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Review: Savor Chinese Food With ‘Every Grain of Rice’

Fuchsia Dunlop and her book, "Every Grain of Rice"

British food writer Fuchsia Dunlop focused tightly on single regions of China in her first two cookbooks, “Land of Plenty” (Sichuan) and “The Revolutionary Chinese Cookbook” (Hunan). But in her latest endeavor, “Every Grain of Rice,” she expands her scope to easy comfort foods from a wide swath of China.

“Every Grain of Rice” is the perfect introduction to cooking the way Chinese people do at home, with simple, clear instructions opposite lovely full-color photographs of almost every dish. For those who are just beginning to admire Chinese food, this book could nudge them over the edge into hopeless devotion.

The beautiful photography is enticing, helpful and very welcome, for the lack of ample illustrations was one of the few quibbles I had with Dunlop’s first book, “Land of Plenty.” Drawing on her experience as the first foreign student at the acclaimed Sichuan Institute of Higher Cuisine, her debut became an instant classic, enticing readers to succumb to the spell of central China’s chili-laden foods.

Dunlop is a wonderful guide to the cuisines of China. Rather than shy away from unusual vegetables or distinctly Chinese sauces, she educates her readers while spreading the gospel of good food by introducing exotica that become delicious once you get to know them. Dried shrimp, fava beans, fermented tofu, garlic stems, silk gourd, yellow chives, sesame paste, winter melon … these all get their moment in the sun here.

She gives bean curd, for example, a chance to shake off its tiresome reputation as bland hippie food. Although we in the West “still seem to think of tofu as some sackcloth-and-ashes sustenance for vegans and a sad substitute for meat,” Dunlop notes that in China, bean curd “is one of the most ubiquitous foodstuffs and wonderful when you acquire a taste for it. In its most basic form it may be plain, but then so is ricotta cheese.”

Simple as the dishes are — and with few exceptions they are so basic that even neophyte cooks should be able to attack these recipes with ease — they remain authentic. Most of these are stir-fries; the remainder encompasses meats, vegetables, soups, rice dishes and pastas, and every one of them is a familiar feature on Chinese tables. (She mainly covers recipes from southern China, with a few northern dishes thrown in for good measure.) Clear, reliable recipes are a hallmark of Dunlop’s cookbooks, and this one is no exception. Desserts, beverages and sweets rarely appear in ordinary Chinese family meals, and so they are not covered in this book.

Treasuring distinctions in Chinese food

A few of the recipes were recycled from Dunlop’s previous cookbooks, but that fits with her approach of introducing everyday Chinese dishes to the West. The ones from Sichuan and Hunan that have appeared before benefit from the additional attention paid to them here.

Sichuanese wontons in chili oil sauce, for example — a Chengdu classic — were relegated to a single paragraph in “Land of Plenty”; here they get a full page and a photograph that is sure to cause intense hunger pangs.

To my mind, Dunlop’s attention to the roots of each dish is one of the most refreshing things about this book. She doesn’t speak generically about “Chinese food” — she tells you that a particular beef soup comes from Chongqing in Sichuan. Moreover, you get to experience her delight as she brings you along on a trip through her memories of Chinese dishes past and present, taking the time to explain why she loves them and how you should enjoy them as the Chinese do: with great enthusiasm.

It’s been close to five years since Dunlop’s last cookbook, and I’m happy to report that “Every Grain of Rice” is well worth the wait.

Top photo composite:

Fuchsia Dunlop by Colin Bell. Book cover courtesy of W. W. Norton.

Zester Daily contributor Carolyn Phillips is a Chinese food wonk and illustrator who has a cookbook to be published by McSweeney's in 2014. In addition to Zester Daily, you can find her on her blog and as @MadameHuang on Twitter; her food writing can be found in places as  disparate as Lucky Peach and Pork Memoirs.