I'll have number 3, with a twist
I reckon there are at most three kinds of Chinese cookbook (in English, at least).
Number 1 on the menu is the "Jamie-Oliver-With-A-Wok" style of book. You know the type - soft-focus lifestyle photography, highly westernised recipes, 15 minute cooking time and a tie-in TV show. And definitely no pigs feet. Historical exponents are Ken Hom in the UK and Martin Yan in the States. most recently Ching He Huang has been making a good fist of it, Gok Wan has thrown his stilettos into the ring and even Fuchsia Dunlop has given it a shot (although I do think this is a little beneath her).
If you're interested in genuine Chinese food or cookbooks then these of limited value. If you want to know what week-night stir-fry goes with an angora sweater, then Gok's your man.
|Susar Lee: The only posh chef who spends more on|
haircare products than he does on foie gras...
Number 3 (and tonight's house special) is the most recent, and interesting type. The regional Chinese cookbook. It's only in the last ten or fifteen years that the world seems to have woken up to the fact that there is Chinese food beyond the Cantonese / takeaway standards. Restaurants like Grand Sichuan in NYC and Bar Shu in London started the trend, and now Chinatown is full of Sichuan/Taiwan/Manchurian/Shanghainese joints. The trend has been mirrored in cookbooks, notably by the sainted Fuchsia Dunlop with her Sichuan Cookery and Revolutionary Chinese Cookbook (Hunan).
Beyond the Great Wall is a variant on number 3, presenting regional Chinese food with soft-focus photography and dizzying production values.
But then there's a twist.
It's not a Chinese cookbook at all.
A political book
One step forward, two steps back?
This is also a nakedly political book. Not political in an "everytime-you-eat-foie-gras-somewhere-a-diabetic-goose-dies" sense. Or either in a "factory-food-manufacturers-club-baby-seals-for-food-miles" way (Note: As a welcome antidote to these respective categories I can heartily recommend Michael Ginor's Foie Gras: A Passion and James McWilliam's Only Food:Where Locavores Get It Wrong and How We Can Eat Responsibly).
It's political in that these minorities, their culture and by extension their cuisine are increasingly being threatened by the expansion of Han Chinese culture and settlement. As they put it in the introduction
The economic prosperity in China is wildly uneven, and it's non-Han China that is most frequently on the short end. Mass migrations of people from densely populated regions of Central China to the more sparsely populated areas of Tibet and Xinjiang have the potential to completely overwhelm the local culture.As they say, this has been seen most forcefully in Xinjiang and Tibet (particularly after the building of railroads out to Lhasa and Kashgar have made it easier for settlers to move into these areas). And has certainly been behind many recent political tensions in these areas (and earlier - when I was in Beijing in 1997, I remember Uighur seperatists had a charming habit of setting off bus bombs).
Nudge, nudgeBut this topic is handled sensitively in the book. It isn't a militant in-your-face agenda. Han Chinese aren't demonised. For example there a charming account about how they shared congee and tinned mandarins with the Chinese border guards in the Khunjerab Pass (p147). But then again a straw poll of Han Chinese in Lhasa presents a sullen image of unwilling, unthinking colonists:
It's a bit of a grim picture, this majority population disliking the place they live. They don't know or appreciate Tibetan culture, which has a centures-old literary and philosophical tradition, and they don't learn the language. For them, Tibet is a hardship post, like taking a job on the oil rigs in Saudi Arabia.
You can feel the resentment in both directions: the Tibetans, of the Chinese, who took over Tibet and have controlled it absolutely since 1959 (see page 39); and the Han, of the "barbaric" Tibetans among whom they find themselves.
Curiously, in China the words "raw" and "cooked" carry other meanings. They have long been used to distinguish between different groups of non-Han people. "Cooked" refers to people considered somewhat civilized in Chinese terms- i.e., people who are more sinicized-while "raw" refers to people and cultures viewed as very uncivilized.And yes, this is the same reason why Chinese view Americans tucking into a rare 48oz porterhouse with something bordering on revulsion (me on the otherhand? pass the drawn butter and the creamed spinach please!).
A personal book
Love, actually...Hot, Sour Salty Sweet, about the food of southeast Asia, and continued in 2005 with Mangoes and Curry Leaves, focusing on the food of the subcontinent. These books, all published by Artisan, take a similar approach with deluxe large-format packaging, and a mix of anthropology, travelogue and recipe.
We the people
But its not just about them. The book also contains dozens of mini-essays about the people they meet along the way. From the extraordinary Ella Maillart, an indomintable Swiss who trekked overland from Beijing to Pakistan in the 1930s (and was still backpacking in China fifty years later, p70), to the skinny poste restante guy in the Kashgar post office, who read everyone's postcards to improve his English (p108). We join them in good times and bad - huddled up in a storm on the edge of the Tibet drinking butter tea and rolled Tsampa (p179), and feasting on crispy pork fried in a brazier for a Guizhou funeral (p310).
