Fuchsia Dunlop is to Chinese cuisine in the Western world what Julia Child was to French cuisine in America. Born and raised in England, Dunlop was the first Westerner to attend the renowned Sichuan Institute of Higher Cuisine. She’s the award-winning author of three cookbooks, the most recent of which came out this week.
I’ve been an ardent fan of Dunlop’s for the past decade, ever since I started cooking out of her first book, Land of Plenty: A Treasury of Authentic Sichuan Cooking. It’s THE definitive Sichuan cookbook for English-speakers (and, among the many recipes from the book that have made it into my regular rotation, the dry-fried green beans long since replaced the traditional green bean casserole on my family’s Thanksgiving table). So, I was positively giddy when I learned that she had a new book coming out, and what’s more, that she would have time to meet for lunch on her next trip to New York.
Her new book, Every Grain of Rice: Simple Chinese Home Cooking, is a revelation, particularly to people who think of Chinese cuisine as heavy, unhealthy, or just too elaborate to prepare at home. These recipes illuminate the way that Chinese households have been eating for centuries –a vegetable-intensive diet, with meat used as a flavor enhancer rather than a main ingredient. The dishes in Every Grain of Rice are seasoned with the bright flavors of ginger, garlic, soy sauce, and rice wine, as well as the category of pantry staples Dunlop refers to as “magic ingredients” — umami-rich treasures such as black fermented soy beans, preserved vegetables, dried shrimp, and cured ham.
We met for lunch this week at Xi’an Famous Foods in Manhattan’s Chinatown to talk more about the book.
Can you talk a little about your inspiration for writing Every Grain of Rice?
“Well, I’d had it germinating for a long time, this idea, because, one thing is I’ve found it incredible that people don’t think of Chinese as being a very healthy cuisine, in fact, to the contrary, so many people think it’s unhealthy, and they think of takeout, while it may be delicious, it’s not something that anyone would recommend eating every day. The other thing is that I think home cooks think of it as really intimidating – that you need lots of specialist equipment and that it takes a long time; and of course some Chinese cooking does. It’s an amazingly sophisticated cuisine at the highest level, but you know, Chinese food is what Chinese people eat every day. I think Chinese people know how to eat better than everyone else. We always think of the Mediterranean diet as being the model for health and happiness, but I think we should also be looking to China, especially when experts are suggesting that we should be eating less meat.”
Are there any other misconceptions on the part of Westerners about Chinese food that you’re eager to dispel?
“I suppose what I’ve been doing all along is trying to point out the amazing diversity of Chinese cuisine. China is just so huge and so diverse, I hope by writing close-up about places and putting them in context, I’m showing people that there’s more to it than any of us ever imagined.”
“So many people think [Chinese food] is unhealthy but you know, ‘Chinese food’ is what Chinese people eat every day.”
Have you taken some ingredients and techniques that you’ve learned from Chinese cuisine and translated them to the other types of cooking?
“Well, I use a cleaver for everything. Once you get used to it, it’s just addictive. I think a lot of Westerners think of a cleaver as being a sort of frightening butcher’s knife, and as being quite heavy and clumsy and aggressive, and I’m sure I was like that at first too, originally. But if you hold a Chinese cai dao, which literally means ‘vegetable knife’ — a normal kitchen cleaver — it’s actually quite lightweight, very dexterous; and I find it so versatile. If you pay attention to how you’re holding it and keep it sharp, I find it’s safer than your classic kitchen knife, because you put your knuckles against the blade as you cut, so you’re sort of protected. And also, the fantastic thing about it is that it has other uses. So, you can use the flat of the blade to smack cloves of garlic, and then they can come apart easily; or to smack your cucumbers for cucumber salad.”
“Another of the reasons it’s so addictive, is, you know when you’ve chopped up some stuff and you need to put it in the pan, well you just slide it onto the cleaver blade and transfer it.”
What inspires you now, in your work, in life, and in pursuit of your next project?
