January has been flying by since I caught up with Fuchsia Dunlop in her London HQ via Skype right at start of 2013.
Our hour long conversation revolved around the U.S publication of her latest cookbook Every Grain of Rice, Simple Chinese Home Cooking (W.W. Norton, February 2013).
Q: Fuchsia, where did your interest in Chinese food and China in general come from?
I got hooked on China through a sub-editing job at the BBC, then traveled to China, learned Mandarin. I was supposed to study minorities history then while in Chengdu got interested in Chinese cuisine which led me to study at Institute of Higher Cuisine in Sichuan.
Q: Homecooked meal you had at Mrs. Mao described in the introduction sounds like a feast, is it common in Chinese homes to treat your guests to so many dishes?
Yes, it is customary. It is also a way to offer a range of flavors over the course of the meal.
Q: What distinguishes Malabar spinach of Sichuan from regular spinach?
It is a completely different plant also known as Basella alba (from Basellaceae family, slippery and ancient.
Q: Can you describe what you call ‘eating for heath and happiness’
Rather than the idea of Chinese food we have in the West, it means a cuisine based on grains and vegetables, beans with bits of meat and fish to add flavor.
Q: What does Cassia bark add to stews?
Cassia bark could be called ‘poor man’ cinnamon. It is often used to counteract (balance) beef or lamb flavors and is often used in combination with star anise and cardamom.
Q: How similar and different are Chinese cured hams from European ones and how are they used?
Jinhua hams from Eastern China and Yunnan are 2 examples. They are seldom eaten raw. Most often they are added to enhance flavors (umami) also with bamboo shoots. Their role is similar to that of dry shrimp in other recipes. Small thin slices of cured ham are also present as a garnish.
Q: What is role of Chinese ladle?
Chinese ladle has shallower angle. It works well to move various ingredients around the wok or add various
Q; Among recipes in ‘Every Grain of Rice’ which would you suggest to someone not familiar with Chinese cuisine, a rookie?
Many recipes in the book are accessible and can be put together in 10 to 20 minutes, as long as you have the right ingredients.
Q: I discovered thank to you that chestnuts are a native crop of China, which recipe in the book puts them to good use?
I recommend the chicken chestnut stir fry. Use young chestnuts.
Q: Why are Garlic Stems a favorite of yours?
Their garlicky taste is softened by cooking. It makes for a great supper with bacon and rice. Chinese cooking uses the onion family a lot, for example yellow hothouse chives and flowering chines.
Q: What made Zhajiang noodles popular all over China?
It is a classic Beijing dish. Other regions created versions of it though with less intense flavors.
Q: Is dessert not part of a Chinese meal?
Desserts can be found in Hong Kong or at banquets. For Chinese a meal is a journey of flavors. Chinese do not find grouping of sweets together compelling.
Q: You suggest German or Alsatian white wines as best pairing with Chinese dishes so why are red Bordeaux popular in China?
At grand dinners, sea cucumber, birdnest are served because they are delicacies with social cachet. Serving dry red wines like high end Bordeaux are status symbols, they are trendy.
Q: You also mention that fiery grain liquors are served at functions, are they hard on liver?
Lots of grain liquors are present at celebrations and business functions. Many transplants find it hard to deal with night after night of toasts. This heavy drinking is harder on men. Women can find ways to minimize toasts without offending their hosts.
Q: What type of oysters are found in Fujian and Guandong provinces?
I have to confess I am not sure.
Q: To conclude, What is your favorite regional cuisine?
There are so many exciting regional cuisines. Chengdu is exceptional. It is first Chinese city of gastronomy. Sichuan food has all price points. It is both varied and complex. You find hundreds of dishes, all with their own flavor,some scorched in oil, others fermented, a wide range of chiles, ginger juices, sweet and sour options. Another favorite area is Hangzhou for its water vegetables and fresh water fish.
(* Photo of Fuchsia Dunlop © Colin Bell, other photo courtesy Fuchsia Dunlop)