‘The Lettuce Diaries’ Review: Salad Days in Old Shanghai

A Westerner visiting China in the 1990s could expect dinner hosts to offer their guest “salad” alongside regional foods like Sichuan mapo tofu or Hunan red-braised pork. The then out-of-place dish was both a sign of respect for the visitor and a way of showing that China was opening up to “outside” ideas, even about cuisine. Yet, a Chinese offering of “sè-lā,” as the dish is pronounced in Mandarin, would often remain untouched. What passed for salad—diced potatoes tossed with Russian dressing, or a half-head of doubtful-looking iceberg drenched in an indeterminate glop—wasn’t very appealing alongside traditional Chinese fare.

Credit Frenchman Xavier Naville for better orienting salad in China. In “The Lettuce Diaries,” Mr. Naville recounts his unlikely story of creating a market there for the kind of salad greens familiar to Westerners.

When he arrived in Shanghai in the summer of 1997, the 27-year-old Mr. Naville was the impeccably

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