I loved the book’s artful explanation of how disastrous government policy brought forth creative self-reliance.
For most Chinese who lived through the Cultural Revolution, the very idea of a history of eating during that cheerless decade sounds like an oxymoron. It was an era in which the traditional food culture of China – which, according to an old Chinese saying, is on a par with heaven – went into near-total eclipse. Shortages were the order of the day, and one was lucky to consume as many calories as one burned on any given day. The art of cooking, in the sense of a body of collected wisdom about ingredients, seasonings and preparation methods, was summarily abandoned and was, in fact, criticized as a capitalist remnant. People ate whatever they could get their hands on, and there was almost never enough to go around.
Most would think of their time in the countryside as a disastrous waste of a decade, but that view told only part of the story. The experience had also been formative, and they came back more mature and self-reliant. They came back with lifelong friendships, with skills they had never dreamed they would acquire and with a hunger for learning and improving their lots in life that would lead many to great achievements. And many came back with the knowledge of Chinese countryside cooking with its flavorful and wholesome recipes that would be with them for the rest of their lives. (9, 12)
The time I spent in China was infinitely more prosperous and harmonious than the Cultural Revolution, but I definitely sensed this influence. My friends and students were the sons and daughters of the Cultural Revolution generation, filled with the “hunger for learning and improving their lots in life.” And of course I tasted many of the dishes in this book in hole-in-the-wall restaurants and friends’ kitchens.
Here in Chile, I decided on the most obvious (and delicious!) way to review this cookbook: testing the recipes!
The first time I opened the book, I breezed through it all in one sitting, right before dinnertime. It made me so hungry! I wanted to see what I could make from what was already in my kitchen.
Scrambled Eggs and Tomato. The photos in The Cultural Revolution Cookbook make even the most humble recipe look like a delicacy, and this was no exception.
I ate this dish so many times in China, especially at the restaurant across the street from the front gate of our university in Jiaxing. I think it was the first dish I learned how to say: “fan xie chau dan.”
But I’d never made it myself. I was surprised to see that the recipe included several tablespoons of sugar. The combination of sugar, salt, and oil transformed these simple ingredients into a tasty memory from China.
Each recipe page has a quaint Cultural Revolution anecdote like this one, which accompanies the Scrambled Eggs and Tomato recipe.
I served the eggs and tomatoes alongside a warm and chicken-less version of Cold Sesame Noodles with Chicken: spaghetti, garlic, cilantro, cooking oil, crushed chili pepper (I used merkén, a Chilean spice that seems quite similar to Chinese chilies… a local touch!), soy sauce, vinegar, and sesame oil. All ingredients that I already had in my kitchen!
I positioned the plate on top of a book of essays on the future of China-Chile relations. I like how this picture communicates the dish’s trans-Pacific provenance.
A few days later, I made a Chinese “banquet” for four. This time I shopped for ingredients at the neighborhood fruit stand and butcher shop.
Inspired by the book’s recipe for Pork with Green and Red Pepper Shreds, I made a Xinjiang-style beef noodle soup with vegetables. I ended up adding tomatoes, beer, cumin, cilantro, and several other ingredients that were not in the recipe. It was quite tasty.
HINT: If you’re buying meat from a butcher, ask the butcher to cut it up for you. This saved me both time and the chore of scrubbing raw meat juice off my cutting boards. A win-win!
We also made cucumber salad, one of my all-time favorite Chinese restaurant dishes, and a second round of scrambled eggs with tomatoes, served with a really nice bottle of Carmenere that my parents left behind after a winery tour during their visit. A lovely finish to a lovely evening!
Overall, The Cultural Revolution Cookbook reminded me that Chinese cooking can be simple, inexpensive, unintimidating, and delicious. It does not require special trips to unfamiliar stores for ingredients you’ve never bought before. All you really need is fresh ingredients, simple kitchen supplies, and a healthy dose of China nostalgia.
All images from The Cultural Revolution Cookbook except for the shot of my plate of food with the Chilean and Chinese flags.