China seems to be everywhere. In news. In economics. In politics. In sport. And now food too. Jeffrey Alford and Naomi Duguid, an intrepid pair of photographers/writers, have taken a long hard look at China's culinary heritage through the lens of a camera.
Beyond The Great Wall: Recipes and Travels in the Other China is an extensive cookbook but also a beautiful coffee table photography book and, to a lesser extent, a travel guide at the same time. It's a substantial book that works as a tool in the kitchen or eye candy in the lounge. Although the images of countless regional dishes are mouth-watering, the pictures of everyday people and their surroundings are ones that really catch the reader's eye.
The Toronto-based husband-and-wife team are experienced travelers around China and even met in Tibet in 1985 – not long after communist China had reopened it borders to foreigners. Their recipes focus on the wide variety of food found away from central China across a number of provinces, including Tibet, Inner Mongolia and the terraced hills of Yunnan and Guizhou.
"It's a book that expresses food and culture," said Naomi. "We hope the book will give people lots of ideas about China and not just recipes."
Jeffrey and Naomi have penned four other books. Flatbreads & Flavors and Hot Sour Salty Sweet both picked up James Beard Cookbook of the Year awards. Seductions of Rice and HomeBaking both won Cuisine Canada Cookbook awards. Beyond The Great Wall is a culmination of almost three years work but encapsulates the couple's photography and experiences dating back to their first visit to China in the 1980s. The couple has seen extensive changes take place in the past three decades but has covered enough miles to see places and foods that remain almost untouched by the economic superpower aspect of China. "Over the past 30 years, the economic changes alone have been profound," said Jeffrey.
"There's now a road network, long distance buses and more air travel," added Naomi. "But you still have to improvise when you come to the end of a road. It's still challenging to get around."
It was common for the photographers - veterans of tackling Chinese bureaucracy and obtaining internal travel permits - to journey to towns or districts only to discover the authorities were restricting access to foreigners. "It might have been for national security or simply because there was no infrastructure – who knows?" said Jeffrey.
Although their presence could sometimes turn heads, their cameras were never a problem. "Cameras are widely used in China," said Naomi. "Each time we tried to engage with the person we wanted to photograph. Cameras are not viewed as intrusive but a very positive thing for recording memories."
Naomi and Jeffrey were able to widely experience each province's culinary heritage by often simply stepping off the bus and into a vibrant culture of street food with vendors offering countless fresh dishes along the sidewalks. Customers still sit on small stools near the vendor and enjoy their meal as street life continues around them. Beyond The Great Wall is a long way from the celebrity chef tomes that dominate cookbook publishing in the West. This book has more references to yurts, the portable tent-like structures used by nomadic Asian peoples, than restaurants.
"We had a long list of recipes to consider for the book," said Naomi. "Usually we'd eat a dish twice before considering it and we'd use the camera as a method of taking notes. Obviously we couldn't translate all the recipes because so ingredients are simply not available in the West. This is a serious cookbook – the recipes are straight-forward but we are very aware that there's many serious home cooks in the world, who are already interested in Chinese cuisine."
The section of Kazakh noodles is a lovely example where a regional dish is put into cultural context by the authors before extensive cooking instructions are provided. Then hand-rolled rice noodles are tackled followed by the wonderfully named earlobe noodles.
The book deliberately does not have a desserts section but instead offers a ‘Drinks and Sweet Treats' chapter in line with how the Chinese conclude a meal.
Aside from numerous recipes, each province is profiled with personal anecdotes from the two travelers who believe they have spent a combined 36 months in China. Geography, culture and the influence of the Chinese government is taken into account each time although the authors do not comment on China's dubious politics and suppression of several cultures.