Cookbook Review: Chinese Feasts + Festivals

Chinese Feasts + Festivalsby S.C. Moey, available in the US via Tuttle, is about very traditional ways of celebrating the festivals of the Chinese calendar. My first thought when I flipped through the book was that I had been transported back to my junior year abroad, which I spent in Taiwan – and I wished I had known this much then about the culture of the country, not just about the language! I can easily recall the sights, sounds, and tastes the author describes, and they would have been much more meaningful had I had a chance to read about them beforehand.

I think those of us who studied in Taiwan in the mid- to late 1980s were exposed to much more traditional Chinese culture than those classmates who studied in the much more recently established language programs in the mainland. Although Communist China, having been “forbidden” to Americans for so many years, seemed much more interesting to many of us, the opportunity to live with a Chinese family was not an option there – students lived in dorms with other Americans, and contact between Chinese students and Americans was still fairly tightly controlled. I feel lucky to have lived with a Chinese family and to have been treated to the feasts S.C. Moey writes about, but with only two years of the language under my belt, even asking the right questions was difficult – much less understanding what the family, who spoke absolutely no English, was trying to convey to me about their holidays – and I was sadly underprepared for this part of my sojourn abroad!

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The in-depth cultural notes are clearly written with a deep love of the author’s own culture – perhaps, I suggested to my husband (who is from China’s Hunan Province), in an effort to preserve some of the cultural heritage that remains in Singapore, Taiwan, and other outlying Chinese-inhabited countries? My memory of Mainland China was one of communist utilitarianism and a desperate rush toward modernization that left much of the traditional culture behind as something outdated and almost shamefully self-indulgent. But my husband mentioned that in the past decade, there has been a movement to reintroduce many of these festivals and feasts, not only in the countryside – where they have stayed somewhat alive despite the government’s attempts from the 1950s on to shut them down as relics of an undesirable era – but also in the cities.

The recipes in the book are well-written and easy to follow, although for a vast majority of the American audience, the thought of buying some ingredients – such as a whole fish that must then be gutted, scaled, etc. – is a bit off-putting! We cook a fair amount of Chinese food at home, and we definitely focus on day-to-day home cooking – although some of the recipes in this book are for dishes meant to be prepared at special times of the year and shared with family and friends who are invited to partake in the festivities, some of them are entirely manageable for weekday dinners, especially with a little forethought when ingredients need to be soaked, etc.

In Part I, the recipes are divided into standard cookbook sections (Vegetables, Meat, Poultry, etc.), but the real riches come at the end of the book: Part II is about specific feast days and the particular foods that are eaten only at those times of the year. Many of these recipes are for items that can be found in Asian markets in advance of those feast days – foods that I never imagined making at home. I’ll admit I haven’t yet attempted moon cakes or salted preserved eggs, but with this book in hand, I may be tempted to try it!

The Vital Ingredients section is excellent, providing simple explanations of commonly used ingredients and – perhaps more importantly – simple substitutions that are readily available, even to those who don’t have access to an Asian grocery store.

The author is also the illustrator, and the folksy pictures show traditional scenes of Chinese festivals being celebrated and dishes being cooked but rarely of the actual dishes for which recipes are given.

I think that in the end, this book will definitely enrich my Chinese cooking classes, and I hope my half Chinese children will spend some time using it to bone up on that half of their heritage! A great purpose for anyone looking to learn more about this part of Chinese culture, particularly those who love to cook and/or teach Chinese language and culture at the elementary and secondary level.

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A revolution is NOT a dinner party…but a dinner party could start a revolution?

A Revolution is Not a Dinner Party
– Mao Zedong

Alarmists decry the “secret Farm Bill,” although the failure of the Joint Select Committee on Deficit Reduction has now rendered it moot except possibly as an example of the surprising notion that politicians can occasionally work in a bi-partisan and bi-cameral fashion on America’s own version of the Five-Year Plan. Optimists note the increasing numbers of young people going back to the land and re-learning the simple arts of growing, cooking, and preserving food. In Fair Food: Growing a Healthy, Sustainable Food System for All, Oran Hesterman writes that the fair food movement may be the movement of this young generation, much as the anti-Vietnam War movement engaged the youth of the late sixties and early seventies. Can it be that America is indeed entering into a good food revolution that moves beyond the elitist foodie-dominated dinner party?

Cover image

It was with a sense of serendipity, then, that I read about a new Chinese cookbook: just in time for the holidays, The Cultural Revolution Cookbook, by Sasha Gong and Scott D. Seligman, is available from Earnshaw Books. Full of colorful socialist realist art and notes and stories from the Cultural Revolution, this book has accomplished what few memoirs, histories, and movies about the era have done – present a reflective, thoughtfully balanced view of what has largely come to be viewed as an experiment that my ‘tween daughter’s generation would label “an epic fail.”

Sasha Gong and Scott Seligman

Sasha Gong and Scott Seligman; photo by Alice Thurston

Sasha Gong was herself one of the many youth who were “sent down” to the countryside during the Great Proletarian Cultural Revolution of 1966-1976, removed from city life to work and live with (and, Mao hoped, learn from) the peasants. There are plenty of accounts of this era that dwell on the horrors of life in poverty, of stretching flour with sawdust to make enough bread to survive, of the government manipulating the media to cover up famine statistics. Ironically, wasn’t there just a piece about American fast and processed food industries using cellulose – AKA wood pulp – as a filler and binder in their products, and  wasn’t there a take-down notice on another site that posted the story?

