My new favorite cookbook is Every Grain of Rice by Fuchsia Dunlop. After she has meticulously and faithfully researched and documented two historically significant cuisines in China (Sichuanese, and Hunanese) in previous books, and then researched deep into many other Chinese regional cuisines, Dunlop now brings together some of the best recipes from all of her work while at the same time modifying them (sometimes slightly, sometimes radically) to make them easier for Western cooks to approach and prepare, as well as to bend them further towards a vegetarian ideal while keeping them as delicious (if not more so!) as their origins.
This is really important because for our own health, as well as for the health of our planet, we cannot continue to get a majority of our protein from whole slabs of meat. Not only are we better off eating less meat per dish, but if we no longer demand quantity of meat from our meat growers, they will be able to focus on quality of both the meat’s life as well as it’s flavor. Because of the scarcity of meat across most of Chinese history, most Chinese cuisines use meat only for flavor — protein is provided for in many other ways, primarily through the soy bean.
As a meat grower, and a meat eater, I would never suggest that we stop eating meat altogether, because I believe that our biological make up benefits from digesting a wide spectrum of foods, animal flesh (and eggs and milk) included. But *wide spectrum* means that livestock products normally ought to contribute only a portion of our daily protein intake (the USDA recommends 46 grams for women, 56 for men — that’s about two ounces A DAY). Meat for flavor, or as one of many components of a dish, easily accomplishes this goal, and Fuchsia gives us tasty and easy ways to prepare dishes in which we can do follow this thoughtful path.
As you look through the gorgeously photographed examples of each recipe in this cookbook it’s also important to understand the underpinning of every Chinese meal: each dish pictured (except the dumplings and noodles) is meant to be eaten on top of a bowl of rice. Even the meat forward dishes like Red Braised Pork Belly, which feature thick cubes of rich pork, are meant to be shared among many diners, and each meat portion should be eaten with a bowl of rice (which becomes flavored with the meat and its sauce). In this way we are still using meat as a component of our meal, not the focus.
Interestingly Fuchsia’s theme is echoed by a campaign we were exposed to as we ate our way around Chengdu last summer. On every table in a number of the restaurants we were taken to by our guide there was a cardboard sign entirely in chinese script, so it was not directed to foreign tourists like me, but to the local population. Our guide translated the information in the script, though the images are so direct that he didn’t really have to: we ought to value Every Grain of Rice because of how hard our farmers work to produce it for you. It’s the same message, but from the angle of having respect for our food producers.
TWO SIMPLE UNUSUAL and UNUSUALLY DELICIOUS RECIPES:
Silken Tofu with Avocado
200g silken tofu
2 Tbsp soy sauce diluted with 1 Tbsp water
(optional) a hint of wasabi paste/powder
1/2 tsp toasted sesame oil
1/2 to 1 perfectly ripe avocado
Turn the block of silken tofu out onto a serving dish and carefully slice into half inch sections.
Cut an avocado in half, remove pit, peel, and slice into quarter inch sections.
Pour diluted soy sauce with optional wasabi mixed in, then the toasted sesame oil, over the tofu. Place the fanned avocado half(s) on top, and serve immediately.
Smoked Tofu with Celery and Peanuts
100g smoked pressed tofu*
3 celery sticks
30g raw whole peanuts (skin on or off)
1 1/2 Tbsp Chili Oil**
1/2 Tbsp Chili Oil Sediment
pinch of sugar
salt to taste
Cut tofu and celery sticks into 1 cm cubes/squares (the idea being that each item is roughly the same size in the salad). Quickly blanch the celery squares in boiling water for about 1 minute, then cool.
Fry peanuts in a bit of oil (barely covering) in a small pan or bottom of a wok over low heat until they start to brown, about 5 to 10 minutes. Remove and drain.
Mix everything together and serve.
* Sold in vacuum packages of 8 oz for two squares (“SoyBoy” is the brand I get), and 1 square works for this recipe. Also comes in “Asian Flavor” which can also be used, though the smoked version adds an extra dimension.
** A specialty item sold in jars in Asian grocery sections or stores. Sediment sinks to the bottom and can be used mixed in, or separate from oil. Almost always found as a condiment on every table (a jar with a little spoon) in authentic Chinese restaurants. Can also be made by pouring 300degF peanut oil over chili powder (pure ground chilies, no extra spices) and a Tbsp of sesame seeds in a temp safe jar or container.
(from Every Grain of Rice so using the Brit spelling)
500 ml (1 pint) cooking oil
100g (about 4 oz) ground chillies* (should be Course ground not Fine)
1 tsp sesame seeds
Small piece of fresh ginger, unpeeled, crushed just to break it open
Heat oil over high flame to about 200°C (400°F), then take off the heat to allow it to cool to 140°C (280°F), which takes only about 5 or 10 minutes.
Place the ground chillies, sesame seeds, and piece of ginger in a heatproof container than can accommodate more than the oil and chillies to prevent it from bubbling over. (It helps to have another person ready to stir the chillies as you pour.) When the oil has just reached the target temperature, pour (slowly at first to get it mixed in, then increasing) into the chilli mix, stopping stirring when the last of the oil has gone in. It should fizz for a minute or so as everything releases moisture.
Once it has cooled to room temperature, stir it up and decant it to it’s storage container.
* The closest flavor I get to the bottled stuff (which isn’t necessarily “authentic”…) is from using Gochugaru (Korean hot pepper powder meant for use in making kim chi — get the less finely ground version if you go this route because you want more flakes than powder in the sediment). I’m still experimenting with other chili varieties like Ancho and Guajillo as well as the Chinese Tien Tsien dried pepper that is much hotter. The goal is NOT to create a spicy hot oil (although that’s an option), but to create an oil with all the chili flavor in it PLUS a beautiful ruby red color.