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Beyond the Great Wall - recipes and travels in the other China


First a disclaimer: although I have never met this couple I have been a fan of their work for years. I call them ‘food anthropologists’. The brief they have given themselves, in order to turn out an astounding number of deeply researched books over the past decade or so, is to travel independently to various countries around the globe, meet the locals and cook with them, gleaning absolutely authentic recipes.

A few years ago I watched a DVD the couple had made which explained the process. While Alford is away, watching, tasting, taking copious notes and photographs, Duguid will be at home in Canada with the children testing recipes and preparing them for publication. When Alford returns, Naomi will set off to do much the same thing, and Jeffrey then becomes home chef and chief recipe tester.

It seems an often lonely, sometime treacherous work, yet it is meat and drink , quite literally, to this amazing couple.

It is truly a form of anthropology for their books are saving recipes from extinction, and educating those of us who would never, ever, be brave enough to trek into a South American village or eat some unknown substance in Mongolia – quite possibly forging, around the campfires and dining tables, magnificent bonds of understanding between disparate cultures.

In this, their latest book, destined almost certainly to become award-winning as have all their five others, they explore the hinterlands of the huge land of China. Yes, this country  is almost the same size and shape at the US, but that hasn’t daunted them.

As well as mesmerisingly colourful photographs, Beyond the Great Wall is filled with recipes which have been collected from many parts – from yurts and nomad tents, from Uighar people in the dusty inland west and places along the legendary Silk Road. For this is the food of the ‘other’ China – not Cantonese food, not the imperial food of Beijing, not fusion food from Hong Kong or Macau. It is from ]beyond the Great Wall.

 Diary notes of the days spent wheedling quantities and exactly identifying ingredients from people who speak no English, and may not even write their own language, make this an absolutely absorbing book. To call it simply a cookbook ignores its scope and importance.

That this is a labour of love and passion, for this couple, is quite evident. So too, that they are leaders in this field. Even more than this, though, is the chance – via these beautifully presented books – to learn from them and realise that people in every culture love to cook appetising, tasty and healthy dishes in their own homes. That families have their favourite dishes, and cooks fiddle with them to make them just that much more appealing – and most importantly, that when we eat, we humans are all the same. 

Surely that has to be a recipe for world peace.

Beyond the Great Wall, Jeffrey Alford & Naomi Duguid, Artisan Press, USA, hardcover, 2008, $65, available from all good bookstores.



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