11:10:13 The Cultural Revolution Cookbook, a book review

If you're interested in a cookbook far removed from what celebrity chefs write, then The Cultural Revolution Cookbook: Simple, Healthy Recipes from China's Countryside by Sasha Gong (with Scott D. Seligman) might be your ticket.

One of the world's great cuisines, Chinese cooking developed over thousands of years. But what happens when social chaos and food shortages force everyone to lower their expectations about their daily fare? Ms. Gong grew up in Mao's Red China and lived through the disaster of that central planning experiment called The Great Leap Forward in the late 50s and early 60s. It ran amok, producing famines. After the famine came the social chaos of the Cultural Revolution of the mid-60s. In one of Chairman Mao's radical schemes, he decided urban youth needed practical knowledge and ordered millions to the countryside to be re-educated by peasants. Ms. Gong was one of those "sent-down" youths.

[fish pond]

So unlike many Chinese cookbooks I've come across, Sasha Gong lays out a riveting historical context for the recipes she's collected in this book.

When the art of Chinese cuisine becomes "make do" with basic ingredients, the result is these simple recipes from the countryside. Ingredients are common--you won't track down exotica at your Asian market. Moreover, the simplicity of the recipes make this an ideal book for someone who wants to try their hand at Chinese cooking.

Ms. Gong organizes her recipes into nine sections. Something for everyone: Vegetables and Tofu, Poultry, Pork, Beef and Lamb, Seafood, Eggs, Rice and Noodles, and Dessert. I tried several of the recipes, including Tofu with Mushrooms, and Stir-Fried Noodles with Pork Shreds and found them keepers. The sauces, in particular, are simple to make and spot-on in flavor. Thus, what these recipes represent is age-old cooking refinement, pared back to the basics without giving up its essence.

Besides excellent food photography by Charles Cohan Fischl, the book features Chinese peasant paintings from Huhsien County of the 60s and 70s. (I have a copy of "The commune's fish pond" by Tung Cheng-yi, so I felt Ms. Gong's inclusion of this and others was like seeing old friends.)

Yes, cookbooks are pretty individual, but I think Ms. Gong's The Cultural Revolution Cookbook has a lot to recommend it. Accessible, easy recipes and a wealth of history and personal experience that only adds to the motivation to try these recipes, "fire-tested" during China's turbulent decades of the last century.

The Cultural Revolution Cookbook by Sasha Gong with Scott D. Seligman, Earnshaw Books, 2011, 158pp., ISBN: 978-988-199-8460

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The Cat at Light's End

Read Charlie Dickinson's story collection, The Cat at Light's End, as an ebook in these downloadable formats:

.mobi (Kindle)
.epub (most other readers)
.pdf (for PCs)

Also, a flash fiction, "Ylena Thinks Nyet," is at Cigale Literary Magazine.

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