“I was once given an amazing lunch by a young woman whose mother had been unable to boil water but was quite able to employ expensive Chinese help. Everyone should have the good fortune either to be Chinese or to be rich.”
—Laurie Colwin, “Starting Out In the Kitchen”
For those of us who lack both Chinese blood and wealth, we should at least have the good fortune to find Fuschia Dunlop’s latest cookbook, Every Grain of Rice. I’d read Dunlop’s articles in various cooking magazines, but never her books until I found Every Grain of Rice on a recent cruise through my library’s cookbook section.
There are cookbooks, and then there are cookbooks whose every recipe calls out to you. This is becoming a problem in my house, where cookbooks have rapidly outstripped available shelf space and now reside in piles on the floor. (The literature is also suffering this fate, to a lesser extent: cookbooks tend to be larger, thus harder to cram into shelving.)
I comfort myself repeatedly with Nigella Lawson’s admission of owning over 4,000 cookbooks. Never mind that Nigella Lawson is immensely wealthy, cooks for a living, and has a home seventeen times larger than mine. My cookbook habit is all to the good, for it brings me people like the wonderfully named Fuschia Dunlop, whom I can then bring to you.
According to her , Dunlop’s interest in China began with a job at the BBC. This led to night classes in Mandarin, then to study in Chengdu, where Dunlop learned to read, write, and speak Mandarin while learning the cuisine. She’s written a memoir and two other cookbooks, which in profligate spirit, I have ordered and eagerly await. For now, I am comforting myself with my overdue library copy of Every Grain of Rice. (Note: since writing this I have abased myself before the librarians, who kindly allowed me to renew it.)
I am also cooking madly from it. We haven’t eaten’ American’ food in days.
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Like Naomi Duguid and Jeffrey Alford’s Seductions of Rice, Dunlop explains the Chinese tradition of rice meals. Instead of a central platter boasting a slab of animal protein, eaters begin with a bowl of rice. Several dishes accompany the meal, mostly vegetable-based. The eater takes bits on her chopsticks and eats them with her rice.
Meat, poultry, and fish are accents: a little meat goes a long way in many recipes, while others are completely vegetarian. This has nothing to do with ethical concerns; rather, meat is an expensive commodity, used sparingly, and the resulting cuisine relies on vegetables, tofu, legumes, rice, and noodles. Nor does Chinese food employ dairy, making it a boon for vegans and their friends wishing to serve something besides pasta at dinner parties.
Every Grain of Rice is a boon to any of us wishing to eat less meat without missing it, to try something new, breaking out of the eating ruts we all fall into. On that note, I only wish Dunlop had included more offal. In a bow to Occidental tastes, Every Grain of Rice contains only one recipe that might be considered even mildly funky: chicken livers with garlic chives. In the accompanying text, Dunlop describes eating similar dishes at her friend A Dai’s restaurant. A Dai used pork liver and heart. Dunlop writes “and they were both spectacularly delicious.” But, “Here, I’ve adapted one of his recipes using chicken livers.” I wish she’d added “For all you wussy eaters out there.” (excluding vegetarians and non-pork eaters) She does suggest using chicken hearts “if you have them.”
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Mostly I cook what I call Alice Waters food: fresh and straightforward. My kitchen is crammed with olive oil, lemons, garlic, fresh vegetables, freezer trays of chicken broth and plastic baggies filled with bread crumbs. There are bags of pasta, dried beans and cornmeal. There is sweet butter and too much cheese.
But a closer look reveals a schism. Prior to Fuschia, I had already fallen hard for Asian food. The cupboards are stuffed with bags of rice, the fridge door hopelessly jammed with bottles of dark soy sauce, Chinese black vinegar, oyster sauce, rice wine vinegar, fermented black beans, chili oil, Sriracha sauce, and tamarind paste.
Ginger and galangal live in glass jars, covered in white wine to keep them fresh. One cupboard bows beneath the weight of dried Japanese noodles, dried kelp, canned water chestnuts, dried hot red peppers, and extra bottles of peanut oil. The liquor shelf holds bottles of Mirin, Shaoxing Cooking Wine and, just in case, Sherry. At least once weekly, often more, I produce an Asian meal.
I adore Asian food in all its glorious complexity without delving deeply into any one cuisine, which demands a committed lifetime of anthropological study. As much as I would love this kind of culinary sleuthing, that isn’t the life I got. I got the armchair cooking life. And so, for the past week, I taking advantage of my summer vacation and my husband’s sweet disposition, I’ve cooked exclusively from Every Grain of Rice.
