From Land of Plenty: Rabbit with Sichuan Pepper

I think that Fuchsia Dunlop’s book, Land of Plenty, is probably the single Chinese cookbook from which I have cooked the most recipes. My copy is already dog-eared and stained by the kisses of soy sauce and sesame oil; in the photo to the right you can see that I also have various recipes marked, waiting to still be tried out.

Ever since I saw the three rabbit recipes she included in the book, I have been itching to try them.

And every time I see rabbits at the North Market Poultry and Game stall, I think, “Ooh, I should get one and try one of Fuchsia’s recipes,” but I end up getting more lamb or perhaps some catfish instead.

Which is very odd, because I really love rabbit. I think that there is nothing finer than rabbit gravy, unless it is squirrel gravy, and some of my favorite dishes in restaurants have involved rabbit braised in some delightful fashion with lots of herbs, caramelized onion and garlic.

Well, for whatever reason, on Saturday, after I picked up the beef tenderloins for our Christmas dinner, I threw caution to the wind and picked up a bunny and decided I was going to cook it sometime this week.

I gave Morganna the option of me cooking a typical European rabbit stew, or one of the Sichuanese preparations.

She didn’t even bat an eyelash. She said, “Sichuan bunny sounds fascinating. Let’s have that. Can I help cook it?”

Of course she could.

So, I read through the recipes and ended up choosing “Rabbit with Sichuan Pepper” on page 173, though I modified it somewhat, because as most of my readers should know by now, I am nearly constitutionally incapable of simply following a recipe, no matter how wonderful it is.

I just cannot do it.

But before I go into the recipe, let me say a few words about rabbits, and the structure of thier bodies.

There is a reason why most recipes for rabbit involve frying the meat or roasting it, or stewing pieces still on the bone.

That is because removing the bones from a rabbit is tedious, irritating and not terribly simple.

If you eat a braised rabbit dish that appears to have no bones, that is because the critter was cooked until the flesh fell off the bone into delectable little shreds of sweet goodness.

I mean, look, I can bone out a chicken without blinking an eye. I can take a full chicken carcass and reduce it to frying parts and then whip the bones out before most people can open a box of KFC and dig in. I went to culinary school and got good at those things, and so, I am not generally afraid of boning anything.

But you know, I realized something as I fiddled around with the rabbit: mammalian structure is not quite as convenient to removing bones as avian structure is.

And of course, the flesh and tendons in rabbits are a bit different.

We did manage, eventually. Morganna was frustrated enough to consider using her teeth, but that was strictly frowned upon, so she gave up on that idea.

So, if anyone out there decides to do the recipe as Fuchsia writes, “1 1/4 pounds rabbit meat, on or off the bone,” make it on the bone. Just hack that sucker apart with a cleaver like I should have done in the first place, and leave the bones in. They’ll add flavor, and just warn your family that there are bones so they know not to chip teeth on them.

I swear that is what most Chinese folks would have done.

I changed the cooking directions a bit–I was supposed to deep fry the meat and then drain it and pour almost all of the oil out of the wok, then add the Sichuan peppercorns and dried chiles, then go on to construct a sauce.

As I noted before–I don’t like to do deep fry if I can avoid it. So, I cut the pieces of rabbit into smaller cubes, and stir fried it. It still turned out phenominally well; the slightly gamey flavor of rabbit really stood up to the fire of the chiles and the icy heat of the Sichuan peppercorns.

I also ground the peppercorns, because I don’t like the texture of them left whole in sauces. That meant that I used a good bit less of them–only about a teaspoon of the ground, instead of the two tablespoons of the whole that is called for in Fuchsia’s recipe.

I also added some Shanghai bok choi at the end, mainly because I was too lazy to cook a second dish tonight! I think it was fine with it, but I should probably try tmaking it without sometime.

