Reader contributor Nicholas Day always called his partner, Anya Bernstein, his “secret weapon” when it came to covering Asian cuisine. Fluent in Chinese, a student of Taiwanese culture, she gave him access to stories English speakers would have a hard time landing–e.g., this piece they cowrote about Chicago’s first Taiwanese restaurant, KS Seafood, whose English-language menu didn’t feature any Tawainese dishes. (Sadly, the restaurant is now closed–no more stinky tofu or intestine-and-blood soup from that source.)
So I imagine her expertise came in handy for his Slate piece “Beyond Wontons,” a characteristically entertaining and informative review of the new cookbook/anthropological travelogue Beyond the Great Wall: Recipes and Travels in the Other China. Its authors, Jeffrey Alford and Naomi Duguid, ignore what we (and many Chinese) think of as Chinese food, instead drawing their recipes from China’s ethnic minorities, among them Tibetans, Mongolians, Uighurs, Hui, and Dai. As Day points out, “almost every single-country cookbook promotes a homogenizing agenda, if only obliviously, by focusing on the cuisine of the dominant ethnic group.” Alford and Duguid see their work as a strike against Sinicization and part of an effort to preserve minority cultural heritages they liken to efforts to preserve heritage plants and animals.
Day goes on to try his hand at several of the recipes, including Dai pressed tofu with chiles and lard, Uighur pomegranate-juice-marinated lamb kebabs, and tsampa, a toasted barley flour he calls “the Tibetan Clif Bar.”