I first became aware of the British writer and cookbook author Fuchsia Dunlop when her book Shark’s Fin and Sichuan Pepper: A Sweet-Sour Memoir of Eating in China was published in the US back in 2008. It's a fascinating tale of how she discovered and fell in love with a culture much different than the one she grew up in, mostly through eating and preparing and educating herself in their cuisine. Shark's Fin is still high on my most recommended book list, so I was very excited to speak with Fuchsia Dunlop about her take on the 5 essential things a good cook should know, with a Chinese twist.
Fuchsia is also the author of several cookbooks on Chinese cooking, including her most recent title Every Grain of Rice which we recently reviewed here in the Kitchn and loved. She won the James Beard Award for Food Culture and Travel in 2012, and is currently nominated for a 2013 James Beard Award for her piece "London Town" in Lucky Peach. She currently lives in London but spends several months of the year in China.
Fuchsia's 5 Essentials for the Home Cook
1. You don't need a lot of equipment. "You can make wonderful food without a lot of technical gadgetry," insists Fuchsia. "The vast majority of my cooking is done with a cleaver and chopping board, a wok and wok scoop, and a rice cooker." Add a few bowls and chopstick and the picture is complete.
2. You also don't need a lot of ingredients. For Chinese cooking, you don't need to stock up on a huge amount of ingredients. "When we think of chinese food, we tend to think of the high end, banquet-style of Chinese cooking, but most people in China throw together a very simple but very delicious dinner every night using just a few ingredients," explains Fuchsia. One trip to the Asian market for soy sauce, rice vinegar, sesame oil, chili oil, Shaoxing (Chinese cooking wine), Schezuan pepper, fermented black beans, chili bean paste is all you need, along with garlic, scallions and ginger. In fact, most of these ingredients are available in larger supermarkets as well. "You just need a small amount of space in your pantry for these few jars and packets to make all sorts of recipes. Getting started and making everyday Chinese food is rather quick and easy."
3. But you do need a good knife. Fuchsia is partial to her Chinese cleaver. "There are many kinds of cleavers in the Chinese kitchen. My favorite and most used in called cai dao (菜刀), or vegetable knife. It's a smaller cleaver, not the large, meat whacking type." The cleaver is a versatile tool: it can smash a whole glove of garlic in a single whack or it can slice it into thin, fine slices. Fuchsia likes to smash cucumbers with her cleaver so they absorb more cooking sauce, too. "Most Chinese cooking shops will have them. If you're ever in Hong Kong, then go to Chan Chi Kee. And be sure to pick up a sharpening stone." If a cleaver is out of your reach, then a good chef's knife with a broad blade will do.
4. Trust Your Senses. "As a child, I would help my mother cook and she would encourage me to figure out what a dish needed," says Fuchsia. "More salt? More herbs? It was a big responsibility! But I was very lucky in that it taught me at a very young age to trust my senses." It's easy for a new cook to feel insecure about tasting and trusting their instincts, but if you taste and smell as intently as you listen, it will become apparent what's needed. Don't be intimidated! "Your sense of smell will tell you if something is raw, or burned, if food is fresh or a cheese is ripe," says Fuchsia. "We spend so much time at computers and we often forget how wonderful it is to handle fresh fruits and vegetables. How wonderful it is to engage with something tactile." For example, with Chinese wok cooking, you often start with heating oil then adding aromatics like garlic, ginger, onion and you cook them until they release their aroma. "I'm always sniffing around my wok!" she laughs.
5. It's far more important to know how to rustle up dinner than it is to cook a fancy meal. "Learn the basics," advises Fuchsia. "Stocks, roast chicken, cooking eggs." Cooking and eating well are very life-enhancing skills. "The media would have us believe that we need fancy ingredients and fussy techniques but what's really important is knowing how to make good food within our time and budget. That's what will make us happy and healthy." Fuchsia cites her mother who has been cooking well for 40 odd years, getting meals on the table day in and day out.
Bonus recommendation: Learn to cook by watching others. "This may seem strange coming from a cookbook author, but it's often easier to learn the basics by watching someone who cooks well, someone who enjoys it. So seize every opportunity to watch people doing it: street vendors, family friends, hands-on classes, TV and the internet, even. Chatting and watching is a very good way to learn— with so many things it's mostly about a knack or a feeling," she says. "And then use your cookbooks as a supplementary tool for inspiration, background information, tips, new recipes. I've got huge collection I refer to all the time but my preferred method of learning is to watch people. That's what I do in China — watch people in their kitchens, cook with them."
What she's cooking right now: "For supper tonight I'll be making spinach with fermented tofu using the Cantonese method of stir frying the spinach with bit of garlic and chili. Then add mashed up fermented tofu to make it creamy, and give it lick of heat. That's it! A wonderful, slightly creamy, intensely umami dish. Another favorite is taking fresh, locally grown Chinese greens and blanching them for a few seconds. Drain them and then pile on a plate and scatter thin slices of scallion and ginger. Heat up a few tablespoons of oil until very hot and pour over. There will be this amazing splatter and hiss as the hot oil releases the flavors of the ginger and onion. Drizzle over some soy sauce. So simple and so amazing!" (Note: Both of these recipes are available in her new book, Every Grain of Rice.)