'Cultural Revolution Cookbook': A Taste Of Humanity

Jan 22, 2012
Originally published on January 25, 2012 9:24 am

From about 1966 to 1976, China's leader Mao Zedong enforced a brutal agenda. Everything was rationed during the Cultural Revolution. Millions of people were forced out of the cities and into the countryside, where food was even scarcer. The government controlled people's movements, their livelihoods, even their thoughts.

A new book combines the memories and culinary skills of one Chinese political dissident who lived through that time. The Cultural Revolution Cookbook was written by Sasha Gong and her friend Scott Seligman, a Washington, D.C., writer who lived for several years in China.

A Celebration Of Triumph

Gong has lived in the U.S. since 1987, and she earned a Ph.D. from Harvard. But her childhood in China was a hard one. Ten years old at the beginning of the Cultural Revolution, Gong was sent to the countryside as punishment because her grandfather was accused of being a counter-revolutionary.

Gong and her family worked on farms, but the food all went to the government. Her family, like so many others, was left to fend for itself, and she learned to cook with whatever she could find.

In the cookbook, she shares the peasant recipes of that time and how food kept families together, despite a revolution that was pulling them apart. Seligman says the book is not meant as an apology for the Cultural Revolution.

"It was a horrible time. People starved, people died. A lot of people suffered. And that's not really the point of the book," he says. "This is a celebration of the people who triumphed though this horrible time when there wasn't enough food, and there wasn't freedom, and all those awful things were happening. But somehow they managed to make do with what they had."

When Gong sits down to these meals now, it reminds her of family ties. She remembers cooking many meals for her friends when she was a dissident in China, working in a factory.

"We put things together — whatever meager ration we [had]," she says. "There's something about humanity. It's hard to suppress."

Gathering Over Food To Remember

The book's cover looks like communist propaganda, portraying happiness and abundance in the countryside. Gong says there's beauty in the contrast with the real stories in her book. She says at that time the government tried to keep people from gathering in groups larger that three or four because it might indicate anti-government activity.

"You know when people gather? Over food," Gong says.

Writing the book brought up painful memories, but she says over the years she's come to realize human beings' perseverance.

"I went through a lot of bad times, but you know one thing about human beings, they always survive and celebrate life, and food is one of the major ways to do that," she says.

There's a complicated sense of nostalgia in her recollections of that chapter of her life. Seligman says that's not unusual for her generation, now far enough away from the Cultural Revolution to look back on the small moments worth remembering.

"In the last 20 years or so, China has seen a resurgence in some ways in the Cultural Revolution," he says.

In Cultural Revolution-themed restaurants in major cities, people reunite with others who had been sent to the countryside with them, Seligman says.

"They relive their past. It's not a happy past, entirely, but that's really not the point. It's their past," he says, "and one of the things they actually did learn from the peasants was how to deal with what there was and how to cook with what ingredients were local."

The last time Gong visited China was about two years ago. But traveling there is difficult, she says, because she's on the government blacklist.

"But China is a very different country now. Very different. My generation is now in charge of China in every aspect," she says. "If we are anything, we are not political extremists because we went through that. We were raised in that environment. And ... we know how to celebrate whatever little freedom we have."


Recipe: Braised Pork in Soy Sauce

Ingredients

1 lb. (450 g.) pork shoulder
1 large piece ginger, about 1 inch (2.5 cm.) on a side
1 Tbsp. (15 ml.) cooking oil
4 Tbsp. (50 g.) sugar
4 Tbsp. (60 ml.) soy sauce
1 cinnamon stick (1/2 tsp. or 5 g. powdered cinnamon may be substituted)
1/2 cup (120 ml.) rice wine (or any other wine)

This dish is traditionally made with pork belly, but it's hard to find in many supermarkets and it's far fattier than other cuts. There's enough fat in pork shoulder to give the dish a great taste, and still save a few calories and maybe a hardened artery.

Cut the pork shoulder into cubes, about one inch (2.5 cm.) on each side. Smash the ginger with the side of a cleaver; no need to peel it.

Heat a wok and add the oil. When it begins to smoke, add the ginger and then the sugar. Once the sugar has dissolved completely, add the pork. Stir-fry the mixture until most of the liquid has evaporated, but not until it is completely dry. Then add the soy sauce, cinnamon and wine.

Mix well and then cover the wok tightly. Turn the heat down to medium and let simmer for 1/2 hour. Remove and serve.

