Land of Plenty
Fuchsia Dunlop is an amazing woman.
For one thing, she is the only non-Chinese female graduate of the Sichuan Institute of Higher Cuisine in Chengdu, China. For another thing, she managed to write down the recipes for most of the dishes that Huy used to make at The China Garden for employee meals which I had been pining after for more than a decade. Her accurate rendering of these traditional recipes has put into place a few missing puzzle pieces in my quest to recreate the dishes that have haunted my memory.
In addition, she has managed to convey in a 394 page book a vivid picture of life in Sichuan province, with loving descriptions of teahouses, street hawkers and banquets. Her experiences at the culinary institute echoed my memories of culinary college here in the states, however, she had the added excitement of learning a cuisine that was totally unfamiliar to her own cultural background in a completely different language.
With in her book, Dunlop codifies the twenty-three distinct flavors of Sichuan food, lists the necessary pantry items, explains the different cooking techniques–some of them unique to Sichuan province–and provides a glossary of Chinese characters with anglicized spelling and meanings in English. The book is sparsely illustrated with gorgeously composed photographs which show ingredients and finished dishes in full color.
Cooking from this book is an absolute pleasure. Over time, I have adapted all of the recipes I have tried to reflect my memories of the home style dishes that Huy made as well as my own tastes, but I always make the recipe as written first. While I like my adaptations better because they are mine, her recipes are authentic and absolutely, hands-down, the best Sichuan recipes from a book I have ever used.
I understand that she is now working on a book about the cuisine of Hunan province, which is equally under-represented when it comes to cookbooks in English.
I cannot wait to read it.
More importantly, I cannot wait to cook from it.
Red Cooked Beef with Turnips
The first time I had this dish was as an employee meal one blustery winter night at Huy’s restaurant. It was served in a bowl with a huge handful of cilantro leaves scattered over it. We ladled it over our bowls of rice and ate with chopsticks and a spoon. I took a bit of it home to Zak and he raved about it, and so I made it my mission to figure out how it was cooked. For years, I tried every kind of Red-cooked beef recipe out there, but never got the right taste until I learned from reading Fuchsia Dunlop’s book that in Sichuan, the ingredient that makes red-cooked beef red is not soy sauce as it is in the rest of China, but Sichuan chile bean paste. I had been using chili garlic paste in order to give the dish its characteristic deep heat, but the flavor was never, ever right. The first time I made this dish with that ingredient, Zak came running downstairs and said, “That’s it!” You can use daikon radish, Chinese turnips or regular American turnips in this dish. Just make sure to add them at the end so they don’t disintegrate. I like Chinese turnips the best of the three, though Huy made it with daikon. While it is not traditional, I have added taro roots and sweet potatoes to this stew and they are both very good in it.
This is my adaptation from Land of Plenty; I added some more scallions, ginger and garlic to it., and I prefer the use of chuck roast to short ribs.
2-3 pounds good quality chuck roast
2-3 inch piece of fresh ginger, unpeeled
4 scallions, white and green parts, trimmed
3 cloves garlic, peeled
3 tbsp. vegetable oil
6 tbsp. or to taste of Sichuan chili bean paste (do not substitute chili garlic paste)
1 quart beef broth (I prefer the kind in the aseptic package)
4 tbsp. Shao Hsing wine or dry sherry
2 tsp. dark soy sauce
1 tsp. whole Sichuan peppercorns, toasted
1 whole star anise
1 black cardamom pod*
1 ½ pounds turnips, Chinese turnips or daikon radish
Fresh cilantro to garnish (to taste, but like Huy, I like lots of it)
Cut the chuck roast into several large pieces. Slice the ginger thickly, then smash slices with the side of the knife. Cut the scallions into two or three pieces each. Smash the garlic cloves.
Heat the oil in a heavy dutch oven or soup pot, and add chili bean paste and fry until fragrant–about thirty seconds. Add the ginger, scallions and garlic and fry another thirty seconds. Add in beef, broth, wine, soy sauce and spices. Bring to a boil. If any scum rises, skim it off.
Turn down the heat and simmer until the beef is fork tender–about two to three hours.
When the beef is tender, trim and peel the turnips. Cut them into thick bite-sized chunks. Add to the beef, and cook until the vegetables are just tender.
If you wish, you may thicken the sauce with a cornstarch and cold water slurry.
Garnish with lots of cilantro leaves.
*Black Cardamom is available at Indian grocery stores under that name. In Chinese markets, it is found under the name cao guo or tsao kuo. It is about the size of a Niscoise olive, and has a shaggy brown outer pod that looks rather like the outside of a coconut. It has a smoky, dark flavor that is really, really good with beef. I use it more often in Indian cookery than Chinese, but I have found that with this dish, I really like it, and find it to be essential.
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