beijing to Rome with Love and Pasta. In her second book, she travels the Silk Road in search of the answer to Who Really Invented the Noodle? You might have heard that Marco Polo brought noodles back from China, but in fact, that’s a story created for a 1929 magazine called The Macaroni Journal (a quick google search told me that the publication is now the Pasta Journal put out by the National Pasta Association, whose mission statement is increase the consumption of pasta, promote the development of sound public policy, act as a center of knowledge for the industry and the consumer, and whose website is appropriately ilovepasta.org. Yes, I fell down the internet hole but quickly pulled myself back up). Turns out Italians were eating pasta way before Marco Polo met Kublai Khan.
Lin-Liu began in Beijing and traveled West, visiting provinces that contain ethnic minorities many Westerners will find unfamiliar. Then she hit the ‘Stans–Kyrgyzstan, Uzbekistan, and Turkmenistan, hoping to find the roots of noodles. Iran proved eye-opening in a good way, while Turkey, Greece, and Italy all provided interesting anecdotes. Throughout it all, she tastes all kinds of amazing sounding food, though does come down hard on the Central Asian dish plov.
Plov, also known as pilaf, is a rice dish cooked in a seasoned broth, with seasonings and add-ins that vary per region. Each region promises that they have the best plov, but after a while, Lin-Liu seems pretty unexcited about eating it at each meal. The reader also notices that there’s a gap between noodle sightings, noodles not being a main dish in much of Central Asia and the Middle East. She picks up the noodle thread (hah, see what I did there?) back in Europe to wrap up the book in sumptuous Emilia-Romagna, the province in Northern Italy that produces not only balsamic vinegar and Parmesan-Reggiano, but mortadella and prosciutto. I would move there in a heartbeat.
One theme Lin-Liu hits upon as she travels is how women are treated in all of the places she visits. You won’t be surprised that women are treated shabbily at best in many parts of the world. The author is at her best when she asks all of the women she meets about their lives. Her knowledge of food history across many cuisines also helps her spot connections between various ethnic traditions. If I had one critique, it would be that her own personal journey with her husband and trying to navigate marriage and independence is the least-interesting part of this otherwise fantastic book of travel, food, and sometimes noodles.