Book Review: The Cultural Revolution Cookbook

A sample page, courtesy of The Cultural Revolution Cookbook.
A sample page, courtesy of The Cultural Revolution Cookbook.
Each recipe features a picture and the name of the dish in Chinese on the left page, and the right page provides the recipes with notes from the author and an illustrated historical anecdote.

I don’t remember how I came across The Cultural Revolution Cookbook, but  the idea of pairing food with a little bit of uncensored Chinese communist history fascinated me. The main inspiration and author of the book, Sasha Gong, lived through Cultural Revolution period herself, and instead of commiserating on her fate, she made the most out of it. Through this cookbook, in partnership with Scott Seligman, we get a glimpse of what life at the dinner table was like during the cultural revolution, a part of history somewhat very blurry for me.

Living on a rationed diet, people like Sasha had to learn how to scavenge for extra food, grow some in secrecy, and learn how to cook ingredients efficiently and economically. Sent to a re-education camp in the countryside, she learned how to cook and grow vegetables, later, assigned to a candy factory as a manual worker, she enjoyed direct access to sugar, a luxury at the time. Cooking being one of the few safer topic of discussion among the staff,  she furthered her cooking knowledge, gleaning tricks and tips by chatting with them. No matter where the communist sent her for re-education, it feels like she always found the positive attitude to make that time less dreadful, and actually enjoyable.

A glimpse  at the chronological events during the Cultural Revolution.
A glimpse at the chronological events during the Cultural Revolution.

A succinct but informative chronology of historical anecdotes is included at the beginning of the book, providing some welcomed background information for those unfamiliar with the cultural revolution.

Similar to intellectuals, culinary chefs were subjects to oppression under Mao’s ruling, and so, to the benefit of Taiwan, many of them escaped to said island, where they kept Chinese culinary traditions alive. A new environment and a different availability of ingredients lead to the fine tuning of recipes, slightly diverting some dishes from their original taste or form, the mapo tofu especially comes to mind with the Taiwanese version much less fiery than its Sichuanese counterpart. New dishes also saw the light, like the infamous General Tso’s Chicken which went on to become a fixture on every menus at Chinese American restaurants.

At a time, right now, where China’s awakened hunger and thirst gives the impression of swallowing the world’s agricultural production, and sometimes, extinguishing some endangered species, this cookbook makes for a great back-to-the-basics lesson, showing how to make tasty dishes using only humble and affordable ingredients. The author made sure to use ingredients available at most American supermarkets, the cooking instructions rarely go over five steps, and a lot of the cooking takes just a matter of seconds. If you want to impress some Chinese in-laws or friends alike, I’d certainly recommend putting together a meal with recipes from this cookbook.

Those who enjoyed reading Shark’s Fin and Sichuan Pepper from Fuchsia Dunlop or her other books, should also enjoy The Cultural Revolution Cookbook, which exposes a different facet of Chinese food culture and history, and gives us the benefit of experiencing the cultural revolution in the comfort of our own kitchen.

On a separate note, as I was putting the final touches on this post, I discovered The Gaza Kitchen, a cookbook taking us inside a Gazan house kitchen,  with recipes to vehicle daily life stories inside the isolated enclave. The Gaza Kitchen shares some parallels with The Cultural Revolution Cookbook, with a kind of minimalist cooking forced out of context, often lending to improvisation in the face of ingredients scarcity and shortage of gas and electricity for cooking. I find it amazing how much history and politics can be learned just through food traditions, such that if I was to be my own History teacher, I’d cook up a food inspired curriculum, tasting included!

Learn more about The Cultural Revolution Cookbook in this interview with the author, Sasha Gong, and amazon’s reviews. The book’s website is also very informative, listing all the recipes introduced and some sample pages.

More about the Cultural Revolution and the Great Famine:

(last updated: 2014/08/18 一)

 

 

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