In 1969, 12-year old Sasha Gong was sent from her home in the southern Chinese city of Guangzhou to the rural hinterlands to be "re-educated." It was the fourth year of what became the decade-long Cultural Revolution, Mao Zedong's disastrous nationwide movement against "capitalist elements." It was also a time of severe food and fuel shortages that caused China's culinary tradition to flatline.
But as Gong and Scott Seligman, the authors of The Cultural Revolution Cookbook, point out, "it would be a huge mistake to assume that mere shortage of ingredients or fuel stopped Chinese cooks from preparing tasty, nourishing meals." Improvising with limited ingredients and using scarce cooking fuel in the most efficient way became crucial skills. "The results were often surprisingly good: food, even under less than optimal circumstances, could still be nutritious, flavorful and healthy."
A typical breakfast in the south at that time, Gong says, would have comprised rice gruel and some preserved vegetables like pickled cabbage or preserved bean curd. Other meals could consist of rice and vegetables, bean curd and eggs when available. When rice was scarce, sweet potato was added to the rice pot and the two steamed together. Red meat and fish were available perhaps once or twice a month, chicken just once or twice a year.
Out in the countryside, Gong turned out to be a quick study, absorbing recipes and trading culinary tips with her fellow workers while experimenting in the communal kitchen. Without intending to, she became an accomplished and resourceful cook, learning ingenious methods by which rationed ingredients could be stretched. A single potato, thinly shredded, could be served to a few people. The water in which pork was boiled became soup. Eggs were rationed, says Gong, "but a steamed savory egg custard was a dish that could be made to go further ... by simple dilution. More water diluted the flavor, of course, but people were happy just to be able to taste the egg."
When the Cultural Revolution came to an end in 1976, Gong went back to school and eventually ended up in Washington, D.C., where she now heads the Chinese service at the Voice of America. At a party eight years ago, she met Seligman, a local writer and historian who had lived in Taiwan, Hong Kong and China. They bonded over food, Chinese food in particular.
Seligman understood from Gong that "while the Cultural Revolution was a tragic waste of the productive years of the millions of young Chinese Mao sent off to the countryside, one of the things that they actually did learn from the peasants was how to make do with what there was, and make amazingly tasty, nourishing meals from fresh, local, unprocessed ingredients.
Since this is exactly what a lot of modern cooks are trying to do today, it occurred to us that their stories and techniques would resonate with them."
The result is a beautifully illustrated cookbook that documents the indomitable spirit of a people whose defining greeting is still "Have you eaten yet?" Adorned with period posters and trivia that captures the absurdity of the time for instance, who knew the revolution's signature tune "The East Is Red" originated as a peasant's song about, of all things, cabbages? the 80 homely recipes inspire with their simplicity and no-nonsense prose. Whether braised eggplant with minced pork, honey-braised duck, shredded chicken with peanut sauce, or marbled eggs steeped in tea, the dishes share the same DNA: one or two key ingredients, such as a piece of tofu or a slab of pork belly, seasoned with a simple repertoire of sauces and oils.
"Living in the countryside made many into frugal cooks who learned to get the best flavors out of low-calorie foods, devoid of chemical preservatives, fresh from the fields and ponds," adds Seligman. At a time when Chinese society is considerably more stable and affluent, yet plagued by endless food-safety scandals and ever increasing obesity levels, the irony of Seligman's sentiment is not lost on anyone.