Possibly one of the most embarrassing conversations I ever had was about Chinese food at a Society of Authors‘ ‘young’ (i.e. under 40…) drinks party.
I was talking to someone I had just met and bitching about how Time Out‘s Chinese restaurant reviewer kept encouraging readers to ask for the non-English menu, for the one in, er, I think she said Mandarin, in London’s Chinese restaurants. ‘I mean,’ I said, (me, not knowing anything about it…), ‘how many people, apart from the reviewer, can really order from a menu in Chinese?’ ‘Ah,’ she said, nodding and smiling, ‘I wrote that.’ It was, of course, Fuchsia Dunlop. Reader, the place was packed (all those authors still inspired by ‘youth’ who had not yet given up…) so there was nowhere to run and hide my embarrassment.
We became friends afterwards, for a while, before losing touch, but I still remember her absolute non-phased candour and politeness at my downright dismissiveness. She was totally focused on why she’d written it: to encourage a nation brought up on sticky sweet pork and overcooked Peking duck to branch out and try a cuisine that, for the most part, was barely known in its authentic form in the UK.
Since that meeting which was, I think, in 2005, Fuchsia has published several books, acted as a consultant to the marvellous Bar Shu, won awards and appeared on TV, amongst many other brilliant things. It’s doubtful you’d find her in the pages of Time Out anymore.
But, as far as I am concerned, she is still doing exactly what she did that night: educating and inspiring the dunces like me about Chinese food in a completely open and non-patronising way. I recently bought Every Grain of Rice, her most accessible cookery book, and, if you like Chinese food, really really good Chinese food, I can’t recommend it to you highly enough.
I have not only cooked seven different recipes from it, in three weeks, and tagged at least another 10 to try but also read all the bits inbetween, something I never do. And it was refreshing to learn so much. First, there is none of the usual yadda-yadda that has become a bit pat (eat local, eat seasonal, eat less meat, wheat, dairy) because Chinese food is already mostly vegetarian, dairy-free, practically wheat-free (depending on the soy sauce you use). Second, there are pictures of all the slightly-off-the wall things you might need. I’m not sure who was most proud the other day: the woman in the Chinese supermarket who had all the ingredients, or me for having had the sense to take the book into the shop. And, finally, there are loads of tips about how to substitute (v important) and serve: lots of rice, plus a dish per guest and maybe one more. Which makes, for four people, five dishes and rice.
This, so far, is my favourite. It is one-pot, dairy- and wheat-free, depending on the soy sauce used, short on ingredients but long on wonderfulness. I have made it four times and none of my guests have ever left any. The braising time makes it not quite an after-work choice, but you can make it in advance (the prep takes minutes of your time) then reheat it the next day. It is, like most of the recipes I have tried so far, ‘beautiful enough to launch ships’ as Fuchsia would say. Go and launch yourself an armada by buying this book; you won’t regret it for a second.
Red-braised pork (adapted from Every Grain of Rice)
For 4, as part of a meal with other dishes, or for 2 with rice and a vegetable
Cupboard (or things you may already have)
cooking oil, something neutral like sunflower or groundnut, 2 tbsp
chicken or vegetable stock, or water, 500ml
caster sugar, 2 tbsp
rice, to serve (I recommend cooking it like this)
pork belly or shoulder, 500g
fresh ginger, about 2-3cm
spring onion, 1
Shaoxing wine (which is, before you scream at me, available in Tesco) or medium-dry sherry if you really can’t find it, 2 tbsp
star anise, 1
cinnamon stick or piece of cassia bark (I’ve always used cinnamon)
dark soy sauce, a dash
1. Cut the meat up into 2-3cm pieces. (I find sharp kitchen scissors brilliant for all fatty pork cutting, whether bacon or belly.)
2. Trim the spring onion, then cut off the green bits (and save for later). Then crush the white part with the blade of a knife; you don’t need to chop it.
3. Slice the ginger into 4 thick pieces; there’s no need to peel it (don’t you just LOVE this lack of peeling and chopping?!).
4. Make up the stock if necessary.
5. Pour the oil into a lidded wok or, if like me you don’t have a wok, a large lidded casserole dish (I use my Le Creuset) and put over a high heat.
6. Add the white part of the spring onion and the ginger and stir-fry until you can smell both of them (a few minutes, if the oil is good and hot).
7. Add the pork and stir-fry the pieces with the ginger and spring onion for a few more minutes.
8. Add the Shaoxing wine then the stock, sugar, 1 tsp of salt, star anise, cinnamon stick and a dash of soy sauce.
9. Stir well to mix together, bring to the boil, then cover, lower the heat and leave it to simmer for at least 1½ hours, but preferably 2-3. I have tried all three and would say that, though 1½ was brilliant, 2½-3 hours produced an even better result. However, you do have to watch it and check it doesn’t boil dry. Add a little more water or stock if it looks dry (it never has for me so far).
10. Finally, taste, add a little more salt if necessary, throw in the spring onion greens and serve. A true marvel of a dish.