I gave my husband, Raf, Every Grain of Rice for Christmas. This was clearly a selfish present. However as it turns out, he gave me Charles Phan's Vietnamese Home Cooking, so we are basically even. Or both obsessed with food. Both books are beautifully published and insight extreme cooking lock-ins!
As Raf was in Miami this weekend, my best friend Doctor Helen and I had planned to engulf ourselves in Every Grain of Rice by Fuchsia Dunlop. A Chinese banquet of new proportions. We chose an array of dishes, some new to us and some more familiar friends, and a few of our own too. It was an absolute blast and I can't think of a much better way to spend a Saturday. While Billy, the baby, bounced in the doorway, we poached beef, smashed cucumbers and pressure cooked the most unctuous ribs I have EVER tasted.
What's great about Fuchsia's book and something really noteworthy, is that each of the dishes we produced looked exactly like the food photographed in the book. This isn't always the case. For extreme proof of this, checkout Pip's acerbic blog on just this subject. Here is a beef dish and a cucumber salad which are almost identical to Fuchsia's. The beef dish called for shin, not a cut I have previously bought. You slow poach it for hours with ginger and spices (which makes the house smell fantastic). Cold and finely sliced, heaped with crunchy celery and nuts and a dressing, it's not your average Chinese take-away standard. It's hot and deep and thoroughly pleasing (I was worried it was going to be dry but it's not. It's flaky and delicious). The cucumbers were also a triumph. Literally smashed, with a rolling pin, and marinated in Chinese chilli oil and Szechuan pepper corns, this salad is disceptively fiery and fantastic as a result: hot from the dressing and cold from the watery cucumbers.
We also made Chicken with blackbeans, which sounds more recognisable. You might be imagining diced breasts and a gloopy blackbean sauce. THINK AGAIN. Like every cook worth their salt, she stipulates thighs, a much more tasty portion of bird, being close to the bone and blessed with more brown meat. The thighs were marinated in a light mix of soy sauces, shaoxing cooking wine (which smells just like sherry actually) and potato flour. At the last they were fried in Doctor Helen's well seasoned wok with peppers and salted black beans. These, like many ingredients listed in this great book, can be bought at a good Asian super market. Our nearest and dearest is called Wing Tai Supermarket and without stressing the point too much, is my favourite shop in the world. Whilst these new fangled ingredients may be off putting initially, don't be faint hearted. By exploring new ingredients you will learn so much. The black beans came in a small packet and were shrivelled with a slight bloom. Rinsed, they were absolutely delicious. I would happily eat these just as they are with a cold beer as a snack. They are small and potent and salty and when added to lightly seasoned chicken they are the perfect juxtaposition. Once you have cooked (and quickly devoured, hence the lack of photo) this dish properly you will understand why it has become such a stalwart in the Anglo-Chinese restaurant culture.
In short, buy this book. It's bleeding good and the food is delicious. Accept the challenge, do some foraging in your local shops and you too can have a perfect Chinese banquet.