American exposure to Chinese cuisine has evolved since the days when kung pao chicken and egg foo yung were everyone’s notions of a classic Chinese meal. Growing interest in authentic Chinese eating experiences has brought the desire to re-create recipes at home. Fuchsia Dunlop shows us how in Every Grain of Rice: Simple Chinese Home Cooking (W. W. Norton & Company, February 4, 2013; $35.00 hardcover).
Just in time for Chinese New Year, Every Grain of Rice is both a crash course in Chinese cooking and an immersive voyage through the countryside and villages of regional China. Fuchsia is the author of Land of Plenty, the seminal cookbook on Sichuan food, and is the first Westerner to train as a chef in central China.
Drawing from her unique training, Fuchsia begins the book with an indispensable primer on the basic ingredients and tools needed for Chinese cooking. She guides us with expert knowledge and clear instructions through the ins and outs of the Chinese kitchen. She breaks down the staples of the Chinese pantry, from chilli oil to potato flour, to dried shrimp, explaining the uses of various ingredients and noting where substitutes (e.g., cornstarch for potato flour) are acceptable. For wok amateurs and enthusiasts alike, Fuchsia’s overview of this key kitchen implement is invaluable, as is the briefing on basic Chinese cooking techniques.
Armed with new familiarity of the Chinese kitchen, we delve straight into the territory of the Chinese home cook, with recipe after recipe re-creating the varied, tasty dishes of Chinese regional cuisine, elegant in all their simplicity. Fuchsia recognizes the starring role of vegetables, from leafy greens to eggplant, chives, and peas, in many Chinese dishes. Likewise, tofu, eggs, tubers, mushrooms, and, of course, rice and noodles, receive due attention as integral and healthy components of the Chinese diet.
Every ingredient in the book has never been easier to find, as American supermarkets are now stocked with Asian products. A color picture accompanies nearly all of her 150 recipes.
Alongside recipes for Xi’an pot sticker dumplings and fresh spring rolls, Fuchsia provides us with regional variations on these classics, such as her scrumptious Sichuanese wontons in chilli oil sauce. Her take on Dan Dan noodles and Mrs. Yu’s sweet and spicy cold noodles leave one with the immediate desire to acquire some fresh noodles and begin tossing them in mouth-watering sauces. Fans of dim sum will want to try their hands at Fuchsia’s clams in black bean sauce, or salt-and-pepper squid, plates of food so appetizing they nearly jump off the page into the reader’s mouth.
For those who have trouble picking and choosing among these delectable options, Fuchsia provides both vegetarian and mixed menus, such as her menu for four, consisting of Sichuanese spiced cucumber salad, spinach with sesame sauce, steamed sea bass with ginger and spring onion, bear’s paw tofu, and stir-fried garlic stems with mushrooms. Through Fuchsia’s complete understanding of the whimsy and workings of the Chinese meal, we come to appreciate less-known dishes such as tastier-than-it-sounds “pockmarked old woman’s tofu” and winter melon and salted duck egg soup. Notwithstanding its coverage of more exotic delicacies, EVERY GRAIN OF RICE includes perhaps the best, most authoritative version of General Tso’s chicken to date-a recipe Fuchsia learned at the Taipei kitchen of Peng Chang Kuei, the original inventor of this dish.
Interlaced with anecdotes on the history and culture of Chinese cuisine, Every Grain of Rice is the ultimate handbook on home Chinese cooking, a must-have for every cook who has ever desired to make good Chinese food at home.
Fuchsia Dunlop was the first Westerner to train as a chef at the Sichuan Institute of Higher Cuisine in central China. She has spent nearly two decades researching Chinese food and culinary culture. She is a James Beard award winning author, the author of two Chinese cookbooks and an award-winning memoir, Shark’s Fin and Sichuan Pepper. She has written for The New Yorker, the Financial Times, and Saveur. A graduate of Cambridge University and a fluent Mandarin speaker, Fuchsia currently lives in London.
Questions for Fuchsia Dunlop, author of Every Grain of Rice
Q: You became interested in China and Chinese cuisine while working as an editor for the BBC. Why then, and why this particular cuisine?