But back to The Cultural Revolution Cookbook, which takes the stance that while in retrospect, many of the sent-down youth came to view the era as “a tragic waste of their productive years and an unmitigated disaster for China,” the truth of the matter is that many of these young people went willingly and enthusiastically, ready to do Mao’s bidding in whatever project would build the new socialism. And in fact, these youth learned a great deal about life skills, particularly about cooking.  The ability to make do with what was available created a generation of cooks able to turn what was local, fresh, and seasonal (if scarce) into dishes that provided enough nourishment to get them through the arduous physical labor required of them.

Corn harvest

This, then, is the starting point for the recipes in this book – a limited number of readily-available ingredients, simple substitutions, and straightforward instructions – and in this the authors have been highly successful. Anyone intimidated by the idea of cooking (much less cooking something as exotic as Chinese food) will find this cookbook invitingly simple, and I am all for cookbooks that reintroduce the average American to the kitchen! Additionally, with its colorful art, entertaining and informative sidebars, and attractive food photography, this book would serve equally well as a cultural artifact and coffee-table book.

On to the cold hard facts: with a friend’s help, I tested 11 of the book’s 60 recipes twice, served them to dinner guests, and have the following comments:

  • Nine of the 11 recipes were resounding successes – they delivered exactly what the authors promise: simple foods simply prepared with tasty and attractive results. It was heartwarming to hear my leftover-averse ‘tween promise her friend that she’d bring the leftover “Sweet and Sour White Radish” (enough for both of them!) for lunch on Monday. Only one dish, the Vinegar-Glazed Chinese Cabbage, earned the comment, “Well, if my mother made this, I would eat it, but I wouldn’t like it!” (My Chinese-born husband, however, says that the dish is “the real thing.”) And only one dish, the Minced Pork and Scallion Cake, was much more problematic: the instructions omitted mincing the scallion, the amount of water added is truly excessive – it would seem 1 T is more appropriate than 1.5 c), and even an estimate of the amount of time to steam was not provided. This recipe, however, seems to be an exception: while I did not test more recipes, reading through all of them as someone who has studied culinary arts, I got the sense that they would largely be successful.
  • The ingredients are wonderfully limited in number, and most of them are whole, close-to-the-source foods (the only minimally processed items were soy sauce, vinegar, canned stock, and tofu). I was a bit taken aback by the amount of sugar used and reduced it in all recipes the second time around.
  • The substitutions suggested are mostly helpful, although I think telling the average American home cook that “any wine will do” may result in some Cabernet replacing what really should be more of a sherry-type wine.
  • The instructions are simple to follow, particularly if you read the prefatory sections on utensils and portions. I would have liked to have seen a bit more clarity on procedures that can make or break a dish, such as “boiling” when “simmering” would be more appropriate, and I was surprised to see the microwave called upon a few times – not because it’s an anachronism, but because there are other, simpler ways of heating tofu and making it easier to handle. Completely as a matter of personal preference relating to ease of use, I would rather the instructions be presented as a numbered list than as a paragraph. In general, it’s as though your mother or grandmother is teaching you to make a family favorite (including, sometimes, the sense that you should do it that way just because she says so!) A more curious student might wish for a bit more explanation of the “why” alongside the “how.” And while I followed the recipes exactly as written the first time through, I balked at the all-too-frequent instruction to heat the oil to smoking – while it may be the way Chinese cooks have done it for centuries, my American sense that heating the oil to the smoking point may render it unhealthy overruled my desire to follow the directions.

Huge pumpkin

In summary, from professional chefs (who will likely make tweaks as they go) to the average or aspiring home cook (who follows recipes to the letter), this book has a lot of food for thought as well as for cooking and enjoying with family and friends. I would not hesitate to recommend it, whether it’s for your own use in the home kitchen, as a gift for a fellow or aspiring cook, or for someone who has an interest in the Cultural Revolution period of modern Chinese history.

Thanks to the authors for providing the photos!

Revolutionary Chinese Cookbook

Revolutionary Chinese Cookbook: Recipes from Hunan Province

Revolutionary Chinese Cookbook

This is my all-time favorite English-language Chinese cookbook. Written by Fuchsia Dunlop, one of the few (if any other!) non-Chinese people to have attended the Sichuan Institute of Higher Cuisine, it contains gorgeous photographs and a wealth of information, from descriptions of ingredients particular to Hunanese cuisine and tools to cooking methods. Dunlop’s introductions to each section and recipe are occasionally lengthy but almost always informative and interesting and clearly reflect her training as a journalist.

The recipes are without exception delicious and authentic (I’ve eaten some of these dishes in Hunan), although the ingredients are not all readily available unless you have an Asian market nearby, and some are quite labor-intensive (but worth it to achieve the real thing). Some recipes are certainly for special occasions when we ignore calorie count!

I highly recommend this book to anyone who wants to explore Hunanese cuisine in depth, but also to anyone who wants a useful coffee table book – proof that this is not an oxymoron!