Coriander, chilli, ginger, spring onion, star anise and sesame—these are only a few of the flavours wafting from the pages of this unusual memoir of food and culture. Xiaomei Martell, the youngest of four daughters, was born on the Mongolian steppes in 1964, just two years before the launch of the Mao’s Cultural Revolution. Hardship and political threat dominate her early life. Birthdays are humble occasions, marked only by an extra egg that day—or, in summer, an extra peach. During the frigid winter months, there are no vegetables other than cabbage. The loss of ducks in a sandstorm becomes a family tragedy. It’s no wonder, then, that Martell’s recollections of her life revolve around food.
She weaves in details of Chinese cuisine little-known in the West. ‘Lion’s Head’, for example, is dish from the south, its origins traced back to the sixth century. The meatballs of ‘Four Happiness’ refer to affluence, health, harmony, and joyfulness. There are stories about hundred-year-old eggs, noodles, dumplings, milk tea, pig trotters, and much more.
For those interested in the history of the Cultural Revolution, Lion’s Head, Four Happiness might disappoint. Like everyone in China, Martell’s family and neighbours were touched by Mao’s campaign. Red Guards, re-location and re-education all figure. But these events tend to be minimised in Martell’s book, serving only to trigger associations with meals shared or missed out on or fantasised about. Martell’s emphasis is on food and, because cuisine is at the heart of both the home and the culture, it’s a clever organising principle. Lion’s Head, Four Happiness is a fascinating hybrid: part memoir, part cookbook, part cultural history— all in all, one hundred per cent readable.
Lion’s Head, Four Happiness: A Little Sister’s Story of Growing up in China, Xiaomei Martell, Random House Australia.
Review first published in The Courier-Mail in June 2009.