Friday, September 19, 2008

Beyond The Great Wall

In my world there are two types of cookbooks...the ones filled mostly with recipes and a few snippets of description and the other type. I call it them "National Geographic" cookbooks. You know what I mean...they take you through a stunning pictorial journey of some place or other and introduce you to some fabulous ethnic foods.

Back in the ...well that will tell you how old I am, so...back in the day, I collected the Time Life series (no longer in print) that explored different countries, the cultural differences of each region and fantastic recipes that were complex but not difficult to follow and the photos...well...very National Geographic. And so I was hooked. I love to know more about places that I probably will never visit in person, which leads me to the most fantastic book of this genre....

Beyond The Great Wall is beautifully written and photographed by Jeffrey Alford and Naomi Duguid who have written five other awesome books, including Mango & Curry Leaves ...another book high on my wish list. Before sharing my take on this glorious book that takes us through the less travelled paths in China, I need to mention that my daughter did such a trek, and naturally whenever she comes over, she gravitates to the book to relive some of her experiences there.

In fact, it wasn't until she came back to Toronto (we were living there at the time) that I ever tasted momos, a wonderful filled savory pastry. We discovered a great little Tibetian restaurant on Queen Street that served them. Now I can make some of my own, thanks to the book. Sounds like a wonderful weekend project for the two of us...especially the ones filled with tender pea tendrils that I can find at the Halifax Farmers Market and a pinch or two of cayenne and cumin. I'll keep you posted.

Back to the book...I love the travelogues and photos that precede recipes like this intro to Grassland Herb Salsa...

"In Manzhouli, on the border between Inner Mongolia and Siberia, I shared a
convivial meal of lamb hot pot... Maznhouli is a wild place, as most
border towns are, a place where goods and services, both legal and
illegal,are bought and sold and lots of money seems to change hands."

Can't you just feel the atmosphere?

Of course, even beautiful books are useless (except as coffee table books) unless the recipes are great too, made with easy to find ingredients. I'll definitely be making some Mongolian Lamb Patties that sound delicious and so simple to make...some ground lamb, lots of chopped garlic and scallions, cilantro leaves, fresh gingerroot and pepper...all easy to find at any local grocery store.

All of the culturally distinct people are so beautifully described in picture and word, that you feel as if you've been there...or,at the very least, want to go and visit. Peppered throughout the book are detailed descriptions of these unique people of a China we don't usually see. For example, the Dai live in Southern and Yunnan, bordering on Burma and Laos. They are lowland rice cultivators and great own personal favorite way to cook. The simple grilled chicken...pieces rubbed with a paste of garlic, salt and ground Sichuan peppercorns are gently grilled over a low fire. We've all heard of the Mongolian Hot Pot, but I never before read such a telling portrait of the people...5 million living in China today.

Even the glossary makes for a wonderful read. Did you know that "goat meat is sold at many kosher butchers, Caribbean groceries, South Asian groceries and halal butchers...or that the tail must be left on sheep and goat carcasses to that they can be told apart, goats have narrow tails and sheep tails are wider". I'm not sure if that's only in China or here in North America as well.

Now I'm off to read some more and decide on which recipes to cook first.

Edited on September 27, add some awesome recipes I tried

Mongolian Lamb Patties

Dai Grilled Chicken

Dai-style Pea Tendril Salad

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