Feeding the Dragon
A culinary travelogue through China with recipes
Exhibit B, 2011: Feeding the Dragon, a spiffy trade paperback by the sister and brother writer/photographer team of Mary Kate Tate and Nate Tate. You couldn't have imagined such a book in 1990: two college kids from Illinois mastering enough Mandarin, in both the U.S. and China, to fuel a harebrained project of backpacking anywhere from Macau to Inner Mongolia and parlaying their food findings into a cookbook, all in a few months. (It turned into much more than a few years.)
The distance between these works feels like eons.
Ken Hom spent less time grabbing the spotlight or pursuing colourful escapades than patiently observing things that require unhurried thought to be even dimly understood. He was immeasurably aided by the renowned Hong Kong photographer Leong Ka Tai, whose images unfailingly seem to capture something more enduring and resonant than the instant of a shutter click.
The Tates' China, by contrast, is a dizzily racing target that they just manage to keep up with in daredevil first person, present tense sprints - living every wild moment of the experience to the full while watching themselves do it with "Look, Ma, no hands!" glee. It's a land where ancestral heritages compete with Mao Zedong collectibles, neon glare, born yesterday skylines, punk rockers, Miami Heat fans and Westerners scarfing hot dogs to water shrubbery on the grounds. and champagne in glitzy recreations of 1930s Shanghai night clubs.
Mindless antics? Certainly not. Today the world's kitchens don't stand still for portraitists. Contemporary food writers addressing ancient or new cuisines need to pursue moving targets at warp speed, or at least, something competitive with blog speed. And the Tates rise to the occasion.
These cookbook novices have made smart decisions - first of all, focussing on a somewhat offbeat handful of modern China's 33 provinces and administrative divisions. The expectable Guangdong, Zhejiang and Shandong are almost completely ignored. Instead, we accompany the loopy, cash strapped and frequently squabbling siblings by train, bus, bicycle and shank's mare through places like Tibet and Xinjiang in the far west; Yunnan in the far southwest; and the recently annexed Hong Kong and Macau in the south. All were unknown on usual lists of China's great cooking traditions a generation ago, while Fujian was only a slightly larger blip on supposedly definitive radar screens. Sichuan, Shanghai and Beijing are more orthodox choices, but even here the Tates aren't obsessively interested in delineating classic regional cuisines. After all, what can "classic" and "regional" mean amid drastic relocations of the work force - including many minority peoples - from one end of China to the other?
For me, the explorations of Macau, Yunnan and Xinjiang are a major strength, since it's hard to find coverage of these.