Every Grain of Rice

Wontons prep copyWontons

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.

Fish TilesLike 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.

hangzhouChicken With Sichuanese SauceCold Noodles
Clay Bowl Chicken

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.

FF AuberginesEggs ChiveSichuanese Hot & Numbing Beef

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.

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49 comments

  1. Sree

    My…my..Carrie ! Awesome read. Reading it alone filled me up…satisfied after a yummy chinese meal. Im gonna have to invite myself over to ur place one of these days to enjoy ur delicious food ;-)

  2. Mouthwatering…. Will have to go and buy the book. The photos look sublime and your post is wonderful on every aspect of what lies ahead in the book. Thank you for the inspiration . Time to restock the larder!

  3. Billie

    I want to live with you!

  4. Great post – I have just ordered her book on Amazon – your fantastic post has just made me do it! Penciling in a trip to China Town for the weekend too. Love souschef too, by the way!

    • Hi Selma! Thank you and that was quick work!! You have a chinatown? Sniff….jammy, so jammy! Sous Chef are absolutely brilliant! Loved that everythign I needed pantry wise was just in the one place and it got my my friend’s place perfectly. From there, it go to me and I haven’t looked back since!

      I really hope you enjoy this book as much or even more than I do!

      PS: I can’t really get to grips with cooking of Indian food either! ;-)

      • Well, when the book comes so brilliantly recommended, I just had to get it as quickly as I could so that I could start cooking from it – oh those aubergines…!!!

        I’m in London so I am afraid that we do have a Chinatown as well as some amazing Japanese stores too, which is all rather fabulous! I always feel so lucky to live here – everything on the doorstep.

        How funny that we both feel the same about cooking Indian food – I love to eat it and I like using certain spices like cumin, coriander and cardamoms in my general cooking but just feel that I don’t have the “hand” for it…

        • I’d say and have said in previous posts that I don’t have the ‘nose’ for it! My mother swears it’s all in the nose. I find the spices a bit bewildering too and regional variations are so vast that it becomes daunting ultimately. That’s my excuse – India is too big! I am getting better with practice, though being married to a Scotsman means he does get curried out from time to time!

          Never been to London. I know! I KNOW! Nuts! One day :D Oh, the aubergine chapter is divine! Just one of those dishes, a bit of rice and some smacked, garlicy cucumber (trust me, it’s good) add some rice and that’s dinner sorted for me.

          • Oh, you must come and visit – it’s busy and chaotic but so full of history and so much to see and do!

            I feel a little intimidated by all the spicing and all the knowledge out there, passed on from generation to generation. I do a chicken pilau that I learnt from an Englishwoman, married an Ismaili whose mother-in-law had shown her and a really basic keema which my son loves. I used to try and make an authentic dal but it just never turned out right so I just make a really simply spiced one when I feel in the mood for comfort food. And you are right – there are so many regional variations that the mind boggles!

            So looking forward to the book!

  5. Rushi!

    Carrie can you please move to Paris and I promise you’ll never have to do the dishes, you’ll just have to be in the kitchen and cook ;) Been wanting this book ever since I heard you go on about it but I’m a bit clueless to finding Chinese ingredients here in France, back home it was no problem. I’m thinking I’ll get the book just to be able to make the amazing dishes when I visit my mom (doesn’t that seem like a reasonable excuse for hubby)….
    xx

    • Ha ha! Paris? But, of course! I mean it’s not even a question really. Hmmm, you will need to find Chinese ingredients that’s for sure. If you had a contact in the UK who could forward a box for you, that would be good. Thinking cap on ;-)

  6. This looks like an amazing book. I have added it to my wish list. I love Chinese cuisine for how quick and flavourful it is, although it can be a bit tricky adapting it to make it gluten-free. Nevermind, we all need a challenge now and again!

    • Hello Kirsten. The only area where gluten free might be an issue with this book is with noodles. The thickening agent for sauces, marinades as well as coating agents for frying in this book are all potato flour, which I assume is okay for gluten-free diets. As far as the noodles go, buckwheat is used and can be adapted across all the other noodle recipes, same as rice noodles. Needless to say, tamari soy is the way to go too. I wonder if I’ve left anything out?! Am racking my head thinking of where else flour makes an appearance. Hope this helps in clicking that ‘Buy Now’ button ;-)

      • Ah, this is good to know! Does it use a lot of Shaoxing rice wine? Unbelievably it has wheat in it. Although dry sherry is an acceptable substitute I find :)

        • Being in Doha means certain alcohol products are not available. So I don’t have Shaoxing rice wine, I use, like you, a touch less dry sherry in those instances or just leave it out all together. There are times though, when it does make a difference to the finished dish, a subtle taste. As to whether it’s used liberally? Not at all. Perhaps a teaspoon and a bit here or there, but certainly not lavish in any way.