And I will make it again, though I think that I will use fewer chiles next time. I used the Tien Tsin chiles from Penzey’s and they are really beastly hot. She calls for “a generous handful” of dried Sichuan chiles, but I think that my modest twelve chiles might have been too much. This stove heats the wok so hot that the oil really can penetrate the chile and be infused with its fiery essence.

Rabbit with Sichuan Pepper

Ingredients:

1 1/4 pound rabbit meat, deboned if you are crazy like me, and cut into 1/2 inch cubes
3 scallions, white parts only, thickly sliced on the diagonal
1/2″ cube fresh ginger, peeled and smashed with the side of a cleaver
1 tablespoon Shao Hsing wine
1 1/2 teaspoons cornstarch
2 1/2 tablespoons peanut oil
8-12 Tien Tsin dried chiles, snipped in half, with most of the seeds removed
1 teaspoon freshly ground Sichuan peppercorns
2 teaspoons dark soy sauce
1/2 teaspoon raw sugar
2 heads Shanghai bok choi, rinsed, trimmed and cut into 1″ chunks (optional)
1/2 cup chicken broth
1 teaspoon sesame oil

Method:

Toss rabbit meat with the scallions, ginger, wine and cornstarch. Allow to sit and marinate at least thirty minutes, although, I think a couple of hours is better.

Heat wok until it smokes, add peanut oil. Toss in the chiles and ground Sichuan peppercorns, and stir, frying until very fragrant–about thirty seconds (This is one of those times that if you have a vent hood, you really need to use it. The hot chile oil is nothing to play with onces it becomes aerosolized.)

Add the rabbit and the marinade–watch out for splatters from the wine. Spread out into a single layer on the bottom of the wok and allow to brown on the bottom before starting to stir fry–about forty-five seconds to a minute. Then stir fry like mad. When most of the pink is gone, add the soy sauce and sugar, and stir and fry to create a thick sauce. If any of the marinade has begun to stick to the bottom of the wok, use the soy sauce to deglaze.

Add the bok choi, if you are using it and the broth. Stir and fry until the bok choi is crisp-tender, and the sauce has reduced and clings thickly to the meat and greens.

Remove from heat and add the sesame oil and stir it in well before pouring contents of wok into a warmed serving plate.

Serve with -lots- of steamed rice–this is another “cai” which is so spicy it forces you to eat a lot of rice.

Now, if you liked that recipe, I have to tell you there are many more where that came from in Land of Plenty. And if you would like a chance to win a copy of the book, along with an autographed copy of Henry Chung’s Hunan Style Chinese Cookbook, (that book is out of print and hard to find, btw) and some Sichuan peppercorns and Tien Tsin chiles, then head on over to A Menu for Hope, and donate five dollars to Unicef to help the folks in Kashmir who have been devestated by the earthquake. If you want a chance to win these goodies, just put in your personal note that you want a chance to win them, and remember–you get a chance for every five dollars you donate! And, if you don’t want my goodies–hey, there are plenty of other prizes and gifts for you to check out at Chez Pim.

But of course, you are also quite welcome to just donate some cash to help the people of Kashmir. So far, over $11,000 has been raised by food bloggers through the Menu of Hope campaign, and we have two more days before it ends. I’m really thrilled to see how much love there is among the food-bloggers and our readers–but, of course, I would very much like to see Unicef get as much help as possible, so if you haven’t donated–and you can, please do. The people of Kashmir need you.

Thank you all.

15 Comments

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  1. Wow, that sounds delicious! I’ve never gotten beyond the “Lapin à la moutarde” treatment (which is delicious by the way) so I might have to give it a go!

    Yes those little bones ARE irritating. My dear husband hates rabbit for that reason alone, and the last time I made bunny with mustard I cooled it and painstakingly removed every bone before reheating it just to make him happy.

    Sometimes I think he’s a lucky guy. On a good day anyway!

    Comment by Meg — December 22, 2005 #

  2. Hey, Meg!

    I have never had or made lapin a la moutarde–have you blogged about it? I am not even sure I have a recipe around here (I don’t really have many French cookbooks…) to refer to.

