Thursday, February 9, 2012

As Clear as Tofu and Scallions: The Cultural Revolution Cookbook


Of my various 2011 "Christmas books" (they ranged from volumes of political  analysis  and invective to artistic, natural history and culinary works), my absolute favorite was The Cultural Revolution Cookbook by Sasha Gong and Scott D. Seligman.

When I first read about the book's impending publication, I thought it must be a sort of joke item.  Remembering the Cultural Revolution, one tends to think about political terror, acts of terrible and confusing cruelty, social destruction and material privation, rather than cuisine.

During the Cultural Revolution

But Sasha Gong, a Chinese-born American academic whose family was relocated from Guangzhou to Hunan province during the Cultural Revolution, significantly interrupting her schooling, has in this handsome, beautifully written and sensibly priced book, transformed proverbial lemons into lemonade as she tells the story of learning by necessity to live, cook and eat simply in the countryside, growing, preparing and sharing pure, good and traditional food.

I have been cooking from the excellent, delicious recipes in this book non-stop and I am pleased to present you with one of Ms. Gong's simplest, easiest and best meals.  If you want, you can elaborate on it by adding minced or sliced ginger,  hot chilies or various types of pickled vegetables .  It's splendid as is, however, and the title of this post, explained in the text following the recipe -- "As clear as tofu and scallions" -- used as a simile for  integrity or flattering sobriquet -- is an image I understand and find very moving.  


Tofu With Scallions and Sesame Dressing


1 scallion
1 cake firm tofu (bean curd)
2 tsp. sesame oil
Pinch of salt

Tofu was invented in 164 BC by a Chinese nobleman trying to make medicine, and it has taken its rightful place as a major source of protein in the Chinese diet.  This amazingly simple dish is incredibly tasty, low in fat and high in protein.  Use a firm bean curd to make it because it will hold its shape better this way.

Shred the scallion into very small pieces, cutting it on the bias to maximize surface area.  Rinse the tofu and place it on a microwave-safe serving plate.  

Warm it by microwaving it on high for one minute, or simply heating it very gently in a conventional oven.

          Remove the tofu from the oven, and with a sharp knife or cleaver, cut it up into small pieces about 1 ½ inches (4 cm.) long, an inch (2.5 cm.) wide and about ½ inch (about 1.5 cm.) thick. 

          Sprinkle the scallion, sesame oil and salt on top of the tofu pieces and serve while still warm.

Note:  There were obviously no microwaves in the Chinese countryside during the Cultural Revolution, nor did peasants have convection ovens.  They would simply have soaked the tofu – which would have been freshly made – in hot water for 10 minutes to heat it up.


Supreme Instruction – 
Struggle against selfishness and criticize revisionism’”

During the Cultural Revolution, people were often accused of offenses, from stealing or engaging in extra-marital  affairs to slacking off or having “bad thoughts.”  Meetings of village production teams were forums for dispute resolution where people were often compelled to criticize themselves or defend themselves against such accusations.  A good defense was to proclaim one’s loyalty and demonstrate knowledge of communist doctrine, with whatever rhetorical flourishes one could muster.  

     This dish – its milky white bean curd a sharp contrast to the deep green of its scallions – provided a useful metaphor.  If your innocence was  ‘as clear as tofu and scallions,” then anyone ought to be able to appreciate it. 

Excerpted from:  The Cultural Revolution Cookbook by Sasha Gong and Scott D. Seligman (Hong Kong, Earnshaw Books, 2011)



I confess a deep and profound love for Chinese bean curd.  Although it is fine in this country, especially when it is freshly made, it is out of this world in China. 

     Thinking about bean curd, which I probably do an abnormal amount, brings to mind the final testament of the Chinese poet Qu Qiubai, imprisoned and then executed by the Kuomitang because he was too ill to depart on the October 1934 Long March.   One of his final acts was composing a goodbye note, "Some Superfluous Words," which after praising flowers, moonlight and factory chimneys, concluded by recommending "Anna Karenina" and "The Dream of the Red Chamber" and stating, last of all, that "the Chinese bean curd is the most delicious food in the whole world.  Goodbye and farewell!."

Qu Qiubai"Some Superfluous Words"

This makes me think of the author, Sasha Gong


  1. You have given us food for the soul and food for thought.
    A brilliant post

    Helen xx

  2. What a way to begin (almost begin) the day. Thank you. Off to an early seminar in the city on an icy morning soon. A terrific send-off. By the way, you should definitely acquire the book. It's just terrific. Curtis

  3. Wonderful. I'm mostly vegetarian so your revelation about Chinese bean curd makes me want to take a trip to China.

    There is a Chinese restaurant on 38th Street in Manhattan (between 5th & Madison or Madison & Lexington, I keep forgetting which) that serves a dish which is simply dried tofu and baby celery. Sauteed and with a touch of hot chilies. I used to have an office on 5th and 37th and went there for that dish almost once a week. Now I get there whenever I can.

  4. Although I'm not a lover of bean curd (despite trying to acquire a taste), your engrossing and compelling post has encouraged me to try one more time! Hoping the seminar went well and that the ice has melted. Nell

  5. The bean curd in China is a thing apart -- a whole other sensation. There's a silkiness combined with a particular density and a delicious flavor that's really unbelievable. It's not simply autosuggestion and one finds this in Hong Kong and the People's Republic also. The NYC restaurant sounds dish sounds great. I first read Qu Qiubai's quote about 20 years ago (or more) in a book review. It haunted me and it took me a while to track it down but I knew I needed to. The only other time I've gone to that much effort was to find Julie Sahni's recipe for Macao Fried Rice (posted here a while ago). It's essentially a quick paella. We're largely vegetarian and are trying to become even more so. Stressful day here. Hope everyone else here is happy and well. Curtis

  6. I personally is a tofu lover, now it makes me even wanted to eat more! Oh gosh, I pretty hungry now...

  7. Joan, thanks for writing. I visited your blog and will spend more time there later when I've cleared away the mess left on my desk following a week of crisis, which was brightened by your nice note. Please visit here again soon. I do post recipes and food-related items, but also on various other subjects. I try to keep it interesting. Curtis