review by Boris Abrams
It happens to the best of us. That rare moment that forces us to stop, to examine and explore. Suddenly, we find ourselves changing direction, embarking on a new trajectory. We don’t plan for such endeavors for they are born out of experiences and chance encounters.
Eight years ago, a British woman long renowned as an authority on Chinese cuisine, stepped into the Dragon Well Manor restaurant. She wasn’t supposed to be there. An earthquake had disrupted a tour to Sichuan the woman was supposed to be leading. Forced to adapt, the group ventured East, to Jiangnan. One guest suggested they visit the Dragon Well Manor Restaurant. And so they did. Unbeknown to her, Fuchsia Dunlop was about to encounter one of those life-affirming moments. A change of direction that ultimately culminate in the publication of her fourth cookbook.
Last month, the Land of Fish and Rice was finally born.
Fuchsia Dunlop romantically describes the restaurant’s food, located in the heavily polluted region of Hangzhou, as “a kind of prelapsarian Chinese cuisine.” The philosophy of the Dragon Well Manor captivated Dunlop. The honesty and purity of the foods sough to reaffirm the historic splendor of Chinese cuisine. To eat at the Dragon Well Manor is to be transported to a pre-modern era of gastronomic splendor; of seasonality and adaptability. As Dunlop later told me, "Dragon Well Manor was certainly a catalyst for the project, and a major inspiration for the book."
Over the coming years, Dunlop would return to the restaurant and the surrounding Jiangnan region, exploring its rich bounty. Jiangnan quite literally refers to the Lower Yangtze Region and it is home to some of China’s most prized produce. The ever-popular Shaoxing rice wine, which we candidly splash into stir-fries and marinades, hails from the city of the same name. Beautifully marbled hams abound, sadly denied to those of us in the West. It is home to the wonderfully funky fermented tofu that’s best thought of as China’s equivalent of blue cheese.
Jiangnan is a region of antiquated pastoralism, pot-marked by sprawling centers of cosmopolitanism. In Land of Fish and Rice takes us on a journey along the region’s many waterways, side streets and urban enclaves. We meet the chefs who respect the inherent flavor of an ingredient, going to great lengths to make it sing. We explore neighborhoods yet to encounter the wrath of “reckless development,” where residents still “play cards and drink tea on canal side terraces.” It is certainly as much a travelogue as it is cookbook.
Land of Fish and Rice turns the novice into the expert.
Dunlop eases us into the ways of the region, briefly exploring the geography and history, before delving into the nitty-gritty details of the culinary traditions. Instantly, the region that was once unfamiliar becomes accessible and enticing. The recipes are varied, exciting and for the most part, shockingly simple. Vegetables often take the center stage, with meat used as a seasoning. In a world where meat consumption in the West has reached worryingly new heights, the recipes remind us that good food need not take a toll on our health and the environment. Land of Fish and Rice will certainly go a long way to solving this problem.
That’s not to say that meat will be absent, for in Jiangnan, pork reigns supreme. Pork belly is particularly adored. Lusciously sweet dishes such as Shanghai red-braised pork with eggs are included in the 200 recipe compendium (see recipe below).
Seafood and fish are also abundant in the region. This is the land of fish and rice, after all. Dishes range from oil exploded prawns, in which prawns are deep fried and dressed in a sweet sauce, to a slightly more complex an umami-rich dish of ham and sea bass. Unfortunately, the selection of fish recipes failed to excite, perhaps marking one of the book’s only shortcomings.
For the most part, the recipes require only a few ingredients that may pose a challenge to locate, adding to the book’s accessibility. The book is arranged into neat categories, with a lengthy selection of appetizers. Many of these dishes can be prepared ahead of time, allowing the home cook to impress guests, whilst also simultaneously enjoy their company.
Even if one were to not cook from the book, Land of Fish and Rice is an important addition to the shelf of any cookbook lover. It is a beautiful publication that remains modest in its simplicity. The vast majority of dishes are accompanied by photographs, something that her earlier work lacked.
It should come as no surprise that Fuchsia Dunlop has produced a work that tops all others. The stories are richer, the historical tidbits greater. As always, her encouraging voice shines through.
make this one thing:
red braised pork belly with eggs
6 eggs, small if possible
20g fresh ginger, skin on (1 1-inch piece)
1 spring onion, white part only
750g pork belly, skin on (about 1.5 lbs)
1 tbsp cooking oil
1 star anise
a small piece cassia bark
3 tbsp Shaoxing wine
700 ml stock or hot water
2 tbsp light soy sauce
1½ tbsp plus 1 tsp dark soy sauce
3 tbsp caster sugar
Hard-boil the eggs in a pan of boiling water, then cool and shell them. In each egg, make 6-8 shallow slashes lengthways to allow the flavors of the stew to enter. Smack the ginger and spring onion gently with the flat side of a Chinese cleaver or a rolling pin to loosen their fibers.
Put the pork in a pan, cover with cold water, bring to the boil over a high flame and boil for 5 minutes. Drain and rinse it under the cold tap. When cool enough to handle, cut the meat through the skin into 2-3cm cubes.
Heat the oil in a seasoned wok over a high flame. Add the ginger, spring onion, star anise and cassia and stir-fry briefly until they smell wonderful. Add the pork and fry for another 1-2 minutes until the meat is faintly golden and some of the oil is running out of the fat. Splash the Shaoxing wine around the edges of the pan. Add the hard-boiled eggs and stock or hot water, along with the light soy sauce, 1½ tablespoons dark soy sauce and the sugar. Bring to the boil, then cover and simmer for 45 minutes, stirring occasionally.
Pour into a pot or a bowl, allow to cool, then chill overnight. In the morning, remove the layer of pale fat that has settled on the surface. Tip the meat and jellied liquid back into a wok, reheat gently, then boil over a high flame to reduce the sauce, stirring constantly. Remove and discard the ginger, spring onion and whole spices. After 10-15 minutes, when the liquid has reduced by about half, stir in the remaining dark soy sauce.
Shortly before you serve, bring to the boil over a high flame and reduce the sauce to a few centimetres of dark, sleek gravy. Turn out into a serving dish.