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Chow Under Mao: Surviving China's Cultural Revolution On Local Food

A Chinese propaganda poster from the Mao era.
A Chinese propaganda poster from the Mao era.

Any cook who has had to make do with very little knows there's a sort of pride in whipping up a tasty meal from a bare pantry.

When Sasha Gong had to stand in long lines every day for her rice or cooking oil rations in Guangzhou, China, it wasn't romantic or inspiring. But the local, seasonal food that made up most of her diet during Chairman Mao's brutal Cultural Revolution has a certain appeal today, for its simplicity, freshness and healthfulness.

To commemorate this part of her life, Gong, now the director of the China branch of Voice of America, has written The Cultural Revolution Cookbook with Scott Seligman, an American writer, historian, and retired corporate executive who lived for many years in China.

Part narrative, part history, part recipe compendium, the book is an ode to the spirit of creativity in lean times. The Chinese aren't the only nostalgic ones: Greek home cooks are also looking to the past for inspiration on how to get by with less – look no further than Starvation Recipes, a book we covered not long ago. (Seligman says we haven't yet revived Depression-era cookbooks in this country.)

Tofu with Mushrooms, a dish featured in<em> The Cultural Revolution Cookbook</em>.
Charles Cohan Fischl / The Cultural Revolution Cookbook
The Cultural Revolution Cookbook
Tofu with Mushrooms, a dish featured in The Cultural Revolution Cookbook.

Few recipes in Gong and Seligman's book have more than six ingredients, and they are easy to prepare. Some are Chinese dishes Americans will be familiar with – like stir-fried shrimp with cashew nuts or the braised pork in soy sauce. But these recipes require far less oil or soy sauce then you're likely to encounter at a standard Chinese restaurant.

"I don't want everything to taste like soy sauce," Gong says. "I want it to retain its flavor." Other recipes are new twists on familiar favorites, like Gong's shallow-fried potato shreds, or stewed duck Chaozhou style.

Gong was born in 1956, and had the peripatetic childhood and adolescence typical of most who grew up under the tumultuous rule of Chairman Mao; she bounced around from family home to labor camp to factory in different provinces.

"We were hungry, hungry all the time," Gong tells The Salt. "Especially from March to June, those were the bad months." Then, few vegetables were in season.

As Gong and Seligman write, the stories you've heard about children barely surviving on insects and tree bark are true. But plenty of people like Gong also learned how to prepare flavorful, nourishing food from the fields and ponds around them. Gong's family raised rabbits on their balcony; their neighbors sometimes raised chickens, guinea pigs and ducks in their homes and grew chives, squash, eggplant, cucumbers and cabbage.

Gong learned to cook simple food as a small child. When she was 9, she and her siblings were sent to live with their grandparents in a village of Hunan province. There, she learned to fish for river eels in the rice paddies and collect mushrooms.

The Cultural Revolution officially began in 1966, and as the atmosphere got tenser and more fanatical, she and her siblings moved back to Guangzhou in 1969, just as her parents were sent back to the countryside to toil in labor camps.

At that point, at age 13, Gong became the family cook. They were lean times and many foods, including rice and other grains, were tightly rationed. They got only 500 grams, or about 18 ounces, of cooking oil a month.

In the cookbook, Sasha suggests just six cooking utensils: wok, steamer, stockpot, spatula, cutting board, and a sharp knife. The ingredients are easy to find, and true to what Sasha used in the 1960s in China, though she says she now prefers balsamic vinegar to Chinese vinegar. And of course anyone cooking from her book today has the luxury of eating meat far more often than she ever did.

"If we were lucky, we would have pork three times a year back then, for holidays," she says. "Otherwise, it was Chinese survivalist cooking all year long."

For more on the cookbook, tune in Jan. 22 to Weekend Edition Sunday with Rachel Martin.

Copyright 2021 NPR. To see more, visit https://www.npr.org.

Eliza Barclay