The vivid flavours of Sichuan, with Fuchsia Dunlop as our information | Meals

ON On Saturday morning, I roam the wide aisles of Wing Yip, the exciting Asian supermarket in Croydon, trying to bring color into a monochrome life. Occasionally I look from my phone’s screen to the parade of glasses, like a lost child looking for a parent in the crowd. There are some of us here today; the baffled, hopeful, and pathologically hungry, with ingredient lists for dishes so far from our comfort zones.

Fortunately, I have a guide. Her name is Fuchsia Dunlop. The picture on my phone is from her book, The Food of Sichuan. It is a series of Chinese characters for sweet flour sauce, a paste that is close to the Hoi sin but subtly different from it. Unfortunately, it has a number of different names in English. Photographing the Chinese characters is Dunlop’s suggestion and praise, it works. I quickly find an ingredient for twice-cooked pork, one of my favorite dishes in Sichuan.

While it might be possible to approach the dish without that particular sauce, I couldn’t do it without Dunlop’s book; It really is the key ingredient. Sichuan Food is a detailed, sometimes nerdy, often romantic guide, considered by many to be the most intricate and vibrant of all regional Chinese cooking traditions. This year marks the 20th anniversary of the first publication, an event marked by an expanded reissue and recommendations from Ken Hom and myself. I describe it as “my Bible for the subject” and not unfair; it is far more nutritious than any religious tract could ever be. It’s the most beautiful thing: a window through which you can see and occasionally participate in a different kind of life.

Dunlop’s book is a window through which one can see and occasionally participate in a different kind of life

Dunlop grew up in Oxford. Her mother taught English as a foreign language and often invited her students to cook their meals from home. Dunlop started writing recipes early on, a habit that stuck with her when she went to Chengdu City, Sichuan Province in the 1990s to study and learn the language at the city’s university. “During a trip to a nearby fishing village, I wrote down recipes for what we’d just eaten,” says Dunlop now. “My Danish friend Marianne said I should write a book.” She later spent three months in the Sichuan Cooking School, the first non-Chinese person to do so. “I took very strict notes.”

Dunlop could see a niche in the market. “There were no Chinese cookbooks [in the west] That was investigated on the spot, as was the case for the Middle East or Italy, ”she says. The publishers were less convinced; Their first proposal was rejected by all because it was “too tight”. She tried again a year later. This time it was successful. The world was introduced to the surprising delicacy of dishes that intertwined red chili peppers with numbing Sichuan peppercorns. to the choreographed dance of salt and sweet and sour; to the joys of fuhewei, the composite flavors that give these dishes their striking, exhilarating charm.

“A rust-colored sauce made from fermented beans”: pork cooked twice.

Like the best cookbooks, it puts the dishes in context. “It’s one of those books that has to start at the back,” says Chef Jeremy Pang, who heads the School of Wok in central London. He’s not wrong: Here you will find lists of spices and supplies, as well as a report on the “23 Flavors of Sichuan”: the numbing and hot, the burnt chilies, the fragrant and more. On the front there are pages about the 56 cooking techniques and the many different knife cuts. “Chinese cuisine is so complex,” says Pang, “and this book sheds light on that.” He also loves the way that understanding Sichuan food goes well beyond the obvious headline appeal of chilies and peppercorns. “As Fuchsia says, texture is crucial.” He is committed to the white pork in garlic sauce and the steamed aubergine with burnt green peppers, which should be eaten hot or cold.

Chef Andrew Wong of the much-admired London restaurant A Wong is also a huge fan. “The recipes are as accurate as many Chinese cookbooks really don’t,” he says. (Impressively, a Chinese edition has just been published in China.) Are there any recipes he regularly turns to? “There was a point where I always made their fish-scented eggplant.” The most important thing, says Wong, is Dunlop’s foresight. “She was ahead of her time when she realized that food would prevail.” Dunlop is also partly responsible for this. She was an advisor to London’s Barshu, the UK’s first dedicated Sichuan restaurant, which opened in 2006. Now there are Sichuan restaurants everywhere. “I’m surprised at the speed at which it spread,” she says. “On the other hand, I knew how appealing the food would be.”

“Like punctuation marks with cashew nuts”: Gong-Bao shrimp.

I decide to try the twice-cooked pork, gong bao shrimp, and mapo tofu, all dishes I know well from my dining adventures in restaurants. It gives me something to compare my efforts to. Dunlop’s instructions are clear. Even so, cooking this food is a challenge. My kitchen quickly degenerates into uncontrolled chaos. Surfaces fill with peels: chopped green onions here and fermented black beans there; of red chili peppers mixed with peppercorns; of sauces that mix Shaoxing wine and Chinkiang vinegar. Finally I give up the idea of ​​making three dishes. The Mapo Tofu is postponed for another day.

I cook the pork belly platter with flavors, let it cool and cut it into slices for wok roasting. This recipe, like many of them in The Food of Sichuan, uses the language of the subjective. The meat must be fried until it smells “delicious”. The bright red Sichuan chili paste has to be cooked in oil until it smells “wonderful”. Dunlop is consistent in this. The recipe for Mapo Tofu, that classic dish of diced, wobbly bean curd in a cheek-clap sauce, also requires that the chili paste be cooked until it is “wonderful”. I’ll do what I’m told What I long for is wonderful. What I need is wonderful.

“The most comforting of scary-looking dishes”: Mapo Tofu.

To my shame, I burn the chilies in an overly hot wok after the gong bao shrimp and curse myself. Even so, I finish with food I recognize; It’s the first time I’ve cooked dishes at home that are similar to what I’ve eaten in Chinese restaurants. There’s this twice-cooked pork with shoots of bright green and a rust-colored sauce made from fermented beans; There are fat shrimp like punctuation with cashew nuts and the touch of Shaoxing wine. and a day or two later the most comforting, terrifying-looking dish, the mapo tofu. Washing up can be copious. The work surfaces can be splashed. But that belly says, “Thank you, Fuchsia. You took me somewhere else. “

The food of Sichuan from Fuchsia Dunlop (Bloomsbury, £ 30). Buy a copy for £ 26.10 from guardianbookshop.com

Message bites

London’s Riding House Café has launched Soul Ride, a delivery service for much of the UK that draws on Chef Henry Omereye’s love and knowledge of Caribbean food. The £ 55 brunch box contains a smoked pepper stew with coconut and avocado, buttermilk pancake mix, and a sorrel and hibiscus prosecco, while the stinking £ 120 Soul Ride Weekender box includes cod donuts, curry mutton, jerk Includes chicken burgers and a sticky date and flavored rump pudding, among others (Ridinghouseathome.com).

The Leiths School of Food and Wine created an expanded range of online cooking classes during the lockdown. In addition to the full 24-week professional, accredited “Essential Cooking Certificate”, they now also offer shorter courses, including one for 13 to 18 year olds and one for the essentials of “plant-based” foods. The latter runs for six weeks and costs £ 295 (leiths.com).

The team behind the Escape to Freight Island location in Manchester has announced a food and drink festival with enviable optimism from May 28th to 31st. The Kantina Weekender will feature chefs like Mary-Ellen McTague from Chorlton’s Creameries, Gary Usher from Elite Bistros, Stosie Madi from Parker’s Arms and Sam Buckley from Stockports Where The Light Gets In. They will all team up with food and beverage manufacturers who are already part of the food and beverage market. Tickets are £ 35 and count towards your food and drink expenses. To book, visit kantinaweekender.com.

Email Jay at [email protected] or follow him on Twitter @ jayrayner1

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