    This version of rabbit was as good as the rabbit ragu I had over handmade papardalle at a great little Italian place in Boston a couple of years ago. Until last night, that was the best rabbit dish I had eaten, though I have had some awfully good fried rabbit pieces that have then been smothered in roux gravy. That is a really fine dish, too.

    FWIW–I think your husband is pretty darned lucky!

    Comment by Barbara — December 22, 2005 #

  3. Hi Barbara – Fuchsia Dunlop’s book is my favorite read right now. I think it’s a wonderfully done cookbook. There was a Chinese Culinary Tour that I had thought about taking, and Fuchsia Dunlop was the “Culinary Guide”, but for the price of the tour, I could go to China, Thailand, and Vietnam combined. Though I may still take it.

    http://www.imperialtours.net/culinary_tour.htm

    Comment by Kirk — December 22, 2005 #

  4. Barbara – I immediately went to ebay and found a copy of Dunlop’s book. It should be on it’s way to my kitchen in another day or so. You and your writing has renewed my interest in Chinese cooking and am looking forward to trying some new things.

    Last night while at Costco I found Jeffrey Alford’s Magoes & Curry Leaves as well as Hot Sour Salty Sweet and debated about getting them. Decided to ask your advice first as I don’t know if they are more “pretty” vs “useful information” books. They are heavy, very slick paper which usually is a turnoff for me just on asthetics alone. Sometimes with books like these I go to my local bookstore and copy down a recipe or two to see if it is worth the expense of space in my bookshelves.

    Comment by Maureen — December 22, 2005 #

  5. Hello, Kirk!

    That is one thing I love about the book–you can read it, and cook from it, and in both ways, it is exceptional. Some cookbooks you can read from, but the recipes are not so great–others are great recipes, but not so interesting to read. When you have both in one book–heaven!

    One of these days, Zak and Morganna and I want to go to China….

    Maureen–I am glad you are getting a copy of this book! Dunlop is working on a similar book about Hunanese food, which is good, because the books on the subject, with the exception of Henry Chung’s book, which is out of print, are not very good.

    As for Alford’s books–they are really fun to read and look at. I think they are more reading books than cooking books, though I have used several recipes out of his “Seductions of Rice” and “Flatbreads and Flavors” books and they have been solid, good recipes.

    I just always feel weird taking such lovely books into the kitchen to get glommed up. But, definately, the recipes are good.

    Those two books, however, I haven’t cooked from, so it may not be the case for them.

    Comment by Barbara — December 22, 2005 #

  6. Barbara, I posted the recipe here:

    http://www.toomanychefs.com/archives/001408.php

    However, I have to warn you that Laura of Cucina Testa Rossa tried to reproduce it after trying it at the party and said it didn’t work out at all. I went over the recipe afterwards but couldn’t see anything wrong with it!

    Comment by Meg — December 23, 2005 #

  7. Barbara,

    I encourage you to go to China with your family. Not just for the food (which is great–albeit be careful), but for an experience with a society that is so mindboggling at times–and quite frankly like no other I’ve ever encountered.

    China has got a history and culture as old as any in the West, but the effects and influences of the last 50 years (i.e. before 1985ish) have just put it through the ringer once or twice. It can be a weird place–full of tradition, though striving to be tiptop modern and contemporary, and yet missing a few pieces in between. It’s what makes the place so fascinating.

    Many Chinese (particularly those outside of mainland China) feel that the food found in mainland China is often not authentic–I can’t attest to that, I haven’t done enough reading on it. I do, however, wonder what effects events like the Cultural Revolution, The Great Leap Forward and the Great Famine had on food in China. Do you know of any books, articles? Has Ms. Dunlop ever written on that topic?

