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Martin Yan shares stories of China through food

Martin Yan, the world’s foremost expert on Chinese cooking, is back with a new cookbook that paints a portrait of China through his personal stories, historical facts, recipes and photos. An excerpt.
/ Source: TODAY

The world’s foremost expert on Chinese cooking is back with a brand-new cookbook to whet the appetite of anyone who’s ever picked up a pair of chopsticks. This companion volume to the PBS series “Martin Yan’s China” brings the ancient country’s beauty to the table with delicious dishes and fascinating information about the history and culture of China. An excerpt.

Home again
America is my home. Years ago I settled down in Northern California, among the rolling hills just outside of San Francisco.I’ve raised my family, run my business, and made many lifelong friends here. But I also have another home. In my heart, China is not only where I was born, it is a part of me that I carry wherever I travel in the world.

The China where I spent my early years was a very different place than it is today. Growing up in Guangzhou, I was labeled a “city boy” simply because I had seen buildings as tall as ... nine stories! These days, as I travel along the multilane highways that connect the booming industrial zones of Southern China with Guangzhou, I see buildings that are well over sixty stories tall. They stand, one next to the other, overlooking villages awakening from centuries of agrarian life. In a few short decades, China has leaped from an agrarian culture of the nineteenth century to an industrial powerhouse of the twenty-first. Spanking new shopping malls, condos, and multiplexes rise amidst sites that mark thousands of years of Chinese history. Inside sits a new generation of Chinese, multitasking and cell phone texting away, and quickly becoming addicted to all the trimmings of modern society. I must admit, my initial feelings about all of this were mixed. While I am proud of what China has achieved in such a short time span, I cannot help but wonder, Where did my China go?

I’ve heard that nostalgia is a sign of old age. No matter. There truly was a unique beauty to the simple Chinese life I recall from not so long ago. Some of my fondest childhood memories revolve around the comforting aroma in my mom’s kitchen and the sound of street vendors outside as they called out their daily specials. Upon my first return to China, after years of living in North America, the first thing I looked for was a special wonton noodle street stand, one that I had been reminiscing about for years. Although it was no longer there, my disappointment was short-lived. Minutes later, down the block from my old noodle haunt, I found not one, not two, but close to a dozen food stalls. In additional to wonton noodles, one offered dan dan noodles and another one the pan-fried variety. The stalls were cleaner than what I remembered, the seating was no longer cramped, and the noodles, as much as I’d like to say they were not like the old days, were just as I remembered, down to the savory broth with a hint of dried scallops.

There and then I learned a valuable lesson: Things do not have to stay the same; they can be better. Our fond memories are like comfort food. They are made up of images that warm us inside and remind us of a time when we felt nurtured and safe. I don’t think we should abandon our memories. But at the same time, we should not feel devastated when things have evolved. Instead of grieving over our “losses,” we can build new memories. In my many, many travels to China since my first homecoming, I’ve managed to build new memories upon the old ones. These images coexist, side by side, in my mind. Each one is special and real to me.

This is my eleventh book about China. In past decades, I have devoted much of my time to promoting Chinese cuisine, as well as many other Asian cuisines. From Manila to Macau, Seoul to Singapore, I have crisscrossed Asia and explored its depths, discovering an enormous wealth of diverse culinary arts. Yet inevitably I have been drawn back, time and time again, to China.

China’s four established, well-recognized regional cuisines include Mandarin (Northern style), Shanghai style, Sichuan style, and Guangzhou style (more commonly known as Cantonese in the West). Food critics and academics have devoted much time and effort to explaining the differences between these styles of cooking. Much ink has been devoted to explaining how climatic and cultural divergences have contributed to these distinctive styles of cooking, and to the role geography has played in determining the availability and use of particular ingredients. Regardless of the writer’s perspective, the common agreement is that food in China is best defined by these four distinct geographical regions.

In my opinion, however, these categories are valid but somewhat limiting. They derive from the notion of China as the “Middle Kingdom,” dominated for four thousand years by the Han Chinese. Today, the Han’s descendants constitute approximately 93 percent of China’s population. However, more than fifty officially recognized minority communities constitute the remaining 7 percent of the population. In a country of 1.3 billion, that 7 percent is almost 100 million people! And each community has developed its own distinctive way of cooking.

I’ve always been fascinated by China’s minority communities. In my earlier visits to parts of Sichuan, or to the picturesque city of Guilin, I would come upon members of different ethnic groups dressed in their traditional garb. The food they presented was equally fascinating. Several of these groups are Muslim, so their diets are free of pork but rich in mutton. I tasted my first lamb skewer in the ancient city of Xian many years ago, and I was hooked!

Since then, I’ve been wanting to explore China’s “Wild West” — the provinces of Guangxi, Guizhou, Yunnan, and Sichuan, with their minority cultures, snow-capped mountains, Tibetan monasteries, highland tea plantations, and close proximity to the ancient Silk Road. I finally got my chance. This book, and this season of Martin Yan’s China, covers many different parts of China. I’m particularly excited about shining a light on the hidden “Wild West” and reaching beyond the four cuisines of China to provide my viewers and readers a more comprehensive, and perhaps more contemporary, picture of this amazing and diverse country and its food.

My journeys have been enlightening and inspiring. Time after time, I found myself amidst the most breathtaking scenes of nature. From ancient towns like Lijiang, Shuhe, and Simao, the heart of the famous Pu’er, where time has stood still for centuries, to the spectacular limestone hills that guard the banks of the Li River outside Guilin, I was awestruck by the incredible natural beauty that is a part of China’s heritage. If I appear to my TV audience to be a bit distracted or tongue-tied in some of those on-location segments, that was the reason.

I found local culture, with its unusual foods, just as fascinating as the scenery. In Yunnan, out of dozens of street snacks, only eighteen were deemed unusual enough to be named the region’s “odd specialties.” Needless to say, I tried them all. It took the better part of two days, but it was worth the calories.

By naming this book "Martin Yan’s China," I’m not laying claim to the country. The title refers to my impressions, memories, and understanding of, and my deep-rooted feelings for, the complex and captivating country of my birth. In one of my recent trips back to Guangzhou, I was fortunate to meet up with some of my old neighbors and childhood friends, people with whom I actually grew up. I was amazed at how well they remembered our times together. I marveled at the different paths our respective lives had taken, and part of me will always wonder what I would be like today had I not made the journey across the Pacific all those years ago.

This past summer I brought my two boys back to China for the first time. Despite all their research and language training, they weren’t quite ready to face the immense scale of China, nor its fast pace. I was struck by how American my boys truly are. They looked at China from the viewpoint of two typical American teens of Chinese heritage. As much as I tried, I could not convince them to see things from my point of view: they wouldn’t and couldn’t. I was frustrated by this at first, but over time I realized that their memories of China should be theirs and theirs alone, just as mine are mine alone. When I gave this book the title "Martin Yan’s China," that’s what I meant. These are my personal memories. I hope that passages in this book will inspire others to go and seek their own experience in China.

China is such a rich country in culture and history. I hope that my boys will build on their first impressions and that our trip was only the first of many. To them, China is not home; it’s a fascinating part of the world to visit. To me, however, it is where a part of me will always reside, and every time I go back, I am going home again.

Excerpted from “Martin Yan’s China.” Copyright (c) 2008 by Martin Yan. Reprinted with permission from Chronicle.