Eight years ago, cookbook author Fuchsia Dunlop visited the celebrated Dragon Well Manor restaurant on a farm on the outskirts of Hangzhou, an ancient capital of China whose culinary traditions date back centuries.
The restaurant’s purveyors scoured the small farms in the countryside of the Lower Yangtze region — known as Jiangnan, “south of the river” — for the freshest produce, pork and chicken. They harvested wild foods, fermented greens and tubers, and made rich broths to add depth and umami flavor rather than rely on MSG. And they studiously avoided the industrially produced foods that were feeding a burgeoning urban population and sparking a series of food safety scares and a consumer backlash for “green” foods.
But Dragon Well Manor, which she first described in an article for the New Yorker, was doing something else that caught Dunlop’s attention. It was restoring Chinese cuisine to its “rightful dignity,” she says, by celebrating food traditions that were losing ground in the face of modernity, by balancing pleasure with health and by emphasizing foods’ ben wei, “the essential taste of things.”
Now, that trip to the region — and others so numerous the British writer has lost count — bear fruit in her latest cookbook, “Land of Fish and Rice.” An exquisite and marvelously detailed work, the book is named for the Chinese term for the region that reflects its abundant water and fertile farmland. It encompasses Shanghai as well as Nanjing, Shaoxing (where the famous cooking wine comes from) and Zhenjiang (home of the rich black vinegar found in so many sauces), as well as bygone capitals such as Hangzhou and Yangzhou, each of which has a storied culinary past.
“While every Chinese cuisine has its charms,” Dunlop writes in the book, “from the dazzling technicolor of spices of the Sichuanese to the belly-warming noodle dishes of the north, I know of no other that can put one’s heart so much at ease as the food of the Jiangnan.”
This is Dunlop’s fourth cookbook on Chinese cuisine. Her first, “Land of Plenty,” on Sichuan cooking, caused a stir when it appeared in the United States in 2003. Published in the United Kingdom two years earlier — after having been rejected by six publishers — it revealed the cooking methods of this southwest province in China just as Western palates were waking up to the mouth-numbing Sichuan peppercorns, hot bean sauces, chili oil, ginger, garlic and scallions that make up the basic grammar of the cuisine.
“I first heard about ‘Land of Plenty’ when I visited a friend and fellow China historian in Utah who had lived in Sichuan,” says Tobie Meyer-Fong, a professor of East Asian Studies at Johns Hopkins University. “The dishes in the book reminded me of the Sichuan food I ate in Beijing in the 1990s. It was transformative because Fuchsia showed how simple these dishes were to make.”
Luckily, the Meyer-Fongs are family friends, so we have often sat around the dining room table enjoying steaming Sichuan hot pots, dipping bits of meat and Asian greens into spicy red beef broth. Together we made vast piles of Chinese dumplings by hand and had a roast duck smackdown — my tea-smoked duck vs. Beijing duck made by Tobie’s husband, Ming-Yuen — that ended in a draw. Many of those recipes arrived thanks to Fuchsia Dunlop.
Her works have been groundbreaking because most of them focus on the food of one region. From Sichuan, she went north into Hunan to explore the fiery foods of Mao Zedong’s birthplace and wrote “Revolutionary Chinese Cookbook.” She then stressed seasonal vegetables and simplicity in “Every Grain of Rice.” That last, which is especially stained and dog-eared in our house, is a favorite of my wife, Ellen, who doesn’t cook very much, except when it comes to these recipes.
Along the way, Dunlop also wrote a delightful memoir, “Shark’s Fin and Sichuan Pepper,” of her carefree days as a student in Sichuan’s capital of Chengdu in the mid-1990s, after escaping a “dry, academic” job at the BBC. She studied Chinese but found herself drawn to the food of region, befriending chefs, home cooks and restaurateurs, and eventually becoming the first Westerner to attend the Sichuan Institute of Higher Cuisine in Chengdu. The memoir ends just as she’s beginning her foray into the foods of Jiangnan. Now, we can see what that culinary journey yielded.
These dishes are far more subtle and restrained than those from Sichuan; one almost wants to say they’re more elegant and mature. And when I bring that up in a recent interview with Dunlop, she agrees that the Sichuan food she encountered more than two decades ago might be thought of as the fiery food of youth, while Jiangnan dishes reflect a more refined palate. “But that said, I still often make Sichuan food at home,” she laughs.
With many of these dishes, their brilliance lies in their minimalism. So far, every recipe I’ve tried consists of relatively few ingredients, which, when combined, sparkle with flavor. There are a few highly challenging recipes, such as a boned and stuffed calabash duck (it’s on my list to cook) and the famous Shanghainese soup-filled dumplings (xiao long man tou) that are cooked more often in restaurants than at home, but the emphasis generally is on food without fuss.
Although Dunlop gleaned some of the book’s techniques and recipes from chefs, many of the dishes are suited for a quick lunch or dinner. That isn’t surprising, Tobie Meyer-Fong explains, because “the boundary between home cooking and restaurant cooking is permeable, which is why jiachang cai, or ‘home-style-cooking restaurants,’ are so prevalent and popular in China, and why these recipes transition so well to the home kitchen.”
The dishes, much like those at Dragon Well Manor restaurant, often originate in the rural areas and back alleys of Jiangnan. They rely on highly seasonal ingredients and a spectrum of preserved foods and sauces that add unusual but addictive flavors. (When shopping for those specialty ingredients at places like the Great Wall Supermarket chain in our region, my advice is to take the book, find a manager, show him or her the glossary at the back that lists them in English and Chinese, and ask where to find them.)
Take Spicy Chinese Cabbage, a Shanghainese appetizer that requires combining thinly sliced napa cabbage with salt and Sichuan peppercorns, then letting the cabbage cure for a bit. Cooking consists of briefly frying dried red peppers in hot oil, then stirring in the cabbage. That takes all of two minutes — and the dish, in my family’s experience, is delicious.
“Some of the best food I’ve had in China has been in little countryside places, with just radiantly fresh ingredients made in just the local style with whatever seasonings they use,” Dunlop says. The older generation has continued this way of cooking, but “China is in the midst of very rapid, dramatic social change, and one thing I find very sad is that a lot of my contemporaries haven’t learned to cook like their parents. So I think we’re at the stage of seeing this great loss of skills,” she said.
Luckily, I’ve had the chance to travel to China, to eat this simple, honest food in the rural southern province of Guizhou, and also to visit Sichuan’s capital of Chengdu, where Dunlop was a student many years before. When I was there, I messaged Dunlop on the fly and asked her to suggest a restaurant that served tea-smoked duck, which is traditionally made in a clay oven. Though I didn’t know her, she replied right away, and, guided by my smartphone, I walked over to a restaurant near Sichuan University that’s known for the dish.
Marveling at the dark, crispy duck, fragrant with tea smoke, I thought about the way I had made that dish at home, following Dunlop’s recipe. I had come full circle, back to its source, thanks to her. And now, with “The Land of Fish and Rice,” I expect that circle to widen farther, into the lower Yangtze region.
Fromartz is editor in chief of the Food & Environment Reporting Network and author of “In Search of the Perfect Loaf: A Home Baker’s Odyssey.” He will join Wednesday’s Free Range chat at noon.