MINNEAPOLIS — Few cookbooks take a political point of view, but that is the case with “Beyond the Great Wall” (Artisan, 376 pages, $40), by Jeffrey Alford and Naomi Duguid, a husband-wife team who have collaborated on six remarkable books that pair recipes with culture amid stunning photographs.
In their most recent book, these two adventurers tell the tale of great change in China, which they observed first-hand over 20 years. The resulting book is a travelogue with breathtaking visuals, in the form of a cookbook with great recipes, and in the guise of a political treatise buried within stories. Its subtitle explains its purpose further: “Recipes and travels in the other China,” the “other China” being the one of ethnic minorities within this vast country.
More than 130 million of those living in China, spread over three-fifths of the countryside, are not considered by the government to be Chinese. That includes Tibetans, as recent unrest has reflected, and many other disenfranchised groups.
Perhaps only Alford and Duguid could present great social change in the context of an insightful cookbook. From their first, “Flatbreads and Flavors: A Baker's Atlas” to “Mangoes and Curry Leaves: Travels Through the Great Subcontinent,” their books have influenced the cookbook industry as they have woven together cultures, history, recipes and photos.
Both Alford and Duguid were travelers before they met in Tibet in 1985, each on separate bicycle tours. From that time, their travels have taken them all over Asia and recently to Ethiopia.
Alford and Duguid share photo, writing and recipe duties for all their books, and they have been self-taught in each. Their books take two to three years to complete.
Q. Why this book and why now?
A. We've had the same editor forever, and she called one day and said she likes when we go across borders with our books. ‘Have you ever thought of Central Asia? Like Tibet and those areas?' Yes, we always wanted to do a book on what we call non-Chinese China. We thought our editor would come to her senses. But then we realized there was a tie-in with the Olympics, and Naomi had the title. And so the book went forward.
We had been to China in earlier years. But when I made my first trip for this book, I was completely blown away. Somehow in the book we had to deal with this incredible amount of change in China. In the book, we start in 1980 (when Naomi took her first trip) and we decided to chronicle the change. We had been working in India, Pakistan and Bangladesh, and had seen change there, but not in any shape or form like what we saw in China.
Having worked in India where it's a pleasure to go, China was just the opposite for me. I came back exhausted, and it was in some ways scary. Rich people are really, really rich and when they come to those areas not ethnically Han (the dominant Chinese group), they come in such numbers like a steamroller and completely wipe out a population. The country has never had an economic decline. We know that's inevitable. With so much wealth coming so fast, the country feels vulnerable.
Q. Tell me about the Chinese minorities.
A. In China, there are 130 million people who aren't Chinese. They are called “national minorities.” But the rest of the world also is considered a minority. All this has to do with ethnicity. Six groups are recognized as nationalities, but there are many more.
Once we got to work on the book, we decided we wanted it to come out before the Olympics because it is so important. We weren't surprised by the demonstrations. . . . The Olympics will make people more aware of people who are less than happy with the present system. It's not a Tibet question. There are a lot of people in the exact same position and it's not like they are going to get their own country. There are incredibly positive things that have taken place in China.
Q. How do you gather the recipes in the book?
A. We do it in different ways, but always with our cameras. We don't just sit there with pad and paper. Those aren't situations where that's comfortable. We try to photograph cooks as they work and then, when we get home, we study shots and work out the recipes. A lot of it is really simple food.
Q. You mention in the book that you took your sons to China on an earlier trip.
A. We've been taking them since they were born. One of our ideas was that we wanted to do this together. When the older one was in his last year of high school, he couldn't go. Otherwise, they've always traveled with us. They've been to India six times.
Q. What do you want from your books?
A. This is the most political in nature (of what are essentially cookbooks). It makes people aware. It's just like what happened in Burma or with the tsunami. We're thrilled this book has issues, and we bring them up through food. It's really important that people on the outside know what's going on. Some of what's going on in China is really wrong, and it feels good for us to have a book that lets people know.
Q. Your books were among the first to combine food and anthropology. Did you do that intentionally?
A. We feel lucky because our books are non-mainstream subject matter that is published in a mainstream way. Our first book was on flatbreads from around the world. People said it was good timing. We always feel like we're fighting to get people to think about books. These are more than just food. They are about people and food. We just did a program with Gourmet magazine about “Beyond the Great Wall.” That gets to an audience that might not otherwise think about these issues. Cookbooks shouldn't stand still. They should move, and we feel like we do our part.
Q. Have you switched to digital photography?
A. We didn't. We thought about it. It looked attractive. But even our publisher said ‘You don't have an original' with digital. We also realized we should stick with what we know.
GINGER AND CARROT STIR-FRY
Serves 4 as a side dish.
