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TOKYO (Reuters) - Jen Lin-Liu, a U.S.-born resident of China, was taking a pasta-making course in Rome when she began wondering whether the tale of Marco Polo bringing noodles to Italy from China was actually true.
Her curiosity led her along the Silk Road, the ancient trade route linking Asia and Europe, eating the different kinds of pasta she found and speaking candidly with women as they cooked together in kitchens along the way.
Lin-Liu, who runs a Beijing cooking school and now lives in the Chinese city of Chengdu, spoke with Reuters about noodles, dumplings and her just-published book "On the Noodle Road".
Q: This got started in Italy?
A: At the pasta class I was really struck by how similar the method of making fettuccine was to Chinese noodles. Not only that but there are so many shapes of noodles that I've seen across China that reminded me of Italian shapes ... A lot of the similarities were specifically things I'd seen with northern Chinese food and Italian food.
In northern China they use fennel, they use a lot of eggplant, a lot of noodles. So it got my curiosity going: was there a connection between the noodles of China and pasta in Italy and was that myth about Marco Polo true? And if not, is there something else in its place that could explain all these coincidences?
Q: What was one of the most surprising things you found?
A: I found the similarities between the dumplings of the Silk Road to be the most striking element of the food - Chinese dumplings that evolved into a steamed dumpling in the Uighur community called manta, which are stuffed with either pumpkin or mutton and served with a clotted cream. Those dumplings cross over into Central Asia as pretty much the same thing.
Then as you cross the Silk Road into Turkey that same dumpling is called manti. It gets substantially smaller, basically the size of the pinkie nail, and is filled with a little dot of beef and onion and cooked very quickly, served with a yoghurt sauce with a drizzle of mint oil and paprika and crushed walnuts. Delicious. Then that same dish you see in Italy, with tortellini, where they become a little bit bigger.
What connected the tortellini with the Turkish manti is that I heard the same story told about those two dishes - that daughters-in-law, when they married into a family, were judged by how well they made them. The more they could fit on a spoon, the better daughter-in-law they were.
Q: What impact has this trip had on your cooking and thinking about food?
A: I have a much greater appreciation for certain ingredients such as Chinese chives. It was an interesting ingredient that I saw quite far along the Silk Road, all the way to Turkey. I had never really liked Chinese chives before but it was used in Uighur cooking. I saw it in Central Asia and then in Turkey. Mung beans were another one. In Central Asia they're a savory ingredient they make a kind of split pea soup with and they make a salad with it in Turkey that's similar to tabbouleh.
It's interesting to see the different applications of ingredients, things that in China I would pretty much just associate with dumplings. To see them incorporated in different ways opens your way of thinking to why can't I serve this sweet or savory? Why does it have to be this one way?
Q: In China, you've lived in Beijing, Shanghai and Chengdu - can you name a food from each city that symbolizes it to you?
A: Beijing, definitely dumplings. The best dumplings are the regular dumplings filled with things like pork and fennel or lamb and pumpkin. In Shanghai, they have the Shanghai soup dumplings with very thin wrappers filled with some ground pork and soup. Those are delicious. In Chengdu, if we were going to continue with the theme, they have a dish of spicy wontons - little dumplings, wontons, covered in a really spicy, sweet sesame oil, little sesame seeds sprinkled over it. They're delicious, partly because of all the wonderful sauce you get.
Q: So noodles really cross boundaries.
A: Yes, they can assimilate into so many different cultures, that's what's so different. They have inserted themselves into the flavors and cultures of every place they went.
Samsa (Uzbek Baked Dumplings)
1 cup (240 ml) cold water
1 teaspoon salt
2 1/4 cups flour
1/2 lb (230 grams) ground beef or lamb (30 percent fat)
1 medium onion, minced
1 tablespoon salt
1 tablespoon ground cumin
1 tablespoon freshly ground black pepper
1/2 cup vegetable shortening or margarine
2 egg yolks, beaten
1. Place the water and salt in a large bowl, add 1 cup flour. Mix thoroughly then add the rest of the flour, 1/4 cup at a time, until all the flour has been incorporated. Transfer the dough to a clean, lightly floured surface and knead for 3 to 5 minutes until soft and pliable but still a little springy. Cover with a damp cloth or wrap in plastic and let sit for at least 30 minutes.
2. In a medium bowl, combine the beef or lamb with the onion, salt, cumin and black pepper. Mix thoroughly.
3. Working with 1/4 of the dough each time, roll each portion into a single very thin sheet - it should be almost translucent. Smear a very thin layer of shortening or margarine over the sheet of dough and fold it in half. Repeat, folding again. Place the dough in the centre of your working surface and roll it out into a thin square. Sprinkle flour over the dough and cut into 3-inch by 3-inch squares.
4. Place a dough square in the center of your palm and add about 2 tablespoons of filling. Bring one pair of diagonally opposed corners together and press to seal, then bring the other pair together and press again. Seal the dumpling completely along the edges to make a pyramid shape with a square base. Brush each dumpling with a thin layer of beaten egg yolk.
5. In oven heated to 350 degrees F (180 C), bake the dumplings for 10 minutes. Then turn up the heat to 425 F (220 C) and bake for another 10 minutes. Remove from the oven and serve immediately.
Editing by John O'Callaghan