This week, Fuchsia Dunlop's classic had us brushing up on our wok skills to bring Sichuan's famous flavors home.
I knew I wanted to review a Chinese cookbook this year, and Bryn's been in love with this book for years now (full disclosure: our Mapo Tofu and Sichuan[ish] Celery are both inspired by dishes we first tried making from this book). While I've eaten a ton of excellent Chinese food, I haven’t cooked much Chinese food at all — let alone specific regional cuisines like those from the famous Sichuan province.
I cracked this book open and started reading about Fuchsia’s journey into Sichuanese cuisine. Her passion for the food and culture of the region jumped out of the page and instantly got me hooked.
The next thing I knew I was ordering chile bean paste (pixiandouban) and sweet flour sauce (tianmianjiang), and learning the difference between light soy sauce (shengchou) and dark soy sauce (laochou). I dove into prep for this review by producing enough beef and chicken stock to last a year and failing in an attempt to make a fermented glutinous rice wine (though I think my rice wine was doomed from the beginning due to an intense heat wave).
With my pantry stocked, I was ready for Monday, and rolled up my sleeves to fry some pork belly. Unfortunately, I was unable to find the ideal cut (skin-on pork rump) and used one of the backup recommendations (skin-on pork belly) which made the end result similar to the texture of bacon with a tire wrapped around it. Not great.
The hard thing about writing recipes — as we well know — is that measurements are usually correlated to something that the author is experiencing. A recipe might say "Carefully pour off all but 3 tbsp oil from the wok", but what they often mean is "leave enough to cover the bottom" which is sometimes not specific enough for new cooks. Recipes are often at their best when the reader can infer what the author meant, rather than following a recipe to the letter (which, let me tell you, makes reviewing cookbooks... interesting).
The flavors in these recipes are complex, spicy, rich, and inviting. Nearly every dish we made was perfectly balanced between spicy and numbing or sour and sweet. The only recipe that needed a little adjustment was the hot pot: it called for 75 grams of dried chilies and 200 grams of beef tallow (making oil nearly 10% of the contents of the pot).
Again, I think this comes down to inference. We've had Sichuanese hot pot many times, but I've never encountered one with that much oil — and it made consuming the dish quite difficult at first. After doing a little math and introducing some extra broth and skimming about 120g of oil off the top, that hot pot was to die for.
With my first week of Sichuanese cookery under my belt thanks to "The Food of Sichuan", I can honestly say that if you’re interested in getting started with Sichuanese cuisine (or learning about Chinese regional cuisines in general), I highly recommend getting this book for your shelf. Not only does Fuchsia take the time to break down everything from common tools to pantry staples found in traditional Sichuanese cooking, she also includes unique and entertaining anecdotes about each recipe. I highly recommend reading the sidebars before starting to cook. Fuchsia usually peppers in tips and tricks for the recipe that I have found very helpful, but are easily missed.