          • I think I really need to get this book. I have some Chinese cookery books already but they are quite heavy on the rice wine / oyster sauce etc, which are things I can not use. Thanks so much for reviewing it and for your advice. It is greatly appreciated.

  7. melanie

    every single one of these dishes is saliva inducing…not to sound so crude but ooooooooohhhh the greedy inclinations that are bubbling up inside of me…all those flavours ahhhhh!! well done!!!

  8. Wow…I knew you’d cooked from this book but I didn’t realise just how much! Brilliant review Caroline. I bought this book on your recommendation and I’m ashamed to say it’s been unused. But you have really inspired me to try some recipes. Your pictures are just mouthwatering!

    • Thanks Nic! I haven’t put up all the pictures of everything I’ve made, either because the pics were crap (couldn’t bear waiting any longer) or I just bypassed the photographing for the eating. Give it a good whirl Nic, I think you’ll love it :D

  9. This one has been on my list for a long time, but I think it’s time to move it to the top! I feel like I often cheat myself out of really soul satisfying meals in the interests of just pulling something together in a hurry. Sounds like this cookbook satisfies both. Thank you for sharing!

    • Ah, I am very familiar with that dilemma. This is the only book that I cook from irrespective of what every one else fancies! It’s great for quick meals though, once you’ve got the pantry and made some homemade chilli oil (very, very simple and lasts for ages…it’s very addictive!). Some of the recipes are nothing more than poaching or frying something quickly and dunking or coating in a sauce. Once you get to grips with it, the whole process becomes second nature. She’s also encouraged me to try different greens and that’s never a bad thing..delicious in fact!

  10. What a wonderful sounding book, I’ve just added it to my wish list!

  11. I have this book, but my attempts at reproducing the dishes aren’t nearly as beautiful as yours. You’ve inspired me to keep trying. Thank you!

    • Hi Donna, question is, did it taste good? When I want to take a picture I give a bit more effort in the pretty department, but definitely not when it’s going straight to the table. Hence my husband’s expression when he first saw the Fish tiles. Without the tower of green spring onions and red chilli sitting on top, it ain’t that pretty!

  12. What a gorgeous post! You have one lucky family, Caroline!

  13. Getting hungry reading it!!

  14. Stunning photography, as usual, Carrie! I’ve also been enjoying cooking from this book in the past few months. Interestingly, I haven’t tried any of the dishes which you have photographed above but now I just might! I love dumplings and those wontons looks delightfully fiery! Btw, I’ve always wondered if it made any difference to use sherry in place of Shaoxing wine. I can easily find the latter here but what spooks me is that there is a warning on the label to say that it is not suitable for drinking!

    • Ha! So what is it meant to be used for then??!! I think there is definitely a flavour difference between Shaoxing and Sherry. While the sherry did the work fine, the Shaoxing brought in flavour. I don’t think it’s absolutely crucial but it makes a very pleasing difference.

      What have you tried then? THe above are all repeats and there have been so much more that I didn’t photograph due to sheer greed!

  15. One of my most-used cookbooks, too. (Along with the earlier Land of Plenty.) Beautiful photos.

    • This is the first book I have of hers and it will definitely not be the last! And am the same as you, it’s been the most used for at least a year which is a huge thing in my house! And thank you. I made the Bear’s Paw Tofu but the photo was horrendous; yours is perfect ;-)

  16. This is one of my favourite ever cookbooks…it’s been a great go-to while living in Hong Kong, too! Have you read her book, “Shark’s Fin and Sichuan Pepper”? It’s a fantastic read!

  17. Lovely photography and such a wonderful read as well.

  18. Looks like you’ve been busy! What wonderful recipes. I only have one Fuschia book – I need to look into this one. Thank you for the beautiful inspiration!

  19. I just stumbled onto your site and have to say, the photography looks gorgeous.

    I’m already a huge fan of General Tso’s chicken and I’ll have to try Pock-Marked Old Woman’s Tofu.

  20. Amazing plates of food. The fish tiles and the aubergines in particular have me salivating!

  21. oh my gosh! wonderful food ,wonderful you…. ! p.s i love your foodography. really yummy :)

  22. I’m drooling over your blog!!! Love it.

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