The Chairman's Brain Food

Chairman Mao believed that the fat in Braised Pork in Soy Sauce had the capa­bility to boost his brainpower. The dish is traditionally regarded as brain food in his native Hunan Province, and it was well-known as the Chairman's favorite. In fact, he insisted that his Hunanese chef cook it for him often, even during his years in Beijing and over the strenuous objection of his personal physicians.

Mao was especially fond of eating this dish before he went into combat — either physical or political — and believed he nev­er lost a battle when well-fed on braised pork.

The Cultural Revolution Cookbook by Sasha Gong and Scott D. Seligman. Copyright 2011. Published by Earnshaw Books.


Recipe: Steamed Savory Egg Custard

Ingredients

2 eggs
3 1/2 cups (900 ml.) cold water
Dash of salt
1/4 scallion (spring onion)
1/2 Tbsp. (8 ml.) sesame oil (optional)
Sprig of cilantro or parsley (for garnish; optional)

This was a particularly popular dish during the Cultural Revolution because it did not require oil, which was strictly rationed, and because portions could be increased by dilution so that adding more water meant feeding more people.

Beat the eggs in a dish and add one and a half cups (about 400 ml.) of the water and the salt. Mix well. Cut the scallion into small pieces.

Put the mixture in a heat-safe dish with a cover. The cov­ered dish should fit inside your wok. Add the remaining water to the wok and bring to a boil.

When the water begins to boil, place the covered dish in the wok and then cover the wok itself. Turn the heat down to medium and simmer for 10 minutes.

Remove from the wok. Just before serving, sprinkle the scallion and drizzle the sesame oil (if desired) on top of the custard. Garnish and serve.

The Chicken Butt Bank

Despite periodic crackdowns during the Cultural Revolution, many peasants sur­reptitiously kept chickens in their yards as a source of eggs. Once past their egg-laying prime, the chickens, too, were eaten.

Eggs could be sold in local markets and were a major source of a meager cash income. This gave rise to what many re­ferred to jokingly as the "chicken butt bank." During extended crackdowns such as the fever-pitched early 1970s, a chicken in your yard could earn you public humiliation and even a "struggle session," in which you could be dragged up on stage in front of a large crowd and denounced.

The Cultural Revolution Cookbook by Sasha Gong and Scott D. Seligman. Copyright 2011. Published by Earnshaw Books.


Tofu with Scallions and Sesame Dressing

Ingredients

1 scallion
1 cake firm tofu (bean curd)
2 tsp. sesame oil
Pinch of salt

Tofu was invented in 164 B.C. by a Chinese nobleman trying to make medicine, and it has taken its rightful place as a major source of protein in the Chinese diet. This amazingly simple dish is incredibly tasty, low in fat and high in protein. Use a firm bean curd to make it, because it will hold its shape better that way.

Shred the scallion into very small pieces, cutting it on the bias to maximize surface area. Rinse the tofu and place it on a microwave-safe serving plate. Warm it by microwaving it on high for one minute, or simply heating it very gently in a conventional oven.

Remove the tofu from the oven and, with a sharp knife or cleaver, cut it up into small pieces about 1 1/2 inches (4 cm.) long, an inch (2.5 cm.) wide and 1/2 inch (about 1.5 cm.) thick.

Sprinkle the scallion, sesame oil and salt on top of the tofu pieces and serve while still warm.

Note: Obviously there were no microwaves in the Chinese countryside during the Cultural Revolution, nor did peasants have convection ovens. They would simply have soaked the tofu — which would have been freshly made — in hot water for 10 minutes to heat it up.

As Clear as Tofu and Scallions

During the Cultural Revolution, people were often accused of offenses, from stealing or engaging in extramarital affairs to slacking off or having "bad thoughts." Meetings of village production teams were forums for dispute resolution where people were often compelled to criticize themselves or defend themselves against such accusations. A good defense was to proclaim one's loyalty and demonstrate knowledge of communist doctrine, with whatever rhetorical flourishes one could muster.

This dish — its milky white bean curd a sharp contrast to the deep green of its scallions — provided a useful metaphor. If your innocence was "as clear as tofu and scallions," then anyone ought to be able to appreciate it.

The Cultural Revolution Cookbook by Sasha Gong and Scott D. Seligman. Copyright 2011. Published by Earnshaw Books.

Copyright 2017 NPR. To see more, visit http://www.npr.org/.

