Land of Plenty: A Treasury of Authentic Sichuan Cooking
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"It is a very long time since I saw a book which is so patently an absolute 'must.'"―Alan Davidson, author of The Oxford Companion to FoodThe food of the Sichuan region in southwest China is one of the world's great culinary secrets. Many of us know it for its "hot and spicy" reputation or a few of its most famous dishes, most notably Kung Pao chicken, but that is only the beginning. Sichuanese cuisine is legendary in China for its sophistication and astounding diversity: local gourmets claim the region boasts 5000 different dishes.
Fuchsia Dunlop fell in love with Sichuanese food on her first visit to the province ten years ago. The following year she went to live in the Sichuanese capital Chengdu, where she became the first foreigner to study full-time at the province's famous cooking school, the Sichuan Institute of Higher Cuisine. Now she has given us a cookbook gathered on the spot from the kitchens of Sichuan, filled with stories and colorful descriptions of the region itself. Useful for the enthusiastic beginner as well as the experienced cook, Land of Plenty teaches you not only how to prepare the Sichuan recipes but also the art of chopping and to appreciate the textures of dishes.Among this book's unique features: a full glossary of Chinese terms; Chinese characters useful for shopping; a practical introduction to the art of cutting; detailed lists of the 23 recognized flavor combinations and 56 cooking methods used in Sichuanese cuisine; 16 color pictures of the ingredients and finished dishes; double-page maps of the region; and Chinese characters for every recipe
Elizabeth David had it easy. All she had to do was eat her way through France and Italy and translate the essence of the encountered cuisines for a ravenous, literate, English-speaking public. Fuschia Dunlop, on the other hand, went to Chengdu, the capital of Sichuan in China, where she ended up the first foreign student enrolled at the Sichuan Institute of Higher Cuisine. That was nearly 10 years ago. After annual return visits and endless research she has produced, in English, a magnificent introduction to the food and foodways of Sichuan. She is in every way the dharma inheritor of Elizabeth David.
You too may start to salivate halfway through the introduction to Dunlop's magnificent Land of Plenty: A Treasury of Authentic Sichuan Cooking. Perhaps it begins when she explains xian, "one of the most beautiful words in the Chinese culinary language." It describes an entire range of flavor and sensation, "the indefinable, delicious taste of fresh meat, poultry, and seafood, the scrumptious flavors of a pure chicken soup..." Before you know it you are running headlong into a world of 23 distinct flavors and 56 cooking methods (they are all listed at the end of the book). Sichuan is the place where "barbarian peppers" met up with a natural cornucopia and a literary cooking tradition stretching back to the fifth century A.D. Innovation with cooking technique and new and challenging ingredients remains a hallmark of Sichuan. After describing basic cutting skills and cooking techniques, Dunlop presents her recipes in chapters that include "Noodles, Dumplings, and Other Street Treats"; "Appetizers"; "Meat"; "Poultry"; "Fish"; "Vegetables and Bean Curd"; "Stocks and Soup"; "Sweet Dishes"; and "Hotpot." Yes, you will find Gong Bao (Kung Pao) Chicken with Peanuts--Gong Bao Ji Ding. It's named after a late 19th-century governor of Sichuan, Ding Baozhen, which brought on the wrath of the Cultural Revolution for its imperial associations. Until rehabilitation, the dish was called "fast-fried chicken cubes" or "chicken cubes with seared chilies."
Land of Plenty is literary food writing at its best, as well as a marvelous invitation to new skills and flavors for the home cook. Read it. Cook it. Eat it. And take pleasure in the emerging career of Fuschia Dunlop, a big new voice in the world of food. --Schuyler Ingle
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