Beyond the Great Wall

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!

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Postscript:
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.

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15 comments

  1. An interesting reflection on this book. I do collect quite a few Asian cookbooks as, being close to Australia, we travel there more often than in Europe. I tend to avoid glossy books, hoping that my library might lend them to me from time to time.
    When in Yunnan Province, I was surprised by some very unusual dishes by other ethnic groups, mostly Hmong, especially those using potatoes. The Yunnan- Tibet Highway was a great source of travel temptation.
    The Chinese minorities, Ie, non Han people, are allowed more than one child- a snippet of trivia that demonstrates that Chinese government does respect their ethnic minority groups.
    .

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    • Given your adventurous travel streak, you might be interested to know that they travelled via motorbike! The food they describe is wonderful – simple and delicious – and far from what one might think of typical Chinese. But, then, we only get a westernised version of the cuisine. I have no idea what real Chinese food is like – you would know better, having travelled there. Yes, the Silk Road beckons…

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      • Real Chinese food is often challenging and communication is best done by pointing to ingredients and waiting for the roar ( almost as loud as a jet plane engine) of the wok in the darkened nearby kitchen. In Szechuan province, we travelled through the countryside with some Chinese friends, the husband being a dedicated foody, always sniffing out the most unusual thing in the town. I haven’t written about China or the food, because I left part of myself behind and need to return soon.
        I shall sus out this book.

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  2. I’m keen to see this book in the flesh, you make it sound very enlightening. I added it to my wish list after you first mentioned it to me. Thank for the shout out, and I found the second article interesting.

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    • I do hope you like it after all I’ve said about it! Always risky recommending books – likes and dislikes are so individual. But, *I think* you will like it. I found it different and, of course, I loved the anthropology/history/stories told throughout. I follow Epicurious on Facebook and they often post interesting tidbits like this one. It was an amazing coincidence that they posted soon after you put Cookbook Caution up.

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  3. That sounds like an interesting book, I’d like to have a flick through it one day. I love stories woven into cookbooks. I’ll be keeping an eye out! I’ve always struggled a bit with following recipes. I think I must have had some disheartening recipe-following experiences in my earlier days of cooking. For a long time I didn’t really have many cook books at all, but these days my collection is (slowly) growing. I find that just flicking through can fire my inspiration so much, even if I don’t always end up cooking any of the recipes from them!

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    • It is an interesting book to read as well as cook from. You are right, however, cookbooks are primarily sources of inspiration. I almost always adapt the recipes to suit our tastes and to sometime correct things that I know won’t work. Check the book out of your local library to page through. I don’t think it will disappoint.

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  4. Revealing insights from Beyond the Great Wall – thank you! And thanks, too, for sharing the two cautionary cookbook posts – as someone who translates a great many recipes (largely from German into English) I can confirm that the problem of missing/wrong order ingredients and/or steps is the most common – and that is after the cookbooks have been edited and published on the German market. I regulary pick up on the errors when translating the text – after all, no-one reads a text more closely than a translator! The only safeguard, whatever language the cookbook is in, is one of the first rules my mum taught me as a tiny tot learning to cook: ALWAYS read the recipe through to the end first before you do or start anything – it remains just as true today as it was back then 🙂

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    • All too true! Translating something really gets you thinking about what exactly is meant as much of what you do is not a literal word-for-word translate. Also, I believe the recipes should be tested in real home kitchens before they are published. It would cut down on a lot of drivel out there and would make those good recipes even better by improving instructions.

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  5. Subjective or not, it’s great to read yours and everyone’s cook book reviews. Those rice noodle squares sound very interesting. I have been pondering making rice noodles for a while. Just haven’t got there yet. Looking forward to seeing that post if that’s where you head!

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  6. I am very curious about this book. Having spent a few years in Central Asia, I am familiar with the silk road areas and Uighur cuisine, and would love to see if any of my favourite recipes figure in it. Not quite ready to order it yet, but will continue to reflect.

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    • I must say I knew nothing about the ethnic cuisine of the areas in which they travelled, so had no expectations. I guess your perception would be much like mine when looking at Greek cookbooks- food I know well first hand. Why not look at the book in the library? It is an expensive volume, so researching it first might be the best thing to do.

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  7. I really like all of your recommendations and I also like your disclaimers. I too believe you should get comfortable with being uncomfortable sometimes because it leads to growth whether it’s in the kitchen, travel, at work, etc. I really appreciate your book posts! Thanks so much!

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