Friday, 17 August 2012

Every Grain of Rice: Simple Chinese home cooking by Fuschia Dunlop

The first Chinese cookbook that I ever bought came was a small paperback entitled Chinese Cooking without Special Ingredients by Michael Edmonds, with not many pages, more like a handy guide rather than a cookbook, from a second-hand shop in Wellington. It contained no photos, but the descriptions of the meals (ingredient list and instructions) were quite clear. I was surprised by how simple the recipes included in it sounded. The writer had lived in among Chinese people in Australia and wrote the book for those who wanted an authentic taste to their Chinese cooking even though they couldn't find the authentic ingredients. The book was written in 1966 which explains why it wasn't easy to procure all the authentic ingredients needed to cook Asian meals, so the recipes were simplified, using local substitutes for certain dishes. I loved using the book, both in New Zealand and in Greece, where I found it even harder to access the ingredients in my early days here.

It's now much easier to find the ingredients I need, especially with the help of my Asian friends who point me in the right direction concerning what substitutions I can make, and where I can find various unusual items. There is now even a store in Iraklio selling Asian supplies: it stocks spices, ready sauces, rice, cheap soy sauce, sesame oil, bonito flakes, mirin, glutinous rice flour, bamboo wok brushes, cooking equipment, among other unusual items (for Greek terms).

In keeping with my tradition of preparing simple home-cooked meals, I decided to add Fuschia Dunlop's Every Grain of Rice to my Chinese recipe book collection. For me to buy a cookbook, it has to be a really good one. What I liked about it is the non-glossy plain photography, showing a clear picture of the meal against a simple background. There is also a good description at the beginning of the book listing all the basic ingredients used in cooking Chinese meals and a short list of some 'magic' ingredients that lend great flavour to a basic meal; I especially liked the opening line to this section:
"You don't need many ingredients to get started with Chinese cooking." 
What a relief - just like with my first Chinese cookbook, I'm able to use locally sourced items in conjunction with small quantities of specialised ingredients which can be bought in bulk when I get the chance to travel in Northern Europe, where Asian cuisine is more widespread.

My wok has seen better days, but it still does the job...
Living in the Cretan countryside means we have access to many fresh vegetables that can easily be used in creating a simple vegetarian Chinese meal. Many of the meat-based recipes in the book do not use great quantities, so they are economical to make. The most important new knowledge I've obtained from this book concerns the techniques involved in Chinese cooking. Some techniques need special equipment, while others are simply easy but magic ways to transform a bland dish into something more authentically Asian and spectacularly tastier. Here's an example, using the oil-sizzling technique:
"... it is so simple and quick and produces such devastatingly delicious results... blanch or steam your main ingredients (perhaps a whole fish or some leafy green vegetabels), and lay them out neatly on a serving plate, You scatter them with slivered spring onions and ginger. You heat a little oil until it emits a thin smoke, then pour it over the onions and ginger, which sizzle and smell wonderful. You then pour over soy sauce, usually diluted with water. This sounds ridiculously easy - which it is - but it's one of the finest Chinese cooking methods. It adds a sublime edge of flavour to good-qualtiy ingredients, while allowing their natural flavours to shine through."
Chinese cooking is not all about stir-fries and soups - the book contains a good number of slow-cook meat dishes. This is an important aspect for me when introducing foreign recipe techniques into my Cretan kitchen - slow-cooked (ie well-cooked) meals are an important aspect of good-quality Cretan cooking; meat must never be under-cooked for the Cretan palate.

Fish-fragrant aubergines, with  the addition of some colourful peppers. Although I didn't have the Sichuan chili bean paste mentioned in the recipe, I used another hot chili paste that we can get in Hania (sambal oelek).

I was quite eager to start cooking form the book immediately, and the easiest dish I found I could imitate was fish-fragrant aubergine. It's something I've made before in a similar way, so I'll try to be more adventurous in the future.

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