    I have not read Dunlop’s book, however, your essay has encouraged me to put it on my wishlist of books. My Chinese cooking experience comes from family and home rather than any book, so I’m quite curious at the historical side of Sichuanese food.

    Comment by Rose — December 23, 2005 #

  8. Meg–I will give it a shot and see what I can do with it! I don’t see anything wrong with it either, but sometimes, recipes go awry due to things the writer cannot forsee in the user’s kitchen. This happens to everyone.

    Rose–I very much want to go to China. I have wanted to do so since I was a child–China, Japan and India have always been top on my list of places to visit, since I could–oh, speak.

    China’s history is vast and ancient–in many ways, longer and older than the West. I studied it in college, and since then, have done reading on my own, and the more I learn, the more I want to learn, to the point where I have tinkered with the idea of learning one of the languages–most likely Mandarin, though I have to admit to loving the sound of Cantonese. (I think I have seen too many Hong Kong movies, and so the rhythym and music of Cantonese has invaded my consciousness to the point where I am very comforted by the sound of it–even if I don’t understand what is being said.)

    Let me look for references for you on the food issue–I have read things to that effect–that food culture is being lost in Mainland China, and I know that during the Cultural Revolution period, for example, that Kung Pao Jiding or Gong Bao Jiding had its name changed so it would not refer to an Imperial officer! I read it–somewhere. Now, I have to go back and find that reference.

    Have you read Flavor and Fortune Magazine, Rose? It is all about Chinese food and culture, and food culture. It is a great resource–and a great read.

    My Chinese cooking knowledge–it has come from everywhere I can get it. From chefs–especially dear Lo, who said I was like his granddaughter, always curious and who liked to taste everything. From home cooks I meet at Asian markets, giving me advice on how to cook a certain green, or what to do with lop cheong. From books–certainly, and from taste memories. I am ever, ever so grateful to have as good a taste memory as I do, because that means I can analyze the flavors of a dish in a good restaurant and then go home and have a hope of recreating it.

    It has been a long journey of learning, and I know that no matter how long I study, how many dishes I cook–I still will never, ever learn as much as I would like to know about Chinese cookery.

    You are so right. I must go to China.

    Comment by Barbara — December 24, 2005 #

  9. I agree, Barbara, you do need to go to China. I went in the 80s and it was one of the best trips I have ever taken in my life. Our group went as part of a cultural exchange – we were calligraphes (western not oriental calligraphy) but since there weren’t enough of us they combined our group with dentists. The dentists went to the oral cavity hospitals each day and we went to the art centers in each city. By the end of the tour the dentists were coming with us as we were having entirely too much fun. The restaurants picked out for our group had outstanding food except for breakfasts. Going as part of a cultural exchange program gave us entrance to things that the average tourist would have a harder time finding. This was one of the most culturally enriching experiences I have had.

    Comment by Maureen — December 24, 2005 #

  10. I have actually met the woman who founded Flavor and Fortune (she took one of my Chinatown restaurant tours–like the one I am offering for A Menu for Hope campaign). Her name eludes me at the moment, but she was a professor at Queens college for many years. We spoke at length about Chinese cooking and the influences of western techniques and ingredients on Chinese food in America–but I don’t remember whether she mentioned about Chinese food in China and its history. The magazine is yet another on my wishlist, btw. I have a long wishlist and it’s completely food related.

    I’ve also read about the change in name of Gongbao Jiding (btw–this is the way it is spelled in pinyin–the most modern form of transliteration for mandarin) during the cultural revolution. I’ve picked up other tidbits here and there in my college and graduate studies too. But I’ve never actually read a book or essay that delves into the history of Chinese food extensively (does it exist?). I know the magazine does to some extent–but sometimes more about the food technique and less about the history.

    Cantonese is great to learn (I’ve gotten a bit from HK friends who explain all the really neat slang–mandarin is to ridgid for that), but its not very useful in the end. I suppose I am biased because I speak mandarin, but the truth is, mandarin is more practical because it is the government mandated dialect. It has even helped me elsewhere around the world–during my last visit to Europe (Paris), the two times I got real lost and struggled with the Parisians to find my way back I ended up wandering into chinese restaurants and asking for help in mandarin!

