Saturday, May 10, 2008

Cookbook Review: Beyond the Great Wall

The flap reads: "In the West, when we think about food in China, what usually comes to mind are the signature dishes of Beijing, Hong Kong, and Shanghai. But beyond these urbanized eastern areas lies the other China: the high open spaces and sacred places of Tibet, the Silk Road oases of Xinjinag and Qinghai, the steppelands of Inner Mongolia, and the sleepy terraced hills of Yunnan and Guizhou. The people who live in these regions - Tibetans, Mongols, Uighurs, Miao, Hui, Dong, Yi, Dai, and others - are culturally distinct, with their own culinary traditions."

Beyond the Great Wall is indeed a cookbook like no other. It combines the best of many writing genres: travel, autobiography, National Geographic-quality photography, history, geography, and culinary literature. The content is as varied as the some fifty-five other minorities living in the three fifths of land of China not dominated by the Chinese majority, the Han. And the Han is what we typically see or think of when it comes to Chinese people, and their food traditions are the ones we are most familiar with, the ones that come from the well-known urban centres of Beijing and Hong Kong. The authors, couple Jeffrey Alford and Naomi Duguid, also authors of Hot Sour Salty Sweet, take the reader on a very experiential tour of those minorities that lay beyond the Great Wall of China, sometimes the tiniest, most isolated corners of a vast former empire that encompasses today an ethnic variety that is truly stunning.

The book is divided into chapters as most cookbooks are: soups, salads, breads, fish, etc. Accompanying each chapter and interspersed between recipes, we get small vignettes of travel stories written from the authors' own experiences while travelling beyond the Great Wall, in addition to histories written about the minorities being explored in the book. The photographs are lush and capture so well the unique qualities and characteristics of some of the worlds most fascinating, but little heard of, cultures.

The food is stunning, too. For the purposes of this review, I decided to have my family over for dinner last night and make a menu derived from the book. My initial response to the recipes was, Uh, I'm not going to be able to find any of the ingredients I'd need to make this here in the boonies. But the more I read, the more I was able to figure out substitutes, and the more recipes I found were very appealing and would involve simple ingredients prepared through simple methods. I now go through the book pretty much thinking that I could make any of these dishes, and bring some little semblance of these out of the way cultures into my home, a world away.

The menu consisted of:

Kazakh Family Loaf (page 195)
Napa & Red Onion Salad (page 86)
Beef-Sauced Hot Lettuce Salad (page 67)
Hui Tomato-Lamb Noodle Soup, which I substituted beef in for the lamb (page 59)
Savory Boiled Dumplings with Soy-Vinegar Dipping Sauce (pages 150-151)
Beef with Mushrooms & Cellophane Noodles, which I substituted chicken for the beef (page 280)
Green Tea Shortbread with Poppy Seeds (page 329), served with Watermelon

Here we have the Kazakh Family Loaf at two stages: dough and
fully risen. It's baked in a cast iron pot.

The salad is Napa & Red Onion, and this is the baked loaf and the shortbread.

These are the dumplings before cooking and after cooking, and the Hui soup.

And finally, this is the Chicken and Mushrooms with Cellophane Noodles.

Some dishes we liked more than others. The unanimous favourite was the dumplings, and the least popular was the soup. Not that it was bad at all, it was just a bit bland, so we used the dipping sauce left over from the dumplings to spice it up, and then it was great. I thought the mushroom dish was really good, too. The shortbread was excellent, as was the Kazakh Loaf, which I think will become one of my staple bread recipes.

All in all, Beyond the Great Wall is an excellent book. It's probably, at the moment, the nicest, most interesting book I own. It would make a great gift for someone with wanderlust or for a cultured friend who might appreciate the experiences the book narrates. Definitely a keeper on my shelves!


Cherie said...

Oh my Gosh, WC!! This food looks fantastic. When I click to enlarge I see the textures and colors. Wow!

I'm so hungry now.......

Thanks for taking the time to describe and photograph this food journey of yours. Excellent!

Wandering Coyote said...

Thanks Cherie; it was one FAB meal, that's for sure. And a lot of it is stuff I'm sure I'll make again because it was simple and wholesome.

Bridget Jones said...

Good heavens WC you did ALL THAT???

Like Cherie, am now starving.

We gotta move closer.

Wandering Coyote said...

BJ: Yep, cooked it all myself and it took all day! It was worth it, though. You can come for dinner anytime!

JennDZ - The Leftover Queen said...

Wow! Sounds like such a great cookbook! What a neat thing you did for your family too! Like I always say, you can travel through your food!

Welcome to The Foodie Blogroll!

SirCat said...

Two broken pipes amid a choir

As Beijing Olympic Games approaches, people in China has been extremely busy and so have been those who are against China for one reason or another. Recently, we've witnessed the Lhasa riot, the overwhelmingly biased coverage by the Western media using fabricated footages, the often violent disruptions of the Olympic touch relay across major Western cities, and now, there is this “cook book”.

First of all, the timing of this book is interesting. According to the authors, it was their long time editor who had commanded them to do this book. Equally revealing of a shared deep-rooted hatred and colonial bias against China is how the editor, and the authors call Tibet among themselves, instead of Tibet region of China, they refer it as par of the Central Asia, it shows that deep down, they really hate to see Tibet is part of China now, instead of part of India or the British Empire. And has anybody else noticed their collective eagerness to rush this “cook book” out before the Games? Coincidence or part of a pathetic, ill-intentioned collective effort orchestrated by some mysterious institution?

Once understand where those people came from, it’s not hard to learn the hidden meaning behind the buzzword used in the sub title and throughout the book: the other China. China is consisted of 56 major ethic groups, while Han is the largest. The author claims that non-Han Chinese citizens “are not considered by the government to be Chinese” is totally false and seriously misleading! I wonder would the authors dare to highlight this false statement to the Chinese authority next time they apply for a visa to go to China (to make more money off her)?

The authors are heart-broken by the “many social changes” happened in China in the past 20 years. What’s so terrible? Twenty years ago, the whole country was poor and so was the Tibet area. When a country is booming, people from relatively developed areas will migrate to less developed areas to make personal wealth, just like what Americans did in the migration west. If the authors really want to blame somebody, blame capitalism, not Chinese government, unless they secretly want the whole country still frozen in poverty so various cultural thieves can continue to get rich from there.

In conclusion, as a “cook book”, this is valueless! Just like no matter how many video types you shot about Mike Tyson’s games, you are still not qualified to publish a textbook about boxing. Rather, this is a propaganda commanded by outside power to “tie-in” with the Olympic Games, so they can bark at the country and people whom so generously allowed them to poke around while getting handsome rewards from the Western capitalism system. The question for the rest of us is: should we pay to reward them as well?

Wandering Coyote said...

Hm. A pro-China denouncement of a cookbook. Interesting.

SirCat, you are, of course, entitled to your opinion. However, in this case we shall just have to agree to disagree.

SirCat said...

Wandering coyote:

When I first heard of this "political cookbook", I was equally surprised and amused as you are.

Actually I feel sorry to "invade" your blog like this but I'd blame the authors first for politicizing not only the Olympic Games, but also the until recently innocent cooking book genre.

I guess I shall be concentrated on the "political" part and you guys continue to concentrate on the cooking part.

Bon Appetit!


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