The Food Lovers' Cookbook Collection
Land of Plenty A Treasury of Authentic Sichuan Cooking by Fuchsia Dunlop
Fuchsia Dunlop is a graduate of Magdalene College at Cambridge University. She now works as a columnist for newspapers such as the Economist and the China Review and she is one of the emerging (emerged?) talents of the food writing scene. She writes with a passionate authority. In part, this comes from her deep knowledge of her subject, having spent a year living in Chengdu and studying at the Sichuan Institute of Higher Cuisine and talking to key chefs in the city.
Land of Plenty: A Treasury of Authentic Sichuan Cooking is an important book partly because it is written by someone who is clearly passionate about the subject.
For those who are not familiar with Chinese geography, Sichuan is a large inland province that sits above the Yunnan province which in turn lies above Burma, Laos and Vietnam. The Yangtze River derives much of its volume from the province.
The book is based around 9 chapters of recipes which start with noodles and dumplings and are then followed by appetizers, meat dishes, poultry, fish, vegetables and bean curd, stocks and soups, sweet dishes and the final one is devoted to the wonderful hotpots so beloved by people from Sichuan. Each of these chapters has an informative introduction that talks about the cultural aspects of the recipes as well as explaining the key ingredients.
However, we found it useful to read some of the supporting chapters before delving into the recipes. The chapter of the 23 flavours of Sichuan is particularly interesting and certainly brought back memories of great meals from this province. Flavours such as hot-and-numbing (the result of chillies and the fast-acting, numbing fresh Sichuan peppercorns), strange-flavour (a combination of salt, sweet, numbing, hot, sour, savoury and fragrant), fish-fragrant (pickled chillies and chilli bean paste) and home-style flavour (chilli bean paste, salt and soy sauce) are the dominant flavours of the twenty three commonly used.
The long chapter called the Sichuan Pantry is also required reading so that you can assemble the ingredients that are so necessary to replicate the complex flavours that are typical of Sichuan cooking. You will need to try to locate fresh and dried Sichuan peppercorns (ordinary peppercorns will not do as they do not have that essential numbing quality). You will need two or three jars of chilli bean paste. You will also need some of the wonderful Baoning vinegar (from the city of Langzhong) or if this is not available at least some Chinkiang vinegar which is more readily available.
And now to the recipes. Ms Dunlop does an excellent job of trying to preserve the flavours and traditions of Sichuan food while ensuring that readers have access to basic ingredients that will replicate the flavours authentically. So, if a recipe demands fresh pork lard (as required for the correct texture in glutinous rice balls) she uses it without worrying about so-called health conscious Westerners. In fact the recipe for glutinous rice balls (tang yuan) is one to definitely try. We still vividly remember the taste and texture of this sweet, exotic dish that we tried at the Ba Guo Bu Yi Cuisine Restaurant in Shanghai recently.
Dunlop also doesn't fall into the modern trap of reducing ingredients and explanations to the point of meaninglessness. Here explanations of the dumpling recipes often extend over three or four pages - which is completely necessary for such a complex process for beginners to this cuisine.
A comfort dish that will appeal to lovers of congee is the 'ba bao hei mi zhou' - a black rice porridge based of black and white glutinous rice with additions such as wolfberries, walnuts, fresh peanuts and Chinese dates.
In the appetizer section we particularly liked the cold chicken recipes that are dressed with a variety of fiery sauces and the steamed eggplants with chilli sauce.
The custom in Sichuan is to finish a meal with one or more soups which often have noodles in them. One recipe that caught our eye was quite different. It is a clear soup with chicken balls called 'qing tang ji yuan' which reminds us of the Jewish chicken soup recipe.
This is a seminal work that deserves the acclaim it is receiving. Anyone who is interested in the regional foods of China should make sure that this important work is part of their collection.