Dehomogenizing Chinese Food

So, you think you know Chinese food? Authors Jeffrey Alford and Naomi Duguid have found some you don’t know. In a fascinating review of Alford and Duguid’s new cookbook, Beyond the Great Wall: Recipes and Travels in the Other China, the Grinder’s own Nicholas Day writes in Slate that the authors have put together a “Chinese cookbook that ignores what we think of as Chinese food.” All of the recipes are drawn from the country’s ethnic minorities, including Tibetans, Mongolians, Uighurs, Hui, and Dai—minorities that, Alford and Duguid fear, preside over dwindling cultures. Part of the impetus of the cookbook is to document those traditional recipes that may be slowly drifting into obscurity as the pace of assimilation quickens.

But, as Day notes, “The theory of cultural preservation through cookery is well and good, but it works only if people like the cookery,” and these are pretty far-out recipes for Westerners. So Day tries some of ’em. And gosh darn it if the pressed tofu coated with chiles and lard isn’t “marvelous,” and so is the half-cooked Dai carrot salad. And, weirdly enough, the “yogurt-based, covered-pot-baked Kazakh bread smells exactly like good dinner rolls from a Midwestern supper club,” even if “the moist, absorbent texture seems closer to an underwater sea sponge.”

It’s enlightening to read that, as Alford and Duguid write, “three-fifths of the land area we now call China is historically the home of people who are not ethnically Chinese,” especially considering the limited manifestation of what we think of as “Chinese cuisine” in America. Maybe Beyond the Great Wall will kick off a lard- and yogurt-based-bread revolution.

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