Wednesday, 10 October 2012

Beyond the Clouds by Alford & Daguid: A tale of two Chinas

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 2 is the traditional Chefbook, normally with a bit of Fusion thrown in. This is a much rarer for Chinese chefs (for some reason fusion chefs seem to prefer going Japanese; I blame McNobu and his black cod). Susannah Foo sort of does it, Ming Tsai definitely does it and Toronto chef Susar Lee has done it in some style (with the help of an extremely powerful blowdrier). His Culinary Life manages the physically impossible act of having six - count em - covers on a single volume:

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 book from the Toronto-based team of Jeffrey Alford and Naomi Duguid bills itself as "recipes and travels in the other china". It is a book about the food and lives of the non-Han Chinese minorities, who occupied three-fifths of China's land area but make up only 8% of the population. They range form the Turkic Uighurs and Tibetans of the far west, the the fierce Mongols of the northern and the Dai and Hmong of the steamy southwest.

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, nudge

But 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.
Alford and Daguin make their point in more subtle ways. By presenting the steaming richness of the local cuisine, they are giving the reader a little nudge and saying "look at all of this, which might soon be gone". They also love to tease out the little differences, like in the chapter on salads when they point out how raw food is quite alien to the Han Chinese in more ways than one:
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...

This is also a personal story for the authors who first met in Tibet back in 1985, fell in love, married and embarked on a glorious writing partnership. This book rounds off a tryptych of works on Asian food inspired by their travels around the region. It started in 2000 with 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.

I've always found the previous two books less compelling. Perhaps because I'm less familiar with the regions, but perhaps because they struck me as classical coffee table books - more about form rather than content. Whatever it is, the stories in Beyond the Great Wall ring truer. We hear from Alford and Daguin about how they first came to Asia, travelling independently of each other. How they met in Lhasa, at the Snowland Hotel. How they went for bike rides across the plateau, hung out in tea shops and little restaurants and fell in love (pass the tissues someone).

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

Of course this is also a cookbook. And, as I said at the start, if you were expecting a traditional something-wet-on-rice then you will be sorely disappointed. This is an un-Chinese cookbook.

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
A few things to say about the recipes. You may relieved to know that they are generally very straightforward, simple even. This is a reflection of the kind of food - by and large this is basic, everyday food. Cheap, nourishing and tasty. Apart from the crisp-fried funeral pork I've mentioned already, there are no grand feasting dishes. If you are looking for tips for your next white-linen dinner party, look away now.

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
In terms of the recipes themselves, the book gets off to a relatively slow start with straightforward soups and salads. The fish section is a rum bunch, not helped by the fact that most of the areas in questions are landlocked to the tune of hundreds of miles. The Dai Grilled Fish (p222) sounds excellent, but depends I suspect more on the fish than the recipe.

Eight Flavour Tea
There are good, filling chicken dishes such as the Dong Chicken Hot Pot (p250) - I think this is actually quite a good book for one-pot weeknight suppers. The lamb and beef chapter (like much Mongol/Uighur cooking) seems to revolve mainly around recipes for grilled dead sheep. One thing I have to say though is they commit the cardinal sin of excising the obligatory chunks of lamb fat from their Uighur kebab recipe (p260) - its the crispy fat which makes the skewer work!).

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

However the thumping heart of this book is really is its treatment of breads, noodles and dumplings. Many of the minorities they focus on, particularly in the north, subsist on wheat not rice as their daily staple. Most Chinese books have remarkably little on the kaleidoscope of breads and noodles which feature across the north and west of China. This is the great exception.

Uighur nan flatbreads (left) and Samsa (right)
There is a really thorough treatment of Uighur flatbreads (p190) and Kazakh loaves (p195), all eminently accessible for the home cook. There is a great-looking recipe for flaky sesame coils on p202 (although I would personally use more lard then they do). Best of all this is the only book I've found to include a recipe for Uighur lamb Samsa (p198), hyper-addictive little baked flatbreads stuffed with a succulent mixture of lamb, onion and fat which I gorged on when I travelled in Xinjiang.

Hand-pulled noodle 101
Noodles get a similarly robust treatment, with a thorough explanation of the classics such as hand-pulled noodles (p133) and Laghman Sauce (p135). They also include some more off-piste versions such as noodle shells (p138) - a sort of Tibetan orecchiette, earlobe noodles (p145) and pellet-like hand-rolled rice noodles (p142).

