Sridhar Reddy's Reviews > Beyond the Great Wall: Recipes and Travels in the Other China

Beyond the Great Wall by Jeffrey Alford
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's review
Jul 31, 09

bookshelves: cookbooks

It is often asserted that Chinese food in the United States tastes better than Chinese food in China. It's a bold statement, considering that many people (myself included) have no concievable idea of what Chinese food actually is. We're saddled with the General Tso and Chow Mein stereotypes of the food, and any other exposure of the cuisine in mainstream media ventures into the absurdly exotic, with the consumption of the offal of creatures that we rarely associate with everyday food.

But BEYOND THE GREAT WALL challenges and defeats this ignorance by introducing its readers to the other China, the one that few are familiar with, the one whose massive diversity is best exemplified through its food. We are introduced to the foods of Tibet and Inner Mongolia, whose influences are as much Indian, Afghani, and Nepali as they are with what we associate as 'traditional' Chinese cooking.

Beyond recipes of lesser represented ethnic groups within China, the book also serves as a political travelogue of the challenges of representation that many of these groups face. A lot of dissent has been placed upon the book for this reason, many believing it to be politically biased against the Chinese governance, and many believing that the politics has nothing to do with the food.

I challenge this sentiment in that the food is a symbol of the origins and identities of the people. That many of the recipes from Inner Mongolia and Tibet share influences from Persia and India show that these people have a history and geopolitical identity. These are not fringe pockets of people, they are bona-fide cultures that deserve recognition, rights and identity within their country. It's a bold political statement told through an even bolder vector, that of food.

As for the food, the recipes presented are extremely flavorful and well presented. All ingredients can be found at Asian grocers and even at the 'ethnic' food sections of major supermarkets. Easy substitutions can be made with a quick internet search. The photography in the book is simply spectacular, bringing both the food and culture into kinetic life. The travelogue portions of the cookbook are eye-opening and well-written, and the book would have legs as a travelogue even without the benefit of recipes.

BEYOND THE GREAT WALL is a book that informs, challenges and entertains on many levels, which is rarity in a cookbook. It's one of the best cookbooks from a recipe standpoint, as everything we've made from it has turned out delicious, and a bonus has been that most of the recipes took less than thirty minutes to prepare. Hands down, BEYOND THE GREAT WALL is one of the best cookbooks out there in a marketplace that emphasizes celebrity chef personalities over the food, and the people and cultures it represents. Seek it out.
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