New Years means time to cook a lot

Taiwan Constitution Day has come and gone, and I got some books. Most notably  my wife got me Alford, Jeffrey, and Naomi Duguid. Beyond the Great Wall: Recipes and Travels in the Other China. New York: Artisan, 2008.

and my good friends at Columbia University Press sent me a copy of  Höllmann, Thomas O, and Margolis. The land of the five flavors: a cultural history of Chinese cuisine, 2014.

I have not cooked anything from either of them, having been banned from the kitchen until we make a dent in the Christmas leftovers, but the two books are nice examples of different kinds of China writing.

The Duguid and Alford book is one in their series of excellent food porn books where they travel through the world (mostly Asia) meeting people, eating things, taking lush photographs, and picking up authentic recipes from little old ladies in Chiang Mai or roadside stands in Kashgar. Remember that one perfect trip you had, when you left the archives for a week or so and headed out to some remote bit of Asia? That time you didn’t get lost, sick or arrested and saw and ate all sorts of amazing things and actually got some good pictures? Well, their whole life is like that, and you can travel along with them by buying their books.1 I’ve always liked their books and gotten a lot of good recipes out of them. I had put off getting this one because the theme is the “Other China” i.e. the food of the non-Han peoples. That meant that a lot of the stuff from Southwest China seemed similar to things from their Southeast Asia book and a lot of the Xinjiang stuff seemed to be the same as things from their Flatbreads book. This highlights one of the problems with writing about Chinese food: how do you organize it? In their Southeast Asia book the authors just ate their way up and down the Mekong, and it worked pretty well. In this case the book could end up pretty schizophrenic. While you can, perhaps, lump all the cuisines of the Northwest together, to add in the Southwest you need to make it “All non-Han” which is not a very clear cultural category. Even the title shows this. I’m not really sure Xinjiang is “Beyond the Great Wall” and, I’m sure Guizhou and Tibet are not.

Books like this that include bits of ethnography and history can sometimes be politically questionable in a National Geographic sort of way. How do you talk about the culture of a place without discussing what was going on there while you were traveling? I liked some of the Hunanese recipes from Fushia Dunlap’s Revolutionary Chinese Cookbook but the conceit that this is the food Chairman Mao grew up on made it feel like Stalin’s Home Cooking.2 Lots of western writing on Other Places is about finding the timeless Cuba or Burma, so you gloss over the current political situation and ignore any cultural mixing to get at the Real Singapore. Duguid and Alford are a bit better at this than most. The cultural theme to the book is that this is the food of the ethnic minorities and the other China.

The economic prosperity in China is wildly uneven, and it’s non-Han China that is most frequently on the short end. Mass migrations of people from densely populated regions of Central China to the more sparsely populated areas of Tibet and Xinjiang have the potential to completely overwhelm the local culture.

It’s not a deep examination of China’s current ethnic situation (it’s a cookbook) but it is “probably the most outwardly ‘political’ cookbook we will ever write” a book “not only the food of the people living beyond the Great Wall, but also cultural survival and the preservation of food and culture in smaller societies faced with the impact of a giant at the doorstep”.3

Still, I mainly wanted the book for the recipes, and they look good.4

Land of The Five Flavors is more ambitious and far less successful. First, it is not a cookbook at all. There are a few recipes scattered throughout, so if you need to make some generic cashew chicken and don’t have any Chinese cookbooks or access to the internet this book is helpful. The book is instead “a serious history of food culture.” Although the book is supposedly a history it is about China, where “continuity was stronger than change” (historians hate change) and thus one does not need a chronological structure (always the enemy of good history) to spin tales that offer “an attractive approach to Chinese history for readers who may have had little interest in East Asia so far.” UPDATE: The above was meant to be a criticism. Historians actually love change, and get annoyed when people talk about Timeless China, and although we are not wedded to a chronological structure, we do tend to like it.

So, pretty obviously I am not part of the target audience here. In this book traditional Chinese food culture is all one thing chronologically (he talks examples from the Zhou to the Qing indiscriminately) and while there is a section on famine foods it is mostly about the elite. The book lacks even the center vs. periphery structure of Alford and Duguid, but as it is really supposed to be just a collection of vignettes (really a blog between covers) rather than a serious history that’s o.k. We get bits of stuff on medicine, on inns, on agriculture, on alcohol. There are lots of colorful quotes scattered throughout the book. The first is from Lin Yutang. “If there is anything we [the Chinese] are serious about, it is not religion or learning, but food.” True enough, and The Land of Five Flavors hints at all sorts of ways that thinking about food culture might lead you to understand something interesting about China. Unfortunately this is one of those books whose chief virtue is that it makes you want to go read a better book on the same topic.

  1. Sadly, they seem to have separated. Travel may be hard on a relationship 

  2. Duguid’s new book is about Burma. No idea how you deal with that one. 

  3. I would like to hear them talk some about not only Han cultural imperialism, but also Han cultural appropriation. One reasons Uighurs are getting to be outnumbered in their homeland is that so many of them have left to run restaurants elsewhere in China. They might even talk about the role of books like theirs and how they fit into outsiders attempts to appropriate local cultures. I bet they would have some interesting things to say, although it would not fit in this book. 

  4. UPDATE -I was allowed back in the kitchen, and I made the lamb samsa and a tomato-daikon-cucumber salad. IMG_4003Both very good, but I need to marry a good food photographer if I want to start selling cookbooks.  


  1. I’m sort of glad you got the “Five Flavors” book: I’d been thinking about looking at it, and now I know that it’s not worth it, at least not for what I’m likely looking for.

    Happy New Year!

  2. Alan, your reviews of these books seriously made me laugh. The first book sounds pretty good though. I’m glad that Shari let you back in the kitchen. 🙂

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