Beyond the Great Wall: recipes and travels in the other China
Jeffery Alford and Naomi Duguid
Artisan, New York: 2008
I’m not sure who first said that it is good for the soul to step out of your comfort zone now and then and look around you to experience new and different things. But, whoever said it was absolutely correct – in all areas of life, large and small. For me, cooking from one of Jeffery Alford’s and Naomi Duguid’s books is a small foray into the unknown, definitely out of my culinary comfort zone which lies firmly in Mediterranean cuisine.
But, this particular book, Beyond the Great Wall, intrigued me, urging me to take that leap into the unknown. Not only was it a beautiful book filled with stunning photographs of exotic far-away places, it was also different in that it explored a cuisine of a variety of non-Han Chinese ethnic groups living in the wilds of the northern and western parts of China. The authors, in their preface, acknowledge that the title is a metaphor for an exploration of untamed lands beyond civilisation. At the beginning of the book are two helpful maps: one that shows the provinces beyond the great wall and the other showing the distribution of thirteen of China’s non-Han people – the Dai, Dong, Hani, Hui, Kazakh, Kirghiz, Miao/Hmong, Mongol, Tajik, Tibetan, Tuvan, Uighur and Yi. The introductory chapter also discusses the people, the language families, and the land. At the beginning of each chapter and sometimes prefacing a recipe are more stories of the people they encountered.
But, when it comes to food (which is the primary focus of the book), Alford’s and Duguid’s interest is on street and market stalls, “hole-in-the-wall” food vendors, and simple home-cooked meals. It is a philosophy I appreciate. (So, perhaps I just found another comfort zone?) The book is organised in the standard manner, beginning with a helpful chapter on condiments, such as Dai tart green salsa, and seasonings, such as Yunnan Hills ginger paste. These are recipes for mixtures that are used throughout the book. The chapters then proceed through the courses with soups, salads, mostly vegetables, noodles & dumplings, rice & grains, breads, fish, chicken & eggs, lamb & beef, pork, drinks & sweet treats.
I have made only a small fraction of the recipes, but those that I did make – ginger and carrot stir fry from a Miao eatery, Lhasa fried potatoes, cucumbers in black rice vinegar, Dai grilled chicken, Uighur lamb kebabs – were delicious as promised. After making mounds of homemade rustic pasta, my eye has now turned to the chapter on noodles. Much to my surprise, there were recipes for fresh hand rolled rice noodles and for Amdo noodle squares from Tibet that are similar to the flat pasta squares called Maccheroni in parts of Tuscany. These are next on the list to make – along with accompanying Laghman sauce from neighbouring Uighur lands. I hope to post on this soon!
In addition to Beyond the Great Wall, Alford and Duguid have written two other books with a similar approach to the subject of everyday food and the people who make it. I have these on my kitchen cookbook shelf – Hot Sour Salty Sweet, exploring the food of Southeast Asia, and Mangos & Curry Leaves, on the foods and flavours of the Indian sub-continent. Put the three together and you have a good introduction to the wide variety of Asian cuisines. Plus, all those amazing photographs!
* * *
I should perhaps attach a warning label to any of my personal reflections on cookbooks after Sandra’s (@Please Pass the Recipe) thought-provoking post Cookbook Caution. It is well worth reading. Also, another cautionary post appeared recently on Epicurious on 5 Secret Signs That a Recipe Won’t Work. Always something to keep in mind even with the best of cookbooks. They are generally sources of inspiration and the recipes contained within guides (not rules!). Always use your own judgement, adjust and modify to suit.