Newlywed Jen Lin-Liu's quest to find the origins of the lowly yet ubiquitous noodle—that starchy, sometimes unutterably delicious, sometimes indescribably inedible, staple of dishes from soup to spaghetti—begins innocently enough; the year after they're married, she and her husband, Craig, travel to Italy, where he presents her with the gift of a pasta-making class at the renowned restaurant Le Fate. During that class, Lin-Liu's mind wanders back to the incredible similarities between the craft of pasta-making in Italy and the methods of making Chinese hand-rolled noodles that she practiced so often growing up.
Sufficiently intrigued by the connections, Lin-Liu launches herself on a journey along the Silk Road, the legendary trade route along which spices, foods, recipes and cultures have long traveled between East and West. Through her meetings with cooks and her meals in homes and restaurants, she hopes to discover not only where noodles originated, but also to "document and savor the changes in food and people and to learn what remains constant" and ties together the cuisines of East and West.
In On the Noodle Road, a jaunty memoir that is part travelogue, part food history and part recipe book (each section concludes with recipes for noodle dishes from that region), Lin-Liu slurps and munches her way through China, Central Asia, Iran, Turkey and Italy. In China, she discovers the stark regional differences in the use and emphasis on the noodle in cooking—noodles dominate in the north, rice in the south—but in various regions in Central Asia and Iran she finds very few noodles on the menu. As she grazes her way along the Silk Road, she also wonders how this trip will affect her marriage, and as she observes relations between husbands and wives along the way, she ponders her own desire for commitment and independence.
By the end of her journey, she admits that many questions about noodles have gone unanswered. Even so, she has "discovered that palpable connections did exist among cultures. I'd seen how food crossed geographical, religious, and political borders and blurred the divide between East and West. I'd learned that the process that brought us the dishes we know and love is mostly an organic one that has unfolded through years and generations."