Fuchsia Dunlop’s Smacked Cucumbers in Garlicky Sauce

Every Grain of Rice

I’ve been experimenting with a new cookbook recently, Fuchsia Dunlop’s Every Grain of Rice, which follows through on its promise of “simple Chinese home cooking” with some fantastic dishes. My favorite so far, in part because it’s ridiculously easy to make, is a salad of “smacked cucumbers” in a combination of soy sauce, brown rice vinegar, and chili oil with a little bit of sugar and some finely chopped garlic. It only takes about ten minutes to make, and that’s mostly because you’re waiting for the salt you through on the cucumber to draw out some water. (I’ve had to adjust Dunlop’s formula, though—halving the amount of chili oil and bumping up the vinegar a touch—because otherwise my mouth would be on fire.) Put this next to a plate of rice, and it’s pretty much a fantastic light dinner on its own.

I had the pleasure of meeting Fuchsia Dunlop when she was in New York City recently to promote the book, after I’d just reread her memoir, Shark’s Fin and Sichuan Pepper, where she writes about falling in love with Chinese cuisine as a student in Chengdu in the mid-1990s, a pre-Internet era when being halfway around the world really did effectively cut you off from your old surroundings. Soon, she was setting aside the journalism career she’d begun to establish—and which had in its way brought her to China—in order to study cooking and write about what she was learning. “I always wanted to do something about food, though,” she said. “If I hadn’t been an academic, I have no doubt I’d have gone to work in a restaurant at 16.”

Her goal with Every Grain of Rice is to reach out to “people who would cook Italian dishes without a thought but are afraid to cook Chinese” and show them that Chinese food is not only healthy and delicious, but a very approachable style of cooking. There’s a slight emphasis on vegetable dishes, and a particular bias towards southern Chinese regional cooking—starting with the Sichuan and Hunan styles she first learned but also including a bit of Yangtze flavor. Over the years, she said, the Chinese sensibility has creeped into her overall approach to food; she described recently having a lobster roll and thinking to herself that it was almost too rich on its own: “”In China, it’d need a soup on the side, or a crunchy vegetable.”

(And yet, it’s rare, but sometimes she’ll be in China and still get a craving for British food, specifically mashed potatoes and shepherd’s pie.)

Every Grain of Rice is Dunlop’s third Chinese cookbook, and her continued success is an awesome rebuttal to the editors who turned down her first book, Land of Plenty, because her focus on Sichuan was deemed “too specialized” to interest cookbook users. (Keep in mind the Sichuan province is the size of France, and consider how many French cookbooks get published every year.) I’m really excited to have found a cookbook that shows me how to replicate the flavors I’ve fallen in love with at the Chinese restaurants in nearby Flushing, and I’m looking forward to breaking out our wok and trying out some of her (just slightly) more complex recipes.

25 February 2013 | cooking |