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(SOUNDBITE OF SONG, "THE EAST IS RED")

RACHEL MARTIN, HOST:

That song is called "The East is Red." And it was China's de facto national anthem during the Cultural Revolution. From about 1966 to 1975, China's leader, Mao Zedong enforced a brutal agenda. Everything was rationed. Millions of people were forced out of the cities and into the countryside, where food was even more scarce. The government controlled people's movements, their livelihood, even their thoughts. And everything was propaganda - posters, clothing, songs...

(SOUNDBITE OF SONG, "THE EAST IS RED")

CHORUS: (Singing in foreign language)

SCOTT SELIGMAN: This East is red, the sun is risen. China has given rise to a Mao Zedong.

MARTIN: Scott Seligman is a Washington, D.C. writer who lived for several years in China.

SELIGMAN: On behalf of the people, he has brought good fortune to the people. He is the great savior of the people.

(SOUNDBITE OF SONG, "THE EAST IS RED")

CHORUS: (Singing in foreign language)

SASHA GONG: The original song is actually about love and food.

MARTIN: That's Sasha Gong, a former Chinese political dissident and Scott's friend.

SELIGMAN: It was about cabbage hearts, as a matter of fact. And then a very patriotic, somewhat obsequious Chinese man wrote new lyrics to it that sang the praises of Chairman Mao.

MARTIN: Sasha and Scott connected several years ago and collaborated on writing projects. When they would get together, they ended up in Scott's kitchen cooking and talking about Sasha's experience growing up during the Cultural Revolution. At one point, Scott suggested the two of them turn her memories and culinary skills into a book, "The Cultural Revolution Cookbook."

SELIGMAN: She thought I was crazy.

GONG: I said those were painful memories to me, but as long as I can add some stories in it, yeah.

MARTIN: Sasha's lived in the U.S. since 1987, and she got a Ph.D. from Harvard. But her childhood in China was a hard one.

GONG: I was 10 when the Cultural Revolution was launched. My grandfather was accused of being a counterrevolutionary. So, I was sent to countryside living in the village.

MARTIN: Sasha and her family worked on farms but the food all went to the government. Her family, like so many others, was left to fend for itself, and Sasha learned to cook with whatever she could find. In the cookbook, she shares the peasant recipes of that time, and how food kept families together, despite a revolution that was pulling them apart.

SELIGMAN: We're making no apologies for the Cultural Revolution in this book. It was a horrible time. A lot of people suffered. This is a celebration of the people who triumphed through this horrible time when there wasn't enough food and there wasn't freedom and all those awful things were happening, but somehow they managed to make do with what they had. They made remarkably tasty dishes with very, very basic and rudimentary materials and ingredients.

MARTIN: Ingredients anyone can get - no need to find a specialty Chinese market. These culinary delights are as close as your local supermarket. Sasha and Scott take me shopping for ingredients to cook up three classic Chinese dishes. All right. Let's grab a cart.

SELIGMAN: OK. We need scallions and cilantro.

MARTIN: Tofu?

SELIGMAN: I think we're going for pork shoulder now.

GONG: Just get the soy sauce, any soy sauce.

MARTIN: Ginger.

SELIGMAN: Sesame oil.

MARTIN: Eggs.

SELIGMAN: You don't need to buy sugar. You don't need to buy salt. And we don't need to buy a stick of cinnamon but we need some wine.

MARTIN: Coca-Cola. That's it. How much was it?

SELIGMAN: Forty ninety-seven.

MARTIN: Forty ninety-seven. So, for 40 bucks. Not bad. And the meal will feed about six people. And with that, we're off to Scott's apartment to put their simple recipes to the test. All right. So, what tools do we need to cook these dishes?

SELIGMAN: Well, actually, there's a cookbook out there that has something like 40 pages devoted to how to select season and choose a wok. We have about a paragraph on that because in the countryside, you cooked with whatever the hell you have. We actually are going to use a flat-bottom pan today as well as a wok. It's really not that big a deal.

MARTIN: Remind us what we're cooking today, Sasha.

GONG: Actually, we are cooking braised pork.

SELIGMAN: With soy sauce.

MARTIN: With soy sauce.

GONG: And now I'm going to cut up the meat.

MARTIN: OK.

GONG: This is pork shoulder, very much marbled. So, cut it through, cut it through. See? Very easy to cut it through.

MARTIN: Kind of big chunks.

GONG: Big chunks.

MARTIN: Next, Sasha takes a large ginger root, skin on, and places it on the counter. She smashes it with the side of her meat cleaver.

GONG: Now, you turn on the stove. The pork is fatty so you don't need much oil but you do need oil to well, smooth the pan.

(SOUNDBITE OF CRACKLING)

MARTIN: Sasha then drops the ginger in the pan and a sweet aroma fills the kitchen. And then...

(SOUNDBITE OF SIZZLING)

MARTIN: In goes the pork to sear. Then she adds sugar, soy sauce, rice wine and a stick of cinnamon.