(SOUNDBITE OF SONG, "THE EAST IS RED")

RACHEL MARTIN, HOST:

That song is called "The East is Red." And it was China's de facto national anthem during the Cultural Revolution. From about 1966 to 1975, China's leader, Mao Zedong enforced a brutal agenda. Everything was rationed. Millions of people were forced out of the cities and into the countryside, where food was even more scarce. The government controlled people's movements, their livelihood, even their thoughts. And everything was propaganda - posters, clothing, songs...

(SOUNDBITE OF SONG, "THE EAST IS RED")

(SOUNDBITE OF SONG, "THE EAST IS RED")

SASHA GONG: The original song is actually about love and food.

MARTIN: That's Sasha Gong, a former Chinese political dissident and Scott's friend.

: It was about cabbage hearts, as a matter of fact. And then a very patriotic, somewhat obsequious Chinese man wrote new lyrics to it that sang the praises of Chairman Mao.

MARTIN: Sasha and Scott connected several years ago and collaborated on writing projects. When they would get together, they ended up in Scott's kitchen cooking and talking about Sasha's experience growing up during the Cultural Revolution. At one point, Scott suggested the two of them turn her memories and culinary skills into a book, "The Cultural Revolution Cookbook."

: She thought I was crazy.

GONG: I said those were painful memories to me, but as long as I can add some stories in it, yeah.

MARTIN: Sasha's lived in the U.S. since 1987, and she got a Ph.D. from Harvard. But her childhood in China was a hard one.

GONG: I was 10 when the Cultural Revolution was launched. My grandfather was accused of being a counterrevolutionary. So, I was sent to countryside living in the village.

MARTIN: Sasha and her family worked on farms but the food all went to the government. Her family, like so many others, was left to fend for itself, and Sasha learned to cook with whatever she could find. In the cookbook, she shares the peasant recipes of that time, and how food kept families together, despite a revolution that was pulling them apart.

: We're making no apologies for the Cultural Revolution in this book. It was a horrible time. A lot of people suffered. This is a celebration of the people who triumphed through this horrible time when there wasn't enough food and there wasn't freedom and all those awful things were happening, but somehow they managed to make do with what they had. They made remarkably tasty dishes with very, very basic and rudimentary materials and ingredients.

MARTIN: Ingredients anyone can get - no need to find a specialty Chinese market. These culinary delights are as close as your local supermarket. Sasha and Scott take me shopping for ingredients to cook up three classic Chinese dishes. All right. Let's grab a cart.

: OK. We need scallions and cilantro.

MARTIN: Tofu?

: I think we're going for pork shoulder now.

GONG: Just get the soy sauce, any soy sauce.

MARTIN: Ginger.

: Sesame oil.

MARTIN: Eggs.

: You don't need to buy sugar. You don't need to buy salt. And we don't need to buy a stick of cinnamon but we need some wine.

MARTIN: Coca-Cola. That's it. How much was it?

: Forty ninety-seven.

MARTIN: Forty ninety-seven. So, for 40 bucks. Not bad. And the meal will feed about six people. And with that, we're off to Scott's apartment to put their simple recipes to the test. All right. So, what tools do we need to cook these dishes?

: Well, actually, there's a cookbook out there that has something like 40 pages devoted to how to select season and choose a wok. We have about a paragraph on that because in the countryside, you cooked with whatever the hell you have. We actually are going to use a flat-bottom pan today as well as a wok. It's really not that big a deal.

MARTIN: Remind us what we're cooking today, Sasha.

GONG: Actually, we are cooking braised pork.

: With soy sauce.

MARTIN: With soy sauce.

GONG: And now I'm going to cut up the meat.

MARTIN: OK.

GONG: This is pork shoulder, very much marbled. So, cut it through, cut it through. See? Very easy to cut it through.

MARTIN: Kind of big chunks.

GONG: Big chunks.

MARTIN: Next, Sasha takes a large ginger root, skin on, and places it on the counter. She smashes it with the side of her meat cleaver.

GONG: Now, you turn on the stove. The pork is fatty so you don't need much oil but you do need oil to well, smooth the pan.

(SOUNDBITE OF CRACKLING)

MARTIN: Sasha then drops the ginger in the pan and a sweet aroma fills the kitchen. And then...

(SOUNDBITE OF SIZZLING)

MARTIN: In goes the pork to sear. Then she adds sugar, soy sauce, rice wine and a stick of cinnamon.

GONG: And then we turn the fire into low medium and let it cook.

MARTIN: How long does it cook for?

GONG: About 45 minutes. It's important not to spend too much time.

