Beyond Wontons

A new cookbook showcases recipes from China’s ethnic minorities.

Also in Slate, Andrew Nathan reviews The Man on Mao’s Right: From Harvard Yard to Tiananmen Square, My Life Inside China’s Foreign Ministry, Minxin Pei reviews Out of Mao’s Shadow: The Struggle for the Soul of a New China, and Ann Hulbert takes on two novels by Xiaolu Guo, one of China’s young expatriate stars.

At first glance, Beyond the Great Wall: Recipes and Travels in the Other China looks much like every other expensive cookbook: a weighty, glossy tome that’s large enough to be a coffee table by itself. But look again: It isn’t until the end of the book’s lengthy introduction, after a lesson on the geography and peoples of China’s periphery, after a centerfold of maps and a page of language family trees, that any mention of food appears. And even if you only skim authors Jeffrey Alford and Naomi Duguid’s opening remarks about how “three-fifths of the land area we now call China is historically the home of people who are not ethnically Chinese” and how “non-Han China” is “most frequently on the short end,” you’ll realize that this cookbook isn’t just about perfectly fried Uighur pastries with pea tendrils.

To twist a lit-class truism, all cookbooks are political. And almost every single-country cookbook promotes a homogenizing agenda, if only obliviously, by focusing on the cuisine of the dominant ethnic group. If you don’t believe me, just try finding a Kurdish recipe in a Turkish cookbook. Beyond takes the opposite tack: It’s a Chinese cookbook that ignores what we think of as Chinese food. A preservationist manifesto, the book draws all its recipes from China’s ethnic minorities—Tibetans, Mongolians, Uighurs, Hui, Dai, and more than a half-dozen other groups, each of which is briefly profiled. Alford and Duguid, a Canadian couple who met on a Lhasa rooftop and who have published a series of inimitable culinary travelogues, wrote Beyond with the sinking feeling that these minority cultures are imperiled. (The book concludes with “A Note on Sinicization.”) It’s an alarm bell disguised as a set of dumpling directions. As Alford said in a recent interview, “We think there’s an overlap between the seed savers who are making sure we save our plant biodiversity, and those of us that are making sure that cultures survive; our way of talking about that is through food.”

The theory of cultural preservation through cookery is well and good, but it works only if people like the cookery. And some of the recipes in Beyond are a hard sell. Along with a very few other ethnographic cookbook writers like Paula Wolfert or Diana Kennedy, Alford and Duguid are interested in cuisines at their most basic: Asked once at an industry dinner in New York what they were working on, Alford replied, only half-facetiously, “We’d really like to do a book about sorghum and millet.” In researching Beyond, Alford took a trip to Hom, a remote and impoverished village in China where few other cookbook authors would go. That’s because, well, there isn’t much food there: “They’d boil bones. They’d hand-pull noodles and put them in the broth and then put it on a platter and put the bones on top. So then I get home, and I’m, like, O.K., bones and noodles?” But I feel far from the cuisine of poverty and hardship in my cozy Connecticut apartment. So, a few weeks ago, when I began cooking widely from Beyond, I was expecting blowback: I worried that I’d finish a recipe from some obscure, oppressed minority and then place a to-go order for General Tso’s chicken.

First up, I fired up the grill to make the Dai specialty of pressed tofu coated with chilies and lard, a combination so incongruous it almost seems perverse. (When a couple of recent contestants on Bravo’s Top Chef were told to create a dish that conveyed the word perplexed, they marinated tofu in beef fat. And they won.) But it’s also marvelous: charred, crisp and then creamy, less lard-tinged than mysteriously savory.

When I turned to the Tibetan section, I cheated, sort of. Most Tibetan dishes are short on vegetables, but I sampled a high-altitude ratatouille, with eggplant and tomato stew, Sichuan pepper, and soy sauce. Enriched with what the authors call Tibetan bone broth—oxtail, ginger, star anise, water, heat—it’s tasty, easy, and exotic at the same time. It’s also homey, something I’d never associated with the out-there Tibetan cuisine I’d had before. And I tried tsampa, the Tibetan Clif Bar: whole barley that’s toasted and then ground into flour. The Tibetans stir it into butter tea, but I dipped it into sour yogurt instead, which parries its toasted flavor. It’s an oddly appealing cold morning breakfast, like dark-roasted granola that happened to get finely pulverized.

The great surprise of Beyond is how many of the dishes, like the faux-ratatouille and the tsampa, are both peculiar and familiar. The yogurt-based, covered-pot-baked Kazakh bread smells exactly like good dinner rolls from a Midwestern supper club, but the moist, absorbent texture seems closer to an underwater sea sponge. Ground-lamb samsa, the Central Asian version of Hot Pockets, would fit in at a church potluck, although I’d keep quiet about the quarter-cup of lamb fat used for flavoring. But if the recipes are unexpectedly accessible and simple, the tastes vary wildly as Alford and Duguid pinball across China. Raw vegetables rarely make an appearance in Han Chinese cooking, but there’s a chapter’s worth of recipes for uncooked meals here. I tried fresh Silk Road salads from Xinjiang and Central Asia, including an onion and pomegranate variation, as well as a half-cooked Dai carrot salad with pickled chilies—my new favorite source of beta carotene. This diversity of flavor matches how Alford and Duguid see China: eclectic, novel, anything but monolithic.

Every page of Beyond makes pretty much the same political point: Hey, we’re over here in Kashgar! Pay attention to these people before it’s too late! But I can excuse this redundancy. It’s an important point, and one that’s more likely to be heard since it’s accompanied by a plate of Uighur pomegranate-juice marinated lamb kebabs. As a next step, Alford and Duguid push readers to travel—to stop settling for the photographs (all taken by Alford and Duguid themselves) and get closer to the people in them. This is the only cookbook I know with a subhead for “border crossings.” When you finally arrive in Inner Mongolia, make sure you order the millet with pickled mustard greens for breakfast.