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Modern cookbooks are about inviting voices coupled with gorgeous design. Every Grain of Rice is no exception; Chris Terry’s photography is crystalline, literally mouthwatering, yet not overly prettified or arranged. You look at the cover, a bowl of Dan Dan Noodles, and think, I could do that. Yeah, you might lack the elegant chopsticks or the nice bowl, but the food is within reach. It’s pork, greens, noodles, a sauce. You don’t need food rehydrators or centrifuges or sous vide machines to prepare this. Hell, you don’t even need a food processor.
You do need some ingredients that may be new to you. This is where Dunlop’s voice comes in: easygoing yet utterly grounded in this cuisine—specifically, Sichuanese food. So make a careful grocery list. Here are some items I came home with:
A bag of dried shrimp, which you rehydrate in hot water. They’re small and intensely fishy smelling, though not unpleasantly so.
A block of tofu
A jar of black bean chili sauce (this is a spicy cuisine)
A lotus root
A small foil package labeled “preserved vegetable”.
You also need a wok. I don’t have one, relying instead on a large non-stick skillet. This is a lack requiring immediate remedy.
Nearly every recipe calls for Sichuan pepper. Unable to locate it in my market, which has an extensive selection of Chinese ingredients, I asked the butchers, who are all Chinese, where to find it. They looked bewildered; a conversation in Mandarin ensued, whereupon I was directed to the white pepper. See the white girl fail. I was also unable to locate Chinkiang vinegar. I used Chinese black vinegar, which worked fine, but then again, I don’t know what I’m missing.
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The Food (so far)
Delectable Lotus Root Salad
Lotus root has hairy brown skin hiding a crisp interior laced with holes; it’s a little intimidating-looking. It browns rapidly when peeled, so follow Dunlop’s instructions to slice it thinly, then drop it quickly in boiling water for a couple minutes before rinsing and refreshing it in cold water. It’s less about flavor than texture: think water chestnuts. You stir the lotus root into a mixture of rice wine vinegar, sugar, dried shrimp, bits of spring onion, ginger, and sesame oil. A smidge of red chile pepper is optional.
Next time I’ll slice the root more thinly. But the name says it all. Simple to prepare, with a few ingredients creating a complexity of flavor in a dish entirely new to us. We ate it standing up, in front of the television, watching the hockey playoffs.
Beef With Cumin
Seriously addictive. Thinly sliced beef gets a marinade of Shaoxing wine, salt, potato flours, and light and dark soy sauces. Dunlop’s stir fry calls for red and green bell peppers, but peppers are out of season here in Northern California. I could indeed buy peppers at the market… from the Netherlands.
My inner Berkeleyan cringed at all those petrodollars. I bought local green beans and mushrooms, instead. Fuschia, forgive me. The Netherlands are much closer to the British Isles than they are to California. Ginger, garlic, and green onion were guiltlessly procured, along with red chili pepper, cumin, and chili flakes.
Fair warning: this dish will blow your head off, so if you or yours have tender tastebuds, consider cutting back on the spicy ingredients. Otherwise, serve with rice and try to refrain from shoveling it indelicately into your face.
Everyday Stir-Fried Chicken
Dunlop’s recipe calls for celery and cucumber, but she notes you may use other vegetables. Having a glut of mushrooms, I used them with fine results. Like many of the book’s recipes, this one calls for ginger, Spring onion, Shaoxing wine, potato flour, and soy sauce, which to my thinking added the extra oomph formerly missing from my Chinese cooking.
Potato starch acts as a thickener, much as cornstarch does, but blends better, leaving no white, floury crunch. Shaoxing wine and careful attention to the type of soy sauce used lends greater depth to an already deeply flavorful cuisine. If I can only get my hands on Sichuan pepper, things will be even better.
Pock-Marked Old Woman’s Tofu
Every Grain of Rice has an entire section of tempting tofu recipes… and if your significant other or family eats tofu, go for it. Personally, I like tofu’s gentle blandness, its willingness to play so well with other flavors. But my spouse, so open-minded in many ways, has a block against “white foods” like goat cheese, cream cheese, mayonnaise, and yogurt.
So I was stuck testing the tofu alone. I made Pock-Marked Old Woman’s Tofu. Dunlop’s version uses vegetarian broth, and is thus vegetarian, but I had only chicken broth on hand. The ingredient list is longish, calling for, among other things, Sichuan Chili Bean Paste, fermented black beans (which are incredibly salty and best rinsed before use), ginger, garlic, and white pepper. The result is tongue-tingling, ambrosial, and, if you use vegetarian stock, vegan.
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Three recipes doesn’t do Every Grain of Rice service. So much is left to try: the vegetables, the rices, the soups, the dumplings. That is, the rest of the book. Every Grain of Rice beckons both newcomers and experts while solving the problem of what to feed your vegan and vegetarian friends (or yourself). Just be sure to make room in your fridge. You’re gonna need it.