MARTIN: That was important in selecting these dishes. You wanted them to be things that were easy?

: Chinese restaurant food, a lot of what you see here in the United States, even at better Chinese restaurants, is a much prissier operation than this. This was country cooking. This was get it in the pot and heat it up and get it in everybody so that they've got enough strength to go work in the fields.

GONG: And still tasty.

: Right.

MARTIN: And this, we should say, you write in the book, was Chairman Mao's favorite dish?

GONG: Oh yes. And Mao developed the habit when he was commanding the army in the civil war, he believed meat was good for your brain so, each time it was before big battles, he said, OK, cook me the braised meat with soy sauce, and I need my brain food.

MARTIN: Chairman Mao's brain food is now nice and tender and Sasha takes it off the stove. She piles a heaping mound of the braised pork into a big blue and white bowl.

GONG: All right.

MARTIN: Finished.

GONG: That's it. Done.

MARTIN: We get to eat now, right?

GONG: We get to eat.

: Yes. Who would like something to drink?

MARTIN: Tofu and egg custard are also served, then we take our seats at the table and dig in. Let's do it. Oh, we each have chopsticks.

: Yeah. Let me have your rice bowl.

MARTIN: We start with an egg custard that Sasha remembers from her childhood. It's great. It's really savory. It's really light.

GONG: Thank you.

MARTIN: Mmm. The texture's perfect.

GONG: It's just egg and the water and the salt. It's a little bit sesame oil. Nothing else.

MARTIN: OK. I'm going for the pork.

: Now, which is which?

MARTIN: Sasha prepared two versions. The first was the traditional pork braised with soy sauce and rice wine topped with cilantro. Oh, that is so nice.

GONG: Thank you.

MARTIN: The second version was made with Coca-Cola, which Sasha says is a fine substitute if you can't find rice wine. Different.

GONG: Different.

MARTIN: It tastes different than the other one. I got to say I like the traditional one better. Am I allowed to have more?

: Yes.

MARTIN: OK, good. It's a meal Sasha Gong has made hundreds of times before. When you sit down and eat this food now in 2012, what do you think of? What images come to mind?

GONG: Well, family time. When you have that much food, you have family and friends coming in, there's something about humanity. It's hard to suppress. You want friendship, love...

: And you want pork.

MARTIN: And you want pork.

GONG: Oh yes.

(SOUNDBITE OF LAUGHTER)

GONG: Oh yes. Oh gosh, we were hungry. We were hungry. In that time, you know, how government tried to prevent people from gathering and if you have three or four people gathering, might be anti-government activity. You know, when people gather over food.

MARTIN: This is such a painful time. I don't imagine there are a lot of fond memories that you associate with this period of time. Focusing on it, writing a book about it, must have been strange.

GONG: Well, I went through a lot of bad time, but it wasn't about human beings. They always survive and celebrate life. And food is one of the major ways to do that.

MARTIN: There's a complicated sense of nostalgia in her recollections of that chapter. Scott says that's not unusual for her generation - now far enough away from the Cultural Revolution to look back on the small moments worth remembering.

: In the last 20 years or so, China has seen resurgence in some ways of interest in the Cultural Revolution. There are Cultural Revolution-themed restaurants in just about any large city in China. And these are places where people who sent down to the countrywide go, in some cases to have reunions with others who were sent to the same places. And they relive their past - it's not a happy past entirely, but that's really not the point. It's their past.

MARTIN: Well, thank you very much for cooking with me and sharing this part of your history with me. Thank you.

GONG: Thank you.

: My pleasure.

MARTIN: Letting us into your home.

GONG: Oh, it's my great pleasure.

MARTIN: Before we leave, we ask Sasha if she remembers any of the music from that era. She says yes. That song, "The East is Red," is seared into her memory. But she refuses to sing the communist lyrics. She wants to sing us the original version about love and food. Again, Sasha Gong, choosing to remember her past her way.

(SOUNDBITE OF SONG, "THE EAST IS RED")

(SOUNDBITE OF SONG, "THE EAST IS RED")

(SOUNDBITE OF MUSIC)

MARTIN: To try your hand at some of Sasha and Scott's recipes from "The Cultural Revolution Cookbook," go to our website NPR.org.

(SOUNDBITE OF MUSIC)

MARTIN: This is NPR's WEEKEND EDITION.

(SOUNDBITE OF RACHEL MARTIN READING SHOW CREDITS)

MARTIN: I'm Rachel Martin. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.