Photograph from iStockphoto.com
Serious Eats's founder, Ed Levine, briefed me about Fuchsia Dunlop. "She’s incredibly fun,” he said. “She’s this white woman from London who can speak perfect Mandarin, and the waiters can never believe it.”
He was rightthe chef at the Grand Sichuan on Second Avenue and 56th Street in New York City remembered Dunlop from her last trip there and came out to talk to us in between bites of our cold spicy eggplant, slithery mung bean noodles, and General Tso’s chicken. Behind him, the entire restaurant staff cooed over Dunlop's new book. I felt glamorous by association, despite my numerous chopstick fouls.
Fuchsia is here in New York promoting her latest book, Revolutionary Chinese Cookbook: Recipes from Hunan Province, and we hope it sells as many copies as Joe’s Shanghai does soup dumplings. This book is her second after her acclaimed debut, Land of Plenty: A Treasury of Authentic Sichuan Cooking.
Dunlop's book tells the story of Hunan province through its food. We learn about Hunan’s famous banquet cuisine, which reached opulent heights in the Qing dynasty but has since fallen out of fashion. We hear the tragedy of the Great Fire of 1938, when most of Changsha burned to the ground. We ride around in a police car in Liuyang, poke through archeological digs, and learn what to cook if General Mao stops in for dinner (Red Braised Pork).
There are a lot of paragraphs I loved, like this one, which precedes the recipe for Steamed Spare Ribs with Black Beans and Chiles:
“As night fell, we went in search of somewhere to eat, and ended up at a farmhouse whose owners had started a restaurant serving 'rustic food.' It was a long, single-storied building with a series of interconnected rooms that ran the whole length of the house, and it was so informal they actually set up our dinner table in somebody’s bedroom. All the food that night was cooked over a wood fire, which the Hunanese swear makes everything taste ten times as delicious. After we had supped on ribs, bean curd, soup, and rice, the owners saw us off from an entrance bedecked in glowing red lanterns. We drove back along a bumpy track, the scattered lights of farmhouses shining on the opposite side of the river, against the dark, looming Liuyang hills.”
The writing about flavors is equally evocative. Just reading it made me hungry, and when I stopped by the butcher the other day to buy the quail for my chocolate aphrodisiac dinner, I picked up some pork belly, too. I’m looking forward to making that Red Braised Pork of Mao’s, especially since Mao’s nephew told Dunlop, "Men eat this dish to build their brains and ladies to make themselves more beautiful." Excellent. If I can get more beautiful by eating pork, sign me up.
Speaking of beautiful, how cool is the name Fuchsia? Fitting, too, as she boasted stylish cold weather accessories in that very shade. It turns out she was named after a character in Titus Groan by Mervyn Peake. This sounds like a made-up book to me, but it is in Wikipedia, so it must be true.
Dunlop describes Hunanese cuisine as “hot but without the searing heat of Sichuan cooking and without the use of sugar.” Chile peppers are featured heavily in Hunanese cooking, in many forms ranging from fresh to dried to salted. Steaming is a common technique, yielding foods with vibrant colors and fresh, bright tastes.
She decided to focus on this cuisine because “nothing’s been written on it. It is hearty and rustic, and I think that’s what people love to cook at home. That’s what I love to cook myself. Also, although many people have heard of Hunanese food, there is a misconception about what it actually is.”
For example, the most well-known Hunanese dish in America, General Tso’s Chicken, is the creation of a Taiwanese exile and is almost unknown in Hunan province.
I shared with Dunlop the fact that I had once been in a terrible relationship with a man who refused to eat anything other than General Tso’s chicken. This was the same man who threw away the sourdough starter I had grown from organic grapes, which, after two years, had finally ripened to crabapple-y sweetness.
It caused me some anxiety, therefore, to see the general’s chicken on our table, crunchy and orange and glistening at me in a martial manner. But Dunlop has a very soothing presence. Under her kind eye (tactfully averted whenever I committed a chopstick foul) I am happy to say that I conquered my fear. The chicken was delicious, with a crisp crust and an inauthentic yet nummy balance of sweetness and heat. Progress is possible. Perhaps I’ll make another sourdough starter.
Sarah Deming is a novelist and essayist living in Brooklyn. Before she was a writer, Sarah was a Golden Gloves boxing champion, a chef, and a yoga teacher. More of her work can be found at sarahdeming.com.
More Fuchsia Dunlop
Recipe: Fuchsia Dunlop's General Tso's Chicken
Video: Fuschia Dunlop prepares her General Tso's chicken recipe
Steamed Taro With Chopped Salted Chiles
This is one of Fuchsia Dunlop's favorite recipes.
1 1/4 pounds taro
1/4 teaspoon salt
5 tablespoons peanut oil or melted lard
2 tablespoons chopped salted chiles (duo la jiao)
1 teaspoon black fermented beans (dou chi), rinsed
2 teaspoons finely chopped garlic, optional
1. Wear rubber gloves to peel the taro. If they are tiny, you can leave them whole; otherwise, slice them, or for really large ones, cut into batons. Place in a heatproof bowl with the salt and 2 tablespoons of the oil or lard, and use your hands to mix thoroughly; set aside.
2. Heat the wok over a high flame until smoke rises, then add the remaining 3 tablespoons oil or lard and swirl around. Add the salted chiles, black beans, and garlic, if using, and stir-fry briefly until they are fragrant.
3. Pour the chile mixture over the taro. Place the bowl in a steamer and steam over a high flame for about 30 minutes, until tender. Serve in the bowl, giving everything a good stir before eating.