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.”