Cookbook author Fuchsia Dunlop, the first Westerner to train as a chef at the Sichuan Institute of Higher Cuisine in China, knows a thing or two about her subject well, having devoted nearly 20 years doing the research.
Home cooks can consider her latest cookbook, “Every Grain of Rice” (W.W. Norton & Co.), not only a crash course in the art of Chinese cooking but also an exploratory cultural journey through regional China’s countryside and villages.
In her introduction to the book, Dunlop explains how Chinese cooks can “transform humble and largely vegetarian ingredients into wonderful delicacies, and to eat in a way that not only delights the senses, but also makes sense in terms of health, economy and the environment.”
Dunlop disputes Chinese cooking’s reputation for being complicated and intimidating. Rather, she says, it’s mostly straightforward, though it can be “complex and time-consuming.”
Dunlop’s book might be worth having for General Tso’s Chicken alone – an authoritative version the author was taught at the Taipei kitchen of Peng Chang Kei, the original inventor of this popular dish.
We enjoyed Zuan Zi Tang (Soup with Vegetables and Meataballs), a bracing dish perfect for a winter meal. Note: If winter melon isn’t available, other vegetables will do, such as bean sprouts, Chinese cabbage, tomato, bok choy or even broccoli will stand in nicely – even butternut squash.
SOUP WITH VEGETABLES AND MEATBALLS
For the meatballs:
1 dried shiitake mushroom
A small piece of ginger
4 oz. ground pork with a little fat
1/2 egg, beaten
1 Tbl. finely chopped spring onion greens
1/2 tsp. sesame oil
Ground white pepper
For the soup:
6 1/3 cups chicken stock
1 1/4 lb. winter melon, or other vegetable of your choice (excact quantity not critical)
2 Tbl. finely sliced spring onion greens
Soak the dried mushroom for 30 minutes in hot water from the kettle. Crush the ginger, then put it in a glass with cold water to cover.
When the mushroom is soft, chop it finely. Place the pork in a bowl, and add 1 tablespoon of the ginger-soaking water and all the other meatball ingredients, seasoning with salt and pepper. Mix vigorously, stirring in one direction (this is supposed to give the meat a better texture). You will end up with a nice soft meatball mixture.
Bring the stock to a boil over a high flame. Peel the winter melon, then cut away and discard the soft, seedy section in the center. Cut the rest of the melon into 1/8-3/8 inch slices. Add the winter melon (or any other prepared vegetable) and simmer until tender. Season with salt and pepper to taste.
Reduce the heat to a gentle simmer, then add the meatballs. The Chinese way is to take a small handful of paste in your left hand (if you are right-handed), make a fist, then gently squeeze the paste up through the hole made by your thumb and index finger. Use the other hand to scoop off walnut-sized balls of paste and drop them into the soup. If you prefer, you can use a couple of teaspoons to mold the meatballs.
Simmer gently for about five minutes until the meatballs have risen to the surface and are cooked through. (If using tomatoes or greens that cook quickly, add them at this stage and let them heat through.
Turn the soup into a warmed serving bowl and scatter with spring onion greens