Let’s be honest here. We cook to please not just to provide. Personally, that means foregoing something I fancy in favour of something that’s universally appealing. Like a spag bol for the family’s British taste instead of a soul-warming biryani for mine, or a roast chicken dinner (delicious as that is) instead of a Lebanese mezze extravaganza. I don’t resent it; it comes with the ‘family’ territory and ultimately, happy taste buds and full bellies around the table supercedes private cravings. There is one book that is the exception to this rule. A book that has introduced Chinese home cooking in such a punchy, refreshing, greed-inducingly tasty way that I frankly, couldn’t care less if no one else wanted it. I do; I want it and I will make it. I’ll discard the idea of using the mince I bought to make meatballs in favour of a little self-satisfying origami-styled wontons instead. Order a takeaway for yourselves! Thankfully, it’s never come to that. In fact, this book, Every Grain of Rice by Fuschia Dunlop, has gifted me my greatest cooking compliments and most of those from the harshest critics – my family.
Like the moment I placed a plate of Sweet & Sour Fish Tiles on the table and watched the sides of The Scotsman mouth drop in thinly veiled disappointment. I’ll admit, I didn’t take time to pretty this dish up. Once a crispy carapaced piece of moist fish, coated with a tangy sweet and sour sauce hit his tastebuds, his eyes widened, he leaned in and made appreciative noises. And then out it came: “Carrie, this is the best thing you’ve ever made.” Score!
Another was this New Year’s Eve past. I went Chinese and made a personal favourite – Sichuanese Wontons in Chilli Oil Sauce (spiked with Shaoxing wine and punchy with ginger) with a Sichuan chilli sauce (roasted chilli oil, refreshing Chinkiang vinegar, salty soy and a some sugar to unite it all) and also, fish fragrant aubergines (fried aubergines in a chilli bean sauce with preserved black beans) served simply with rice and smacked cucumber salad (heavenly this – cucumber that’s been smacked and served with garlic, soy sauce and chinkiang vinegar). Mhairi, our Christmas guest and The Scotsman tucked in and the ensuing silence punctuated by happy eating noises was so satisfying! The wontons, all silky and soft with a clean, ginger infused flavour contrasts vividly with the smoky chilli and fermented vinegar of the sauce. Mhairi, who is an accomplished, instinctive cook said the aubergines were absolutely fantastic. She went home and within two days made the same for her friends. They too, demolished that dinner. There is no better compliment.
General Tso’s chicken – deep fried chicken with a heady ginger, garlic and soy sauce – is one of my kids’ favourites and is done in a matter of ten minutes. Lil Lassie, of wavering temperament with Asian food, said (and I quote),” I don’t like it Mummy – I LOVE it!”. She regularly asks me for ‘ Chinese Chicken Nuggets”. Forgive me for preening.
Due to lack of time, I often have lunch in the car while waiting for the school gates to open in the afternoon. This particular day I had Spicy Sesame Noodles with some chicken thrown in. Alison, my staunchly chilli-averse Aussie friend (and co-waiting companion) couldn’t resist the strong smell of garlic and roasted chillies and asked for a bite. Which she had, said, ” Oh my god, that…that is soooooooo gooood!” and had another mouthful, even if she had to swig deeply from my bottle of water afterwards.
I can punctuate every recipe I’ve tried with snippets of people’s reactions of it. I am infamous for my appalling lack of memory but I always remember people’s food preferences and their reactions to something I’ve made. Browsing through the book throws up so many moments like these. Within a few tryouts, this book earned its permanent place in my kitchen, so much so that the binding has started to come apart, a testament to its working longevity.
Here’s the breakdown -
Fuschia Dunlop, a Brit from Oxford, was the first westerner to study at the Sichuan Institute of Higher Cuisine in Chengdu, in the province of Sichuan. Fluent in Mandarin, she has spent the best part of two decades getting right into the heart of Chinese food and has five books under her belt. Every Grain of Rice is her latest offering. From the wonderfully apt, graphic cover to the stripped-back style of photography, Fuschia Dunlop educates the enthusiastic but uninitiated reader about the aromatic world of chinese home cooking. Prep work, contrary to conventional assumptions, isn’t lengthy. There isn’t a page length’s worth of ingredients either. In fact, the lack of these threw me a little as I somehow had it in my head that Chinese food was involved. Really precious coming from an Indian!. As I cooked, I found that I could get rice, a simple vegetarian dish, a meat stir fry and a salad or cold starter out on the table in about half an hour. Mind blowing!