GONG: And then we turn the fire into low medium and let it cook.

MARTIN: How long does it cook for?

GONG: About 45 minutes. It's important not to spend too much time.

MARTIN: That was important in selecting these dishes. You wanted them to be things that were easy?

SELIGMAN: Chinese restaurant food, a lot of what you see here in the United States, even at better Chinese restaurants, is a much prissier operation than this. This was country cooking. This was get it in the pot and heat it up and get it in everybody so that they've got enough strength to go work in the fields.

GONG: And still tasty.

SELIGMAN: Right.

MARTIN: And this, we should say, you write in the book, was Chairman Mao's favorite dish?

GONG: Oh yes. And Mao developed the habit when he was commanding the army in the civil war, he believed meat was good for your brain so, each time it was before big battles, he said, OK, cook me the braised meat with soy sauce, and I need my brain food.

MARTIN: Chairman Mao's brain food is now nice and tender and Sasha takes it off the stove. She piles a heaping mound of the braised pork into a big blue and white bowl.

GONG: All right.

MARTIN: Finished.

GONG: That's it. Done.

MARTIN: We get to eat now, right?

GONG: We get to eat.

SELIGMAN: Yes. Who would like something to drink?

MARTIN: Tofu and egg custard are also served, then we take our seats at the table and dig in. Let's do it. Oh, we each have chopsticks.

SELIGMAN: Yeah. Let me have your rice bowl.

MARTIN: We start with an egg custard that Sasha remembers from her childhood. It's great. It's really savory. It's really light.

GONG: Thank you.

MARTIN: Mmm. The texture's perfect.

GONG: It's just egg and the water and the salt. It's a little bit sesame oil. Nothing else.

MARTIN: OK. I'm going for the pork.

SELIGMAN: Now, which is which?

MARTIN: Sasha prepared two versions. The first was the traditional pork braised with soy sauce and rice wine topped with cilantro. Oh, that is so nice.

GONG: Thank you.

MARTIN: The second version was made with Coca-Cola, which Sasha says is a fine substitute if you can't find rice wine. Different.

GONG: Different.

MARTIN: It tastes different than the other one. I got to say I like the traditional one better. Am I allowed to have more?

SELIGMAN: Yes.

MARTIN: OK, good. It's a meal Sasha Gong has made hundreds of times before. When you sit down and eat this food now in 2012, what do you think of? What images come to mind?

GONG: Well, family time. When you have that much food, you have family and friends coming in, there's something about humanity. It's hard to suppress. You want friendship, love...

SELIGMAN: And you want pork.

MARTIN: And you want pork.

GONG: Oh yes.

(SOUNDBITE OF LAUGHTER)

GONG: Oh yes. Oh gosh, we were hungry. We were hungry. In that time, you know, how government tried to prevent people from gathering and if you have three or four people gathering, might be anti-government activity. You know, when people gather over food.

MARTIN: This is such a painful time. I don't imagine there are a lot of fond memories that you associate with this period of time. Focusing on it, writing a book about it, must have been strange.

GONG: Well, I went through a lot of bad time, but it wasn't about human beings. They always survive and celebrate life. And food is one of the major ways to do that.

MARTIN: There's a complicated sense of nostalgia in her recollections of that chapter. Scott says that's not unusual for her generation - now far enough away from the Cultural Revolution to look back on the small moments worth remembering.

SELIGMAN: In the last 20 years or so, China has seen resurgence in some ways of interest in the Cultural Revolution. There are Cultural Revolution-themed restaurants in just about any large city in China. And these are places where people who sent down to the countrywide go, in some cases to have reunions with others who were sent to the same places. And they relive their past - it's not a happy past entirely, but that's really not the point. It's their past.

MARTIN: Well, thank you very much for cooking with me and sharing this part of your history with me. Thank you.

GONG: Thank you.

SELIGMAN: My pleasure.

MARTIN: Letting us into your home.

GONG: Oh, it's my great pleasure.

MARTIN: Before we leave, we ask Sasha if she remembers any of the music from that era. She says yes. That song, "The East is Red," is seared into her memory. But she refuses to sing the communist lyrics. She wants to sing us the original version about love and food. Again, Sasha Gong, choosing to remember her past her way.

(SOUNDBITE OF SONG, "THE EAST IS RED")

GONG: (Singing in foreign language)

Sesame oil can be charred. When you prepare string beans, you have to take out the string. If I don't see you for three days, I miss you to death. You're my dear, dear lover.

(SOUNDBITE OF SONG, "THE EAST IS RED")

GONG: (Singing in foreign language)

(SOUNDBITE OF MUSIC)

MARTIN: To try your hand at some of Sasha and Scott's recipes from "The Cultural Revolution Cookbook," go to our website NPR.org.

(SOUNDBITE OF MUSIC)

MARTIN: This is NPR's WEEKEND EDITION.

(SOUNDBITE OF RACHEL MARTIN READING SHOW CREDITS)

MARTIN: I'm Rachel Martin.

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