The Other Chinese Cuisine You Need to Know
“If Sichuanese cuisine is the jazz of the Chinese food world, Jiangnan food is its classical music.” That’s James Beard Award-winning author Fuchsia Dunlop explaining the subject of her new book, Land of Fish and Rice: Recipes from the Culinary Heart of China.
Though Jiangnan cuisine is regarded by many in China to be the definitive cuisine of the country, it’s still largely unknown to westerners. You may have grown up eating Cantonese food and can now call yourself an expert on Sichuan cuisine, thanks to your addiction to mapo tofu, but have you ever tried the food of the lower Yangtze region—what The Guardian calls “China’s best-kept food secret”? If not, consider Dunlop’s new book an essential road map.
As the first westerner to study at the Sichuan Institute of Higher Cuisine in Chengdu, Sichuan, Dunlop is a groundbreaking food writer and a bona fide expert on cuisines across China. After penning the critically acclaimed Every Grain of Rice: Simple Chinese Home Cooking and Shark’s Fin and Sichuan Pepper: A Sweet-Sour Memoir of Eating in China, it’s no surprise Dunlop is able to offer a poetic window to another region with her latest book. Complete with recipes like red-braised pork, fish in vinegar sauce and vegetarian “eels” in sweet-and-sour sauce (see the recipe), the book is a thrilling sensory journey.
For instance, take the vegetarian eels, in which long mushrooms are coated with potato starch, deep-fried then drenched in a sweet, vinegary sauce. “Dried shiitake mushrooms are often used as a substitute for eels, because they look and taste so amusingly convincing,” Dunlop explains. The mushrooms are a brilliant substitution for the real thing, which also happens to be a common part of the Jiangnan diet. In one recipe, and the author note beside it, we learn that vegetables play a central role in Jiangnan cooking and often serve as the main event. We also learn that fresh paddy eels are a common delicacy. Sit back and enjoy her prose, such as her description of hissing-oil eels, “in which the eel fillets, swiftly cooked with soy sauce and sugar, are finished with a great pile of garlic and a libation of fiercely hot oil that produces a puff of steam and the hissing sound of the name.” What other author could make hissing-oil eels sound so lovely?
Dunlop points out that although it’s not well known, the food of Jiangnan is primed to become popular in the West. “So many aspects of the region’s cuisine resonate with modern western culinary preoccupations: the emphasis on the importance of good ingredients, of provenance and seasonality; the rich tradition of fermented foods; the concern with health and balance; the delicious and imaginative use of vegetables; and the idea of food as culture, as something to be appreciated, discussed and written about.”
Get your hands on the book to discover the enticing ingredients and techniques that couldn’t be more relevant to today’s western palate. “I’ve eaten some of the most beautiful, fascinating and delicious food I’ve ever tasted in this region,” Dunlop writes. Enough said.
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