I learned to cook in college. Before that, “cooking” consisted of toasting pepperoni Hot Pockets, pancakes from a box mix, and burning instant ramen. Yes, it is absolutely possible to burn instant ramen. #speakingfromexperience
You would think that having a mom who cooked every single night would somehow imbue me with some basic cooking skillz. However, cooking was a chore that did not inspire much joy for my mom (you know, besides nourishing her husband/offspring and making sure her eldest daughter, aka me, did not hulk rage around the house in hanger). So, if I wanted to I could perch on the counter and watch her cook (but no touching!).
(In case you’re wondering, my mom’s passion is museums. She’s the museum-goer who reads. Every. Single. Placard. In the ENTIRE Smithsonian. That kind of museum-goer. Coincidentally, I spent a lot of time waiting around in museum gift shops, because TOYS.)
So where did I really learn to cook Chinese food?
From THIS British lady who puts my four semesters of Mandarin to shame – enter Fuchsia Dunlop and her cookbook Every Grain of Rice. *
My friend Chris introduced me to her cookbook on one of our many cooking nights. We would often go on an epic grocery trips (H-Mart → Costco → Central Market) then prep and cook some pretty epic dinners (including, but not limited to: venison tenderloin with a ruby port reduction, handmade crab cakes with a Meyer lemon aioli, or lasagna bolognese that literally took 7 hours from start to eating).
Katie, his fiancé-now-wife would round out our meals with something sweet (once she made Fuchsia’s Lai Tang Yuan and it was a much tastier version of my childhood nostalgia).
Hilariously spicy disasters #inthebeginningtho
Before these epic (and edible) dinner parties, Chris and I began our cooking journey together in college. We were both attending summer classes between first and second year and Chris was living off campus for the first time (i.e. KITCHEN!!).
The first time we tried to host a “dinner party” my sad attempt at Karee (Thai yellow) curry was so spicy only one dude could eat it (and we all know how college boys can EAT). The carrots were still half raw and the curry itself was a runny, clumpy mess. I also tried (really hard!) to make pan-seared chicken thighs. Considering how “blackened” the thighs were, you’d think the inside would at least be cooked through. Nope. I like to think I added a parsley garnish at least, but I’m pretty sure this is still when I thought parsley and cilantro were the same thing.
Chris attempted chicken fried rice but added the *raw* chicken LAST. So by the time the chicken was cooked, everything else was, well, yeah. Honestly, I’m surprised our friends didn’t leave thinking we were trying to food poison them or burn a hole in their esophagus on purpose.
This is how we began. Raw chicken fried rice and too spicy curry. I vowed no one would leave my dining table hungry again! (Actually, I was like, well, shit. I guess I better have another go at this cooking thing because I like to eat and the cafeteria food ain't cutting it.)
So here we are today.
Folding dumplings is as automatic as folding laundry.
Even as my ability to produce edible meals grew, it was Every Grain of Rice that brought all of my childhood favorites to my dining table. Dan Dan noodles, fish fragrant eggplant, red-braised pork, a proper sour and hot soup (not that gloppy, cornstarch mess you get from Chinese take-out). Heaven is right here on earth in the form of steamed dumplings piled high on a platter covered in homemade roast-y Sichuan chili oil and aromatic soy sauce.**
Generally, as I read through cookbooks I flag recipes I plan to cook. But for Every Grain of Rice, it would have been more helpful if I had just flagged the recipes I didn’t want to make. Seriously, I flagged the whole damn book. (And briefly considered adjusting my manifesto to include cooking ALL the recipes!) I mean this book speaks my love language. An entire chapter dedicated to garlic and chives? Yes, please!! #allofthealliums
While I cannot speak, read, or write Chinese except at the most basic, elementary level, Every Grain of Rice allows me to sing the flavors of my childhood. Fuchsia even included a poem about a rice farmer’s toil that echoes the parental threats to clean my plate when I was a wee girl.
According to my mother, every grain of rice (pun totally intended) left on my plate would be a pockmark on my future spouse. Because don’t you know how hard the rice farmer toils for each and every grain? No mom, I’m six years old and I’ve never been on a rice farm. Plus, boys have cooties or whatever.
Without further ado, here are my top 10 things I loved, loved, loved about Every Grain of Rice:
- Encouragement to the reader to use their imagination and improvise when cooking. “Chinese home cooking is not about a rigid set of recipes, but an approach to cooking and eating that can be adapted to almost any place or circumstance… feel free to use your imagination and improvise with whatever you can find in your fridge or cupboard.” (EGOR, p. 9)
- Chopping as meditation. Also, the specificity of different Chinese cuts are reflected in their name like “ox-tongue” slices, “silken threads” slivers, and “horse ears” slices. (Excellent visual examples can be found on page 20.)
- Handy menu planning charts combine different recipes from the book to create a balanced, tasty meal fit to feed various numbers of people.
- Highlights steaming as a super fast cooking technique that also preserves nutrients in foods well. Honestly, between steaming, stir-frying/wok-frying, and blanching (“breaking the rawness”) the cooking times for many of these recipes are so quick, you’d miss it if you blinked.
- Her sense of humor – Fuchsia includes the interesting translations of foods names. The word for the humble potato is “foreign taro”. (EGOR, p.225) Or how “tomato” is known as a “barbarian eggplant” or “Western red persimmon”. (EGOR, p. 128) Growing up in America, many vegetables I ate were known as “Chinese Broccoli” or “Chinese Parsley”. It’s amusing to see the flip side of that.
- I found Fuchsia’s respect for my culture’s funky, fermented foods heartening. Also, mad respect for someone to try AND love the “interesting” (slippery, chewy, etc.) textures of Chinese food having not grown up eating it.
- Her comparison of the healthfulness of the Mediterranean Diet to Chinese home cooking. She draws many similarities between the two diets, which may surprise those whose only interaction with Chinese food is American Chinese fast food or a Chinese buffet.
- In the “Basics” chapter she titles one of the sections “Magic Ingredients”. (EGOR, p. 12) These ingredients include black fermented soybeans, fermented tofu, sweet fermented sauce, dried shiitakes, dried shrimp, and cured ham. #droolingnotdrooling
- Fuchsia credits all the sources for the recipes in her book. She writes fondly of her time learning and eating with folks she encountered during her time in China.
- Fuchsia honors the philosophy of eating “nose to tail” and writes about the satisfaction in buying a whole bird and utilizing every bit of it, including the offal and bones (for broth)!
Next week, I’ll be sharing my experience tackling an ingredient so outside my comfort zone. Any guesses to what I’ll be making?
Hint: It is somewhat related to #10 on my list. Although, we don’t normally think of these animals generally using their nose.
* Total fan girl moment: I recently got to meet Fuchsia at a public Georgetown University seminar. I arrived at a room with a few professor-y looking folks and harried graduate students eyeing the free food. And Fuchsia. I was expecting a lecture hall for like, 50. And here I am seated less than 10 feet away from Fuchsia at an oval seminar table trying not to fan girl too hard (which I do not do IRL ever, except that one time at Anissa and Chef Anita Lo stopped by our table).
YA’LL. I TALKED with Fuchsia Dunlop. I even took an awkward selfie with her that I posted on Instagram even though it looks like I have 7 chins. Short list of culinary heroes? Yep.
** Chinese Parable: In both heaven and hell everyone is seated around a gigantic, round table full of delicious food. Each person only has chopsticks that are 6 feet long though. In hell, everyone is #hulksmash hangry, each person unable to feed themselves with their too long chopsticks. But in heaven, everyone is enjoying the delicious food and conversation.
In heaven, everyone feeds each other.