    Maureen is so on the mark about going to china and experiencing it outside the “tourist box”. Cultural exchange is so much more rewarding that trekking to a big ‘ole wall. The only thing now is that China of the 80′s has all but dissappeared. Even when I lived there in the late 90′s much of the cultural experience had been altered through the economic booms. That said, it’s still more than possible to find an enriching experience. I’ve managed to do it on return trips.

    I envy you with your taste memory. Mine is o-kay, I’m working on it. Blogging has really helped.

    As a kid I took the fact that we had some of the most interesting chinese food at home for granted and was adamant not to learn how to do it–my mom tried to teach me and I’m sure some of it sunk in–but I admit, I was a stubborn kid. However, college was a shock for me because I realized I didn’t know what the heck I was really doing in the kitchen. It was probably at that point that I started paying attention to mom’s cooking every time I was home. Still do.

    Comment by Rose — December 24, 2005 #

  11. Thank you for replying, Rose!

    Jaqueline Newman is the founder of Flavor and Fortune, btw–I have yet to meet her, or speak to her, but I suspect I probably should.

    There are a few books on Chinese food in China, that emphasize history and sociology that you would probably like. I have a couple of them: The Food of China, by E.N. Anderson is an excellent work by an anthropologist which looks at the history of food, food in present day (as of 1988, as that is when the book was published) and how food has been shaped by the regional variations of climate and geography. It is quite a good introduction to the idea of food in China–not food in the Chinese diaspora, which is a completely different thing.

    In 2004, Jaqueline Newman came out with Food Culture in China, which is part of the Food Culture Around the World series put out by Greenwood Press. This book is bloody expensive, as it is intended for libraries and schools, but it is quite a thorough look at Chinese food in history and in the world today. It covers many subjects, though somewhat shallowly, as the book is meant as an overview and is written with the late high school to early college student in mind.

    There is also Food in Chinese Culture: Anthropoligical and Historical Perspective. by K C Chang–this one is out of print and beastly expensive, so I don’t own a copy, though I have borrowed it from the library and read it. It is, as I recall, more about the development of Chinese food in history, than in the present.

    One of the things that I keep reading about in the newspapers–usually English language editions from Mainland China or Taiwan, and I hear from Chinese Americans who have visited China, is that the Chinese, in their push for modernization, are turning away in droves from their culinary heritage, and they are instead embracing Western style fast foods, and convenience items.

    This saddens me immeasurably, for many reasons. The culture of China is one of the most ancient in the world, with a great and fascinating history, and any of it that is lost is a loss of the richness of past human experience to the world. In addition, there is much to admire from a health perspective from the traditional eating patterns of various Chinese regional cuisines, and to turn from a foodway that is healthful and life-giving to one that is dangerous to one’s health is a bad choice, not only for an individual, but for an entire society.

    It also makes me sad, because I do not believe that just because something is ancient means it is good, nor is it true that because something is old, it is old-fashioned and thus bad. There is good to be had in old ways and new ways–why, in the rush to modernize and become a great nation among great nations in a technological and economic competition, must all things which are older be left behind? Why spurn tradition blindly, in favor of the glitter of the new in all realms?

    Rose–you don’t know how many Chinese American people I have actually taught how to cook Chinese food. I find this to be very, very odd, and at first, I was scared to death, because I thought that I was an outsider (as I am!) and thus was arrogant to set myself up to teach others.

    But I heard from my students the very same thing that you say when you tell me that you took your mother’s home cooking for granted and refused to learn it. Luckily, you changed your mind and set to rectify that situation while your mother yet lived. Some of my students told me that they were not interested in learning their grandmother’s recipes or mother’s special dishes until long after they died and then it was too late. