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
From Publishers Weekly
Sichuan cuisine, renowned for its spicy notes and hot flavors, is famous in Chinese history and lore for its variety and richness of tastes and layers. Dunlop, who writes about Chinese food and culture for the Economist, has produced a volume that is sure to take its place among the classics of Chinese cuisine. Drawing on her experience as a student at the Sichuan Institute of Higher Cuisine in Chengdu, China and on many Chinese sources, she conveys the history and geography that make this cuisine so different from the other regions and so varied-the region boasts 5,000 different dishes. After discussing the tastes and textures that form Chinese cuisine in general, Dunlop describes cooking methods, equipment and the pantry before diving into the recipes. From such traditional dishes as Strange-Flavor Chicken (aka Bang Bang Chicken) to Hot-and-Sour Soup that have made the region famous, to the simple Zucchini Slivers with Garlic to the appealing Spicy Cucumber Salad, she engagingly describes dishes and their context, much in the style of Elizabeth David and Claudia Roden. Ending with sections entitled "The 23 Flavors of Sichuan" and "The 56 Cooking Methods of Sichuan," the book is a pleasure-both to cook from and to read.
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