on November 26, 2003
Fuchia Dunlap's first book on Sichuan cooking is a very strong entry into the world of works on regional cuisines. I heartily agree with blurbs by such notables as John Thorne and Alan Davidson that the work puts Dunlap in the company of Diana Kennedy and Paula Wolfert. One can hope that future works validate this initial judgement. We can use a lot more books like this.
I believe it is common knowledge among foodies that there is a big difference between Sechuan and Cantonese cuisine, and that the former is characterized by very spicy foods. Viewing a few episodes with the Iron Chef Chinese will fill you on this. What this book covers is to characterize with great clarity and thoroughness what Sichuan cooking is all about.
The first impression I get is that Sichuan cooking is very highly codified, almost on the same level as French cuisine. This immediately reveals to the reader that, for example, there are easily a half dozen different types of stir fry cooking within Sichuan cuisine alone. It also means that the Sichuan doctrines on taste match or exceed Western culinary tradition. They have, for example, the concept of 'xian' which describes the 'indefinable, delicious taste of fresh meat, poultry, and seafood'. This is in addition to the real magic the cuisine does with the more familiar sweet, sour, salty, and bitter. The author effectively captures and communicates the importance of these tastes in Sichuan cuisine to the reader, including experiments so one can experience these tastes first hand.
The second impression I get is that chilis, that is, plants of the genus capsicum from the new world, had as big an impact on Sichuan cuisine as the tomato had on Italian cuisine, at roughly the same time in history. Before new world chilis arrived, the heat in this cuisine came primarily from a local red pepper, a berry similar to our familiar black pepper. In the seventeenth century, the genus capsicum really took over. Yet, the cuisine is not as fiery hot as one may find in Mexico or the Caribbean. The peppers most commonly used are just moderately hot and the author constantly warns against substituting Thai chili peppers for the Sichuan peppers, as the result would be painful.
Following Ms. Wolfert and Ms. Kennedy, the author has successfully translated the Chinese techniques for English speaking readers. However, one would not be able to fully appreciate or execute these recipes without some basic ingredients and equipment. I really believe that one would loose something in these recipes if one did not have a round bottom wok and it's tools. Fortunately, even very good Chinese woks are very inexpensive, especially at restaurant supply stores. For those with electric ranges, a flat bottomed wok may be a reasonable approximation. I would also recommend that one make the effort to get the authentic canned and bottled ingredients. Substitutions, even from other Asian cuisines may give very misleading results. For the non-foodie recipe hunter, I recommend the chicken recipes and the vegetable recipes. The Kung Pao recipe is worth the price of admission and one always needs a way to make veggies more interesting. (I was surprised when the grean bean recipes used the French haricort vert and not the long Asian grean bean.)
If Ms. Dunlap is not presenting authentic recipes, she has done a very good job of fooling me. She has also succeeded in keeping me thoroughly entertained with her headnotes and stories about how she came across the various dishes. The only heads up I would give you, dear reader, about the recipes is that sometimes important information about the recipe is given in the headnote, which people in a hurry may not read. Otherwise, this is a first class job of recipe writing.
The photographs are gathered in color sections and are of reasonable, but not extraordinary quality. The introductory background on Sichuan cuisine and appendices are superb.
on July 28, 2003
I'm an Asiaphile, and have been for a long time. And as a result, I'm only too aware of how hard it is to find really good Chinese cookbooks in English. This is one of them. Dunlop shares the recipes she learned at Sichuan's highest-profile cooking school, and puts them in context - not only do you learn how to cook the dish, you learn how to taste it as well.
If you're the kind of cook who'd rather eat after hours with the kitchen staff at your local Chinese restaurant than order the Americanised stuff on the menu, this book is for you. Enjoy!
on August 30, 2003
This is a wonderful treatise on Sichuan cooking, but be advised that this book was originally written for the UK market and has only recently been adapted for US readers. Unfortunately, one of the most key ingredients in Sichuan cooking, the Sichuan Pepper or "fagara" which is used in at least half of the key recipes on this book, has been BANNED in the USA by the US Department of Agriculture because it carries a devastating canker virus that kills citrus plants. The US is not expected to lift this ban anytime soon, it may be decades before they consider the spice to be safe for import.
The two mail-order sources listed in the appendix in the book for Sichuan Peppercorn turn out to be duds, as they themselves have had their inventories seized. So the aspiring home chef looking to replicate these dishes at home will have to find the Sichuan Peppercorn via illicit means.
Check out egullet.com for more information on this.
on July 27, 2003
this is a WONDERFUL cookbook. i am truly enamored of the in-depth descriptions of the origins of the recipes and accompanying folklore about life and food for the sichuanese. our oldest daughter, adopted from chongqing in '98, loves to cook congee, or "zhou". i was so glad to find the recipe and name for the "strange but delicious purple porridge" we ate in chongqing in '98. we have priceless photos of a restaurant waitress shovelling spoonsful of the porridge into our then-10-month-old daughter, who loved it! now i know how to make that "zhou" at home.
our second daughter from china, adopted in guizhou province this past spring, may have to wait for her "guizhou cookbook". i wish i could find one! in the meantime, i highly recommend this book about the splendors of sichuan cuisine. "huo guo" (hot pot) for everyone!