“Just curiosity, fun, and fascination. I just go to China, meeting people who are brilliant at what they do, producing wonderful food, and who have historically not been very able to communicate well with the West, and that’s the reason that Chinese food has been so underrated. So, I’m committed, to the best of my ability, to telling these stories, and to write, I hope, with a real sympathy for the culture and the food. I think I now eat in a very Chinese way, that I can appreciate the rubbery things, for example. That’s a bit tricky for a Westerner to appreciate, so I try to write about these things with an understanding of where a Westerner is coming from, but also of the pleasure and delight to be gained from doing things the Chinese way.”
Can you name for us a few of your favorite Chinese restaurants in the U.S. and around the world?
One place that’s very nice I’m going to go in Washington D.C. is a Taiwanese restaurant called A&J’s. And I think they have a couple of branches. They do casual Taiwanse food, including the most scrumptious potsticker dumplings, a lovely salad of green soybeans, and a fantastic lu rou fan, the stewed pork with rice, which is a favorite Taiwanese dish, and it’s just done very beautifully.
In London, I love the Royal China restaurants for dim sum. It’s a chain with excellent dim sum, and they have a sort of more expensive, smarter one, the Royal China Club, which is absolutely wonderful. The dim sum there is the best in London. It’s really Hong Kong standard. There’s one by the river side in the docklands, in east London, and it’s such fun to go there for Sunday lunch and then walk off the ten thousand dumplings you’ve just eaten.
In Shanghai, I love Jesse. It’s is a tiny home-style restaurant. And a more expensive one called Fu 1088. It’s in an old colonial mansion, private rooms only. It’s pretty expensive by local standards but they do a whole lot of food from that region and it’s a splendid evening out.
In Chengdu, I like Yu’s Family Kitchen. That’s another restaurant where you go for a banquet. Chef Yu Bo and his wife do amazing things there.
Here’s a peek at one of the simple, revelatory dishes from Every Grain of Rice.
Chinese Broccoli in Ginger Sauce — Jiang Zhi Jie Lan
3/4 lb (350g) Chinese broccoli
4 tbsp cooking oil
2 tbsp finely chopped ginger
1 tbsp Shaoxing wine
1/2 tsp sugar
1 tsp potato flour mixed with 1 tbsp cold water (optional)
1. Bring a large panful of water to a boil (a generous 2 1/2 quarts will do).
2. Wash and trim the Chinese broccoli. If the lower parts of the stems are thick and fibrous, peel away their outer skin with a potato peeler.
3. When the water is boiling, add 1 tbsp salt and 1 tbsp oil, then the Chinese broccoli. Blanch it for a minute or two to “break its rawness.” The stems should be just tender, but still crisp. If you are stir-frying them immediately, simply drain the broccoli stems and shake dry in a colander; if you want to serve them later, refresh the stems under a cold tap to arrest cooking before draining well.
4. When you wish to serve the broccoli, add the remaining oil to a seasoned wok over a high flame, swirl it around, then add the ginger and sizzle briefly until you can smell its fragrance. Splash in the Shaoxing wine and add the sugar. Add the broccoli and stir-fry, adding salt to taste, until it is piping hot. (If you are using broccoli blanched earlier, then cooled, you will need to pour 2–3 tbsp water or stock into the wok and cover it, so the stems reheat thoroughly.)
5. Remove the stems from the wok and lay them neatly on a serving dish. If you wish to thicken the juices, give the potato flour mixture a stir and add just enough, in stages, to thicken the sauce to a clingy consistency; then pour the sauce over the broccoli and serve. If you do not wish to thicken the juices, simply pour them and the ginger over the broccoli.
Reprinted from Every Grain of Rice: Simple Chinese Home Cooking by Fuchsia Dunlop. Copyright © 2012 by Fuchsia Dunlop. Photographs copyright © 2012 by Chris Terry. With the permission of the publisher, W.W. Norton & Company.