I was working as a sub-editor at the BBC, and was assigned by chance to the Asia-Pacific desk, where I became fascinated by China. As a result, I went there on holiday, fell in love with the country, and then started evening classes in Chinese. A year later I won a scholarship to study in China, and chose Sichuan University partly because I’d always loved cooking and eating, and knew Sichuan was home to one of China’s most famous cuisines. I didn’t know much about either Chinese or Sichuanese food when I arrived in Chengdu to take up my scholarship, but was immediately smitten.
Q: What did you learn at the Sichuan Institute of Higher Cuisine that you were able to incorporate specifically into Every Grain of Rice?
The skills I learned at the Institute – cutting, flavoring, and different cooking methods, not to mention some specific dishes, are the bedrock of everything I’ve done, including this book.
Q: How would you distinguish Every Grain of Rice from your previous books?
It’s a very simple and straightforward book, an exciting collection of recipes that are quick to make and extremely delicious. Rather than trying to reflect many different aspects of a regional cuisine, from complicated banquet dishes to street snacks, as I did in my previous cookery books, I’ve chosen the dishes I find most invaluable for home cooking. And although it’s not a vegetarian cookbook, it includes a great many recipes that are either vegetarian or can be made without meat. I hope it will show readers that the Chinese way of eating can be not only scrumptious, but also economical, healthy and sustainable.
Q: As someone who lives in the UK, have you observed any similarities between British and Chinese food? Any particular ingredients or methods commonly found in both?
No, they are very different!
Q: What kinds of food did you eat growing up in Oxford? Were you interested in foreign cuisine as a child or did your intrigue develop as an adult?
Growing up-in Oxford in the 1970s and 80s, I had an unusually international diet for that time. My mother has always enjoyed cooking, and her storecupboard was stocked with a vast variety of different seasonings and spices. She often cooked Indian food, in particular. She was also an English language teacher, and we usually had one of her students living in our house to help look after my sister and me – so we lived with Japanese, Spanish, Turkish and Italian lodgers, all of whom left culinary influences in our family repertoire. And whole groups of students would hold parties at our house: I can remember Japanese, Turkish and Iranian supper parties.
Q: Has learning the Chinese language made the food even more accessible for you?
Absolutely. On a basic level it means I can order food easily in restaurants in China, and discuss dishes with waiters and chef. It also means I can talk about cooking in detail, and identify unusual ingredients in kitchens and markets, not to mention read cookery books in Chinese. I wouldn’t be able to do what I do without knowing the Chinese language.
Q: You’ve helped expose the Chinese culinary culture to the Western world through your work. Was this a goal starting out?
Not at all. I just started learning about Chinese food because I enjoyed eating and cooking. And then I wanted to tell other people about it!
Q: What is your favorite dish in Every Grain of Rice?
Fish-fragrant eggplants is one of my old favorites from Sichuan, and one of my favorite dishes anywhere, so if I had to choose one it would be that. But the book includes other dishes I make all the time, like the ridiculously easy smacked cucumbers, kohlrabi salad, and my emergency midnight noodles.
Q: You focus on Sichuan and Hunan cuisine primarily. Are there other regional Chinese cuisines that you’re interested in?
I’m interested in them all, but China is an enormous country!
Q: What are your thoughts on “Chinese cuisine” in America?
I think the most important thing to remember is that it’s just the tip of the iceberg. Nothing you see in terms of Chinese restaurants abroad can prepare you for the sheer diversity of Chinese cuisine. So even if you turn your back on the most Americanized Chinese food and go in search of authentic flavors in places like Fltlshing, New York, it’s just a tiny glimpse of what China has to offer.
Q: Your book has a heavy emphasis on vegetarian cooking, although when most Westerners think of Chinese foods they tend to associate it with the heavy flavors of beef, pork, and other meat-based sauces. Did you intentionally steer away from meat-oriented dishes or is this a natural reflection of most native Chinese cuisine?
Until recently, most Chinese people ate a diet that consisted mainly of grains and vegetables because that is all they could afford. Even today, when meat is more readily available, many people eat plenty of vegetables and not much meat at home. With this book I made a conscious choice to lean away from rich, extravagant restaurant cooking and towards the healthy, sustainable and extremely satisfying way of eating I’ve enjoyed so much while staying with Chinese friends.