The Food Lab's Reading List, Day 16: Land of Plenty

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[Photograph: J. Kenji López-Alt]

Author's Note: I recently built myself a new bookshelf in the kitchen, and in the process of reorganizing my ever-expanding book collection, I ended up blowing the dust off of more than a few majorly dog-eared pages. Old friends that carried me through college, my early days of faking it in fancy restaurants, my time as a test cook and writer, and some newer volumes as well. So, every weekday through the end of October, I'll be writing a short post featuring a food book that I really like. All of these books had a major influence either on my career or on my day-to-day cooking. They aren't necessarily the best or most essential cookbooks out there, but they are all worthy reads.

Last year, I attended a book release dinner for Fuchsia Dunlop's Land of Fish and Rice, the fourth cookbook in her series of books on regional Chinese cuisine, and as extraordinary a read as any of them. I was seated right next to her, and it was only after the event started that I was informed I was supposed to stand up and introduce her. I froze up and declined, too nervous to speak. It was high school dating all over again.

It's not that I don't have wonderful things to say about her. Quite the opposite: Her work and her books have had such a profound impact on my work that I didn't know where to begin. I could already hear myself blathering: "Mapo tofu...great. I think I love...hrrrrmmmmm. Her writing on Sichuan, no...erm...yeah, so...I love you, bye..."

By a great turn of luck, my wife, Adri, who was also sitting next to me at the time, is not the jealous type. Even luckier, I did not have to call Adri by name that night, because I'm sure that accidentally calling her Fuchsia would have tested the limits of that lack of jealousy.

Needless to say, I strongly recommend all four of her cookbooks. Land of Fish and Rice is an introduction to the delicate, fish- and wine-soaked cuisine of Shanghai and the lower Yangtze. Revolutionary Chinese Cookbook covers the hearty stews, braises, and stir-fries of Hunan Province. Every Grain of Rice is perhaps her most accessible book, packed with vegetable-heavy stir-fries and simple home-cooked meals.

But Land of Plenty, her first book, is my favorite.

These days, it's pretty easy to find all manner of regional Chinese cuisine in Manhattan, from Sichuan to Yunnan and everything in between. But when I was growing up in the '80s and '90s, this was not the case. Sure, there was a "Szechuan Palace" on the Upper West Side, but all that meant was that they'd add a few extra chilies to your "chicken with hot peppers and peanuts." Cantonese and Chinese-American cuisine was the order of the day. Boston and the surrounding suburbs, on the other hand, were packed with Sichuan joints even back then. (It helped that chefs in Boston seemed more relaxed about skirting the ban on Sichuan-peppercorn imports that was in place until 2005.)

Trips up to New England would invariably involve following my dad on a mad chili chase as he gathered reconnaissance and gossip to figure out where the chef who used to make the amazing dry-fried beef at Zoe's was currently working, or where the chef who made his favorite twice-cooked pork might turn up next.

These trips were all well and good, but what was I to do at home? Even after moving back to Boston for college in the late '90s, I couldn't afford to eat out as frequently as I would have liked. This meant attempting to re-create dishes like gong bao ji ding and twice-cooked pork on my own. The only problem? A notable dearth of literature on the subject. I resorted to talking with the chefs at my favorite restaurants (and sneaking into the kitchens as an observer, when they'd let me), along with plenty of trial and error.

That was before I discovered Land of Plenty and all the treasures it held within. See, Fuchsia Dunlop was the very first Westerner to study at the Sichuan Higher Institute of Cuisine in Chengdu. Ten years and countless trips later, she became the first person to write a comprehensive English-language book on Sichuan cookery. This is a big deal. With the easy translation and rapid exchange of information that the internet gives us these days, we take access to foreign-born recipes and techniques for granted, but back then, this book was the only place an English speaker could find authentic versions of recipes for dishes like mapo tofu, dry-fried green beans, fish-fragrant pork, or boiled beef in fiery chili broth. I remember discovering this book and thinking, So this is what was inside that briefcase in Pulp Fiction. It's pure gold.

And it's not just recipes. Fuchsia is a scholar of the highest order, and her recipes are packed with interesting cultural and historical lessons and observations. She's also a technician, which means that you're going to be getting a lesson in the 23 distinct flavors of Sichuan cuisine (no, it's not all ma and la), as well as the 56 (56!) different cooking methods employed by Sichuan chefs.

On top of that, her recipes truly work. Yes, you're going to have to take a trip to the Chinese supermarket (or at least fill up your Amazon shopping cart), because there's not much dumbing-down in her book, but thankfully, most of the imported ingredients you'll need have extremely long shelf lives. Though, if you cook from her book as often as I do, they won't last all that long anyway.

Perhaps Fuchsia's most remarkable skill is her ability to teach you brand-new techniques or introduce you to new ingredients, yet still leave you feeling confident that you'll be able to cook the dishes exactly as they should be cooked. Her prose and recipe style are incredibly inviting, and she'll have you genuinely excited to test out techniques and try unfamiliar flavors.

Anyhow, Fuchsia, if you ever invite me to another book release party (pretty please?), you'll have to excuse my blathering. I'm not actually quite as incoherent as I seem.

You can buy Land of Plenty here.