Note: The chopping takes a little attention. Start with two “fingers” of firm, nonfibrous ginger root. Peel them and cut lengthwise in half before cutting them into narrower lengthwise sticks. Do the same with the carrots. There's great depth of flavor from the small amount of pork that flavors the cooking oil, and plenty of sauce to spoon onto your rice. Sichuan peppercorns can be found in Asian markets and specialty stores.
2 tbsp. peanut oil or lard
1 tbsp. minced garlic
1/3 pound boneless pork butt, shoulder or loin, thinly sliced and cut into 1/2- by 1 1/2-inch strips
2 whole green cayenne chiles or 3 dried red chiles
About 2/3 pound carrots, peeled and cut into matchsticks (1 3/4 cups)
About 1/3 pound fresh ginger root, peeled and cut into matchsticks (1 cup)
1/2 teaspoon salt
1 cup water
10 to 12 Sichuan peppercorns, lightly crushed or coarsely ground
2 tablespoons soy sauce, or to taste
Heat a wok or wide heavy skillet over high heat. Add the oil or lard and swirl to coat the bottom of the pan. Toss in the garlic and stir-fry for 10 seconds or so, then toss in the pork and chiles. Stir-fry, separating the pieces of meat so all get exposed to the hot pan, until they have started to change color all over, less than 2 minutes.
Toss in the carrots and ginger and stir-fry for about a minute. Add the salt and stir-fry for another minute. Add the water, cover and boil vigorously for about 3 minutes, then remove the lid and let the liquid boil down for a minute or two. Add the Sichuan peppercorns and soy sauce. Stir-fry for another minute, or until the carrots and ginger are tender but still firm. Serve hot or warm.
Nutrition information per serving: 215 calories; 13g fat; 816mg sodium; 16g carbohydrates; 46mg calcium; 10g protein; 26g cholesterol.
SILK ROAD TOMATO-BELL PEPPER SALAD
Note: This is served as a cooling accompaniment to flavored rice and meat.
1 medium-large bell pepper, preferably yellow or orange
1 large or 2 medium ripe tomatoes
1/2 tsp. salt, or to taste
About 1/4 cup chopped coriander, mint or dill
2 tablespoons well-chilled full- or reduced-fat yogurt
1/2 teaspoon salt
Additional chopped fresh coriander, mint or dill
Remove the core, seeds and ribs from the pepper. Slice lengthwise in 1 / 4-inch wide strips and cut the strips into 1-inch lengths. Place in a shallow bowl. Chop the tomato into small chunks and add to the bowl. Sprinkle on the salt, add the herbs, toss gently and serve.
Yogurt dressing: Toss the salad with a yogurt dressing, if desired. Whisk yogurt with 1 / 2 teaspoon salt and pinch cayenne, then pour over the salad. Toss gently to mix well, sprinkle on a little chopped coriander, mint or dill, and serve immediately.
Nutrition information per serving:
Calories 19 Fat 0 g Sodium 600 mg
Carbohydrates 4 g Saturated fat 0 g Calcium 18 mg
Protein 1 g Cholesterol 1 g Dietary fiber 1 g
Diabetic exchanges per serving: 1 vegetable.
Makes about 3 tablespoons.
Note: A simple spice rub can transform flavors and textures of grilled meat. This pepper-salt combination is often used as a seasoning and spice rub in China. Use it as a dry rub on meat before roasting or grilling, put it out on the table as a condiment, or add it to oil. Consider these recipe proportions to be a guide. Sichuan peppercorns can be found in Asian markets and specialty stores.
3 dried red chiles or 2 teaspoonsblack peppercorns
2 tablespoons kosher salt, divided
1 teaspoon Sichuan peppercorns
If using dried chiles, dry roast them in a small heavy skillet over medium-high heat until they soften, about 1 minute. Turn out and coarsely chop; discard any tough stems.
Transfer to a spice grinder or clean coffee grinder, or to a mortar, add 1 tablespoon of the salt and grind or pound to a powder. Turn out into a bowl and set aside.
Place the Sichuan peppercorns and the black peppercorns, if using, in the skillet and dry-roast until just aromatic, 1 to 2 minutes. Transfer to the spice or coffee grinder or mortar, add the remaining 1 tablespoon salt (or the 2 tablespoons if you aren't using dried chiles) and grind or pound to a powder. Add the powder to the ground chile-salt. Let cool completely before storing in a clean glass jar.
Pepper-Salt Basting Oil: Use the pepper-salt to flavor oil for basting when you are grilling food. Stir about 1 tablespoon powder into 1 / 4 cup oil (either olive oil or more traditional peanut oil or lard). Brush onto vegetables or meat just before you grill or as they are grilling.