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Come the Revolution... Great Food!

Tuesday, November 29, 2011
Sasha Gong and Scott D. Seligman have written a beautiful new -- and will be published next week -- Chinese cookbook. It has some wonderful dishes, many of which you won't find in your local take-out joint, 'though you maybe surprised to find some old favorites in simpler (but tastier) form. We're posting a section of the preface, and two recipes from:
The Cultural Revolution Cookbook: Simple, Healthy Recipes from China’s Countryside.

Jin’er, Guangdong, 1969:
Re-Education by the Peasants

The Cultural Revolution, launched in mid-1966, greatly radicalized the already fanatical political atmosphere in China. During this chaotic period, my siblings and I rejoined our parents in the city of Guangzhou, but in 1968, both my parents -- and those of many of my friends -- were sent to camps for "re-education through labor," something that happened to the majority of the nation’s intellectuals. My siblings and I -- we were 14, 12, 10 and 6 at the time -- had to live by ourselves in the city. We had a very small allowance from the government, which matched exactly the official poverty line. My sister -- later an economist -- took care of the finances, and I became the family cook.

Food was scare and rationed. Every morning, I went to the market and waited in several lines to buy it. A few times a week, children from several families would put our meager rations together and create a variety of dishes. On one very memorable occasion, nine of us made more than 300 dumplings, dividing the food evenly among ourselves. Cooking was among very few enjoyable activities in those dark days. From time to time, I found satisfaction in making simple dishes, such as Tofu with Scallions and Sesame Dressing.

In 1969, Chairman Mao Zedong ordered high school students to resettle in the countryside, beginning the exodus that would eventually send 17 million to rural areas. At age 12, I was too young to be covered by this policy, but I was soon sent with about 100 others my age to a village elsewhere in Guangdong called Jin'er to be "re-educated" by the local peasants. And what a re-education it was! From 1969-1971, I learned to work in the rice fields and to plant vegetables. My team was also charged with building a school and cooking for hundreds of people in communal kitchens.

Faded slogans still adorn this building in Jin’er more than a quarter century after the end of the Cultural Revolution. This one reads, “Rely on ourselves, fight hard and re-make Jin’er.”

In Guangdong as in Hunan, nearly everything we ate was locally produced. Rice came from the village paddy, vegetables from family plots and meat from the pigs raised on the collective farm. It was actually processed food that was considered exotic and was highly prized. Machine made noodles, for example, were served only on important occasions such as birthdays. Noodles are a traditional Chinese symbol of longevity, so a bowl of them with one or two eggs was our version of a "birthday cake." Canned food was a luxury only a small number of well-off, urban professionals could afford. One can of the Chinese version of Spam was considered so nutritious that it could fetch two months' worth of meat rations. Apart from its high price, processed food was rare because of the difficulty of transportation. Things like noodles and crackers could be found only in the county seat, a four-hour round trip by bicycle.

For a short time, young people who had been sent down from the urban areas were assigned to eat with the villagers. Before long, however, the peasants protested, because we ate too much -- far more than the ration coupons and money we brought in could buy. So the authorities decided to set up a communal kitchen. We rotated in groups of seven for 10-day stints in the kitchen, during which time we did the cooking instead of going to work in the field. So everyone got a chance to learn how it was done, and few took advantage of the position by filling their bellies at others' expense. We learned to make the most out of a relatively small palette of available ingredients, including cooking oil, soy sauce, salt, scallions, ginger and a few vegetables. I became particularly proficient with a knife, learning how to slice and chop efficiently. But mostly I learned the surprisingly wide variety of dishes and tastes that could be made with just a few, fresh ingredients, and how to get the best flavors out of what we had.
Sasha Gong

Recipes from the Book

Food Photography by Charles Cohan Fischl

Stir-Fried Corn and Pine Nuts

Corn was considered low-class, coarse food during the Cultural Revolution, in large part because Chinese corn was far less sweet than today's American variety. The occasional ear of sweet corn that appeared was highly prized and used in dishes like this one.

2 ears of corn on the cob (or 2 cups -- 328 g. -- of canned or frozen corn kernels)
1 scallion (spring onion)
1/2 cup (70 g.) pine nuts
2 Tbsp. (30 ml.) cooking oil
Pinch of salt

  1. Place the two ears of corn in their husks in a microwave oven. If the corn has already been husked, wrap it in a wet paper towel first. Microwave for three minutes on high. Remove the husks and silk, or the paper towel, and allow to cool. Then cut the kernels off of the cobs. (If you are using frozen corn, just let it thaw until it is at room temperature; canned corn may be used right out of the can).
  2. Slice the scallion on the bias into small pieces about the same size as the corn kernels.
  3. Place a wok over medium flame and add pine nuts without using any oil. Stir-fry them for a minute until they turn slightly brownish, then remove them from the wok and set them aside.
  4. Add oil to the wok and heat it until it just begins to smoke.
  5. Add the scallion pieces and stir-fry very briefly -- 10 seconds is enough. Then add the corn and stir-fry for 30 seconds more.
  6. Add salt and then return the pine nuts to the wok. Make sure the ingredients are well-mixed and warm. Remove and serve.

Food Photography by Charles Cohan Fischl

Spicy White Radish Salad

The Chinese seldom eat vegetables that have not been cooked thoroughly, but this one is an exception. These large radishes -- which you can often find in American supermarkets -- are especially sweet and lend themselves to being eaten raw. Topping this dish off with a large spoonful of crushed, roasted nuts will add even more flavor and texture.

1 large white, Daikon radish (if unavailable, 2-3 turnips may be substituted)
3-4 cloves of garlic
1 slice ginger (about the size and thickness of a quarter)
1 tsp. (5 ml.) vegetable oil
2 Tbsp. (30 ml.) sesame oil
3 Tbsp. (45 ml.) soy sauce
3 Tbsp. (45 ml.) dark vinegar (but white will do)
1 tsp. to 1 Tbsp. (5 to 15 ml.) hot sauce, to taste (Chinese cooks use a paste made with hot peppers, but Tabasco sauce maybe substituted)

  1. Wash and peel the radish and slice it into strips about 2-3 inches (5-7 cm.) long and 1/4 inch (6mm.) wide. Crush the garlic and chop the ginger, mixing them together into a smooth paste.
  2. Mix all the ingredients (except the radish) together and add them to the garlic-ginger paste. Blend them well into a sauce.
  3. Arrange the radish pieces on a serving plate, cover with the sauce and serve.


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