In 1969, aged just nine years old, Sasha Gong was forced to leave her home in Guangzhou to live with a family in a small village in Hunan Province. Gong, who now heads the China branch of news service Voice of America, was one of 17 million youths displaced during the Cultural Revolution years. After a ‘reeducation’ period spent working in the fields, she learnt to cook peasant food and make do with the few ingredients still available.
In a new book, The Cultural Revolution Cookbook, Gong teams up with author Scott D Seligman to provide recipes, tidbits from history and popular propaganda art from the period.
Shallow-fried potato shreds
‘This is one of my favourite dishes, and it’s one you seldom see on restaurant menus, perhaps because it is just so basic. It’s a potato dish that beats Western-style hash browns at a stroll. Potatoes were often available during the Cultural Revolution, and so this was a favourite among the “sent down” youth because it was easy and filling. I think it’s the vinegar that makes the difference in this dish, which is traditionally made with dark Chinese vinegar, but is just as enjoyable with balsamic vinegar! It is at its best and crunchiest when low-starch, redskinned potatoes are used.’
2 medium potatoes
1 scallion (spring onion)
4 Tbsp (60ml.) cooking oil
2-3 cloves garlic
1 whole dried chili pepper (optional)
3 tsp (15ml) vinegar
Dash of soy sauce
Scrub the potatoes well and cut them into thin (half an inch, or 6mm) slices and then into matchsticks; it is not necessary to peel them, and Chinese peasants do not do so. Soak the potato shreds in cold water for ten minutes to remove the surface starch and then drain, rinse and pat dry.
Shred the scallion into pieces of about the same size as the potato sticks and crush the garlic.
In a wok, heat the oil until it just begins to smoke. Add the garlic and stir-fry until it starts to brown. Add the scallion (and chili pepper, if desired) and fry for another 15-30 seconds. Then add the potatoes and continue to stir-fry.
Once the potatoes are warm, add the vinegar and continue to cook until it is absorbed (about a minute). Add the soy sauce and stir-fry for another 2-3 minutes. Transfer to a dish and serve.
Variation: This dish is sometimes made with green pepper. If desired, the pepper should be cut into pieces the same size as the potatoes, added to the wok after the garlic, and fried for about a minute before the scallion is added.Scrambled eggs with tomatoes
‘The two main ingredients in this dish seemed like very strange bedfellows to me until I first tasted it in Taiwan. I was amazed at how well they actually complemented each other, both in taste and in appearance. The ingredients were not particularly hard to find during the Cultural Revolution; eggs, though rationed, were nonetheless available from black markets, where they provided an important source of income to the peasants during the really hard times. I think what makes this dish especially tasty is the sugar.’
2 large or 4 small tomatoes
5 Tbsp. (75ml) vegetable oil
4 Tbsp. (50g) sugar
Dash of salt
Several sprigs of cilantro or parsley (for garnish; optional)
Cut the tomatoes into wedges, each no more than an inch (2.5cm) thick at its widest point. Squeeze out the excess liquid in each, but reserve the liquid. It is not necessary to remove all of the seeds.
Break the eggs in a bowl, add the liquid from the tomatoes, and beat the mixture together.
Put the oil in a wok and heat it until it begins to smoke. Stir-fry the egg mixture quickly until it solidifies – this should take about a minute. Remove from the wok.
Stir-fry the tomatoes for four to five minutes until they lose their resilience. Then add the sugar and continue to stir-fry until it dissolves. Allow to boil for a full minute and then add the egg mixture.
Stir-fry for less than a minute until the eggs are thoroughly cooked. Remove from the wok and add the salt. Garnish with cilantro or parsley, if desired.
‘There were strict limits on the food peasants could raise in the small private plots on which they were permitted to farm. In general, vegetables were permitted but grain was not. Among farm animals, anything bigger than a chicken was forbidden, so ducks were actually hard to come by during the Cultural Revolution. We didn’t eat duck very often, but it was a real treat when you could get one. The peasants didn’t have ovens, so this dish, which is made in a wok, was a wonderful answer to roast duck.’
1 Tbsp (15ml) cooking oil
1 large piece ginger (about 1 inch, or 2.5 cm., on each side)
1 whole duckling
3-4 Tbsp (45-60ml) honey
Half a cup (120ml) rice wine (but any wine will do)
6-7 Tbsp (about 100ml) soy sauce (dark soy sauce is best for this dish)
4 scallions (spring onions)
Heat a wok and add oil. Crush the ginger. Before the oil begins to smoke, add the ginger to the wok and fry it for a minute so its flavor permeates the oil.
Add the entire duckling to the wok and fry one side over a high flame for about ten minutes until the skin tightens and turns brownish. Then turn it over and fry the other side for ten minutes. Add the honey, wine and soy sauce and place two whole scallions on either side of the duck and two in the duck’s cavity.
Cover the wok tightly and turn the heat down to medium. Allow the duck to braise for about an hour and a half for a three-pound (1.3kg) duckling, or an hour and fifteen minutes for a smaller bird. Turn several times to ensure that the duck is cooked evenly, spooning the liquid over – and inside – the bird.
When the meat is ready to fall off the bones, remove from the wok and serve. Tofu with scallions and sesame dressing
‘I love this dish because of its simplicity and its ease of preparation. You barely need a kitchen and it’s ready in five minutes. It’s high in protein, which was very important during the Cultural Revolution when meat was hard to get, and it provided the energy needed for work in the fields. Peasants would soak the tofu in hot water to warm it, but a microwave accomplishes the same thing more quickly today. The sesame oil gives the dish a fine fragrance, and the contrast between the green of the scallion and the white of the bean curd makes it pleasing to the eye.’
1 cake firm tofu (bean curd)
2 tsp. sesame oil
Pinch of salt
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 one-and-a half inches (4cm) long, an inch (2.5cm) wide and half an inch (about 1.5cm) thick.
Sprinkle the scallion, sesame oil and salt on top of the tofu pieces and serve while still warm.
The Cultural Revolution Cookbook, published by Earnshaw Books, is available now from amazon
Go to http://www.culturalrevolutioncookbook.com
for more detailsPhotos by Charles Cohan Fischl and Alice Thurston