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!
Finally there's also a bunch of recipes for stuffed dumplings, including Tibetan Momos (p154) and pork-stuffed jiaozi (although I'm not sure about them using egg-pasta for the dough!). And in keeping with the Tibetan bent they veer off into a good discussion on Tsampa (p180), the roasted barley flour which is the staple in that part of the world (I've always been of the opinion that Tsampa, along with lamb belly and Manchurian cuisine, is somethat that is so irredeemably flawed that its best avoided at all costs. But each to his own...).

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.

New horizons...
It is a cookbook, simple and tasty. This is not cheffy food. It's chock-full of lots of thorough, simple dishes which sing of place. When the cold winter weeknights come in, I'll turn to this book for a warming stew from the Tibetan plateau.

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.


  1. Thanks Jon, the coffe-table style always stops me looking further at a book but I will now investigate further though Tibetan,Xinjiang and Uighur cuisines do not make the blood run through my veins.
    Otherwise I agree with your comments about Chinese cookbooks, though I think Fuchsia Dunlop's latest volume is actually much better than her two previous, and to me grossly overestimated efforts. The recipes are for simple dishes, granted, but one does feel that she's actually come to grips with them as she so clearly hasn't in the Sichuan and Hunan volumes.
    I cannot even describe my comtempt for Ching-He Huang and Ken Hom though I suspect that in the dim and distant past the latter might have been a good cook..

  2. Hullo Tom. Yes I did find their earlier books a bit too coffee-table for me. I liked this one a lot more.

    Strange - I take the opposite view of Fuchsia preferring her earlier works but being left rather cold by the newest book. Although I would say I though some of the Revolutionary Chinese Cuisine book felt a bit contrived to fit in with the Red Mao type these.

    One general observation I'd make - in the US as chefs get more successful their cookbooks get more complicated. In the UK as chefs become more successful their cookbooks dumb down. I suspect this is a commentary on the relative sizes of the pool of high-end cookbook readers.

    Ching-Hu Huang I have very little time for. While she deserves kudos for going out on a limb and starting her catering businesses out of uni, the one time I bought her Chings noodles from the office canteen they were such dreck I immediately lost all respect for her culinary abilities.

    Ken Hom I have a lot of time for (probably influence by my mum, who much prefers stuff to Kenneth Lo's). Admittedly he's followed the trend and dumbed down (qv) in recent years, but he is doing the elderly stateman thing quite well. He also pulls off the shiny-bald-head look with aplomb.

  3. Apart from genuineness, though, it's a question of whether the recipes work.Ken Lo admitted in his autobiography that he'd never actually cooked any of his recipes, which explains a lot.Hom's recipes just make a mess.
    I see what you mean about La Dunlop, except that the recipes in the newer book work surprisingly well, and while simple they seem like things that Chinese people might actually cook on a busy night, rather thann being deliberately(?) dumbed down as per Mr. Hom.

  4. I happened upon this randomly (and two years plus later!) but wanted to pipe up in defense of Dunlop. As a Chinese-American, I was sold on Dunlop when I encountered her recipe for stir-fried romaine lettuce in her newest book. This isn't fancy and it's certainly westernized (as I think in China one would use stem lettuce) but this is something my mother made all the time when I was growing up. It clinched for me that this was a book that was more than your "crap bag in a wok" cookbooks but realistic of what it's like to cook Chinese food *in a Western context*. (After all, a cookbook written in English and published in the US/UK is making a natural assumption that the typical reader is living in London or New York, or perhaps Leeds or St. Louis, and not Beijing or Taipei!)

    1. Hey Andrew

      Better late than never!

      I have to admit you may be right; the Every Grain of Rice book has probably grown on me a bit over the last few years. I still don't have a copy but friends who do recommend and (tbh) since getting married I've been doing a lot more simple chinese home cooking so perhaps its more on my level now.

      re: stir-fried lettuce I have to say cooking (as opposed to salading with ranch) lettuce is something very under-appreciated in western vs. eastern cuisine (not helped by the fact the damn thing wilts so quickly. If you can catch it when its warm still has a little juicy crunch it is lovely. Another easy way is to sprinkle segments with sesame oil and grill til it just starts to brown.

      Which also puts me in mind of hispi/napa cabbage - another wholly under-appreciated vegetable (if I go on masterchef I'm making some sort of soup/broth from the delicious juices you get when you braise it).

      Merry Xmas!