There are also pen-pictures of all the minorities they come across. These range from the better known, such as Tibetans (p39) and Mongols (p60), to the more obscure such as the Muslim Hui (p216), the Dai of Yunan (p237), the Tibeto-Burman Yi (p316). Actually I think these pen-pictures are less compelling - even though I have a passing familiarity with some of the minorities, they tend to blur into each other. This isn't helped by the layout of recipes which groups them by preparation (e.g. salads, soups, beef & pork) rather than by cuisine. You lurch from a Guizhou carrot stir-fry to a Kazakh cabbage dish, unaware that in the space of a page you've just jumped two thousand miles.
|Smile if you qualify for a People's Republic of China passport...|
The other weakness of the book is its layout - these essays and articles are scattered randomly through the text and are poorly indexed. This is fine if you were going to read the book cover-to-cover, but given its heft and the fact its a cookbook its much more likely you will be dipping in and out. Even writing this review I keep on remembering something I read in the book, and having to spend a couple of minutes flipping to and fro to find out where it is. Its a shame because much good material ends up getting lost.
And a cookbook
A tale of two Chinas
This is really two cookbooks in one. On the one hand you have the lush, tropical cuisine of the southern minorities, which shares much in common with the food of Thailand, Vietnam and Burma. Raw salsas and green herbs (two components very uncommon in traditional Chinese food) are mixed with grilled fish, pork and hot sauces.
On the other hand the you have the harsher food of the north and the west, where wheat rather than rice dominates, and there are endless recipes for flatbreads, noodles and dumplings. From the windswept cold of the Tibetan plateau comes butter tea (it sounds nicer than it tastes) and tsampa - a energy-giving meal made from ground roasted barley. As the old saying goes, the traditional fourfold division of Han Chinese cuisine (Peking, Shanghai, Sichuan, Canton) is far, far away.
|Tibetan Sauteed Spuds|
For example there is a Pea-Tendril Salad (p66) which is pretty much peas tendrils tossed with a simple dressing. And I don't really need to tell you what goes into the recipe for Cucumbers in Black Rice Vinegar (p83) - I think you can guess two of the four ingredients already. On p115 there is a page-long digression on Tibetan fried potato which is basically an incredibly long-winded version of sauteed potato slices.
I wouldn't say keeping things simple is a criticism, its more the nature of the food. There are lots of recipes for one-pot boiled soups and stews, but this probably makes sense if your entire domestic battery consists of a yurt and a coal brazier.
The recipes themselves do tend to be a little long, but on the plus-side they have been well-adapted for the home cook (although sometimes the neologisms involved in that process grate - e.g. "Tibetan Ratatouille" and "Dai Tart Green Salsa"). To be frank, I'd rather have a jarring recipe that works than a comforting recipe that fails (Larousse Gastronomique I'm looking at you...).
What to do with a dead sheep
|Winning ways with a dead sheep|
|Eight Flavour Tea|
Also check out the section on Drinks and Sweet Treats (they wisely don't call it desserts - people in that part of the world are far too busy for pudding!). In particular the recipe for Eight-Flavour Tea (babaocha in China) on p328 is worth using (tip - use rock sugar - it makes a big difference) is a hard-to-find classic. Also worthwhile are the crispy Doughnut Twists on p334 and the Tibetan Rice Pudding on p339.
The bread of life
|Uighur nan flatbreads (left) and Samsa (right)|
|Hand-pulled noodle 101|
Where I give them the most credit though is for admitting defeat and actually not including a recipe for Uighur flung noodles (p152). This sort of hand-stretched noodle (think of it like a pizzaiolo tossing a pizza, except instead of a pie its a five foot piece of string) is pretty much the Ultimate Culinary Challenge. They make baking French macarons looks like making potato pie and I would thorough dissuade you from even trying. Respect to the authors for taking my advice.
|Flung noodles: The truth at last!|
Sharp, tasty. Bittersweet
Beyond the Great Wall is an extraordinary book which (by and large) keeps a lot of plates spinning at the same time. It is a sharply political book, but in a very subtle way. It glories in what is being lost, rather than casting stones at the invaders.
But above all it is a personal book, happy, but also bittersweet.
You see, a year after this book was published Alford and Daguid got divorced, which also ended their writing together. So while this book details the start of their collaboration, it also marks the end.
They still write though, notably on their blogs (here and here), and Daguid is just about to publish a book on Burmese food which I'm sure will be fascinating (especially given Burma's history of repression and now tentative liberalisation).
But for now this is all we have.
Sharp, tasty. Bittersweet.