The complexities are not in the preparation but lie in the flavours and texture. Some of the recipes, braises mostly, call for a longer cooking time, but it just means getting ingredients together in a pot and letting it do its own thing. Like the Chicken braised with Chestnuts or the Red Braised Belly Pork which has simple list of ingredients- ginger, spring onion, soy, stock, sugar, star anise and cassia bark. Some of the recipes use the leftover meat braises to make a new, fresh-tasting meal.
The book starts with the basic ingredients, techniques and equipment. An addition I thought was wonderful, was two pages of Menu Ideas, a guide to which foods work well together and presented according to serving. It is a surefire way to understand the combination of flavours and removed some of the rather intimidating guesswork for a newbie like me. The food chapters are divided into cold dishes, tofu (YAY!), chicken and eggs, fish and seafood, meat, mushrooms, aubergines peppers and squashes, greens, beans and peas, garlic and chives, root vegetables, soup, rice, noodles, dumplings and finally, stock and preserves. The in-depth glossary at the back of the book, with gorgeous pictures, was invaluable in helping track down the right ingredients.
Which neatly brings me to a rather stern point. If you aren’t a Chinese food aficionado already, then stocking up the pantry is a must. Now I know people moan about this, but in my view, there is no point purchasing a book on real-deal international cuisine without investing time (and money) sourcing ingredients that makes it authentic in the first place. If the local supermarket is as far as you can push it, then this is not the book for you. That’s not to say every single recipe requires some recherché ingredient (a lot just have the usual, commonplace soy, garlic, ginger combo amongst other things from your cupboard) but the few you do need will give you the full scope of recipes and crucially, are used repeatedly. That bottle of chilli bean paste will not die a lonely death after its debut. Oh, and I must mention this, regarding fermented red or white tofu. Do not, in a moment of curiosity - fuelled bravado, chomp on a whole cube of fermented tofu. The flavour is likened to a deeply ripened cheese and that’s putting it mildly for some. However, like anchovies, it offers a deep savouriness when used as stated in her recipe, which cannot be substituted with a more ‘appealing’ ingredient. Trust the cook and this blogger on both counts. For those in the UK, Sous Chef have an excellent range (and offer great service), both of which I availed of recently. Poor Mhairi was coerced into lugging all the ingredients I couldn’t find all the way to Doha from the UK. I compared the brands I got here with the ones on Sous Chef and hands down, Sous Chef’s were excellent. No, I am not on commission, I am just spreading the love. If you happen to live close to a Chinatown, you jammy thing, you are laughing!
Where appropriate, Fuschia has dotted the recipes with information on where she may have eaten it, or a chef who shared a recipe and perhaps the history of an unusually named dish like Pock-Marked Old Woman’s Tofu. The story goes that the wife of Qing Dynasty restaurateur delighted passing labourers with her hearty braised tofu. Mrs Chen’s face was marked with smallpox scars and she was affectionately nicknamed Ma Po, “Pock-Marked Old Woman’. This recipe, like many others in this versatile collection, can be made with or without meat. Also, the deep fried recipes can be adapted to healthier methods if you wish. Another thing I’ve noticed is that I instinctively adjust the balance of ingredients to suit my liking – a little more homemade chilli oil (oh, what a wonder of a pantry ingredient!), an extra splash of vinegar, tone down the garlic and so on.
With its concentration of vegetarian recipes and an extensive tofu chapter for which alone I would have bought the book, vegetarian eaters can partake enthusiastically. A vegetarian Dutchman I know – who is a mean cook – rates this book highly. There is plenty here to fill the bellies of vegans to boot. Win-win. If I had a committed carnivore, a vegetarian and a vegan to feed at the same table, without question, Every Grain of Rice is the text I’d turn to.
In conclusion – I bought the book in July 2012 and now, I can hand on heart say that at least two meals a week are made out of it. I find ways of saving slices of roast chicken from greedy mouths so as to make the cold chicken dishes from the first chapter, or to chuck into a bowl of slurpy noodle soup. I keep aside extra noodles to make Emergency Midnight Noodles or Cold Noodles with Chicken for lunch next day. I buy packets of fresh tofu to make Sour and Spicy Tofu for dinner for myself, when The Scotsman isn’t hungry. In other words, I constantly try to find a private moment to eat a bowlful of goodness in peace and quiet while savouring every layer of flavour, every contrast in texture without having to share it with anyone! To say I am hooked would be an understatement.
Folks, slice some spring onion greens, mince that garlic and ginger, dust off the lazy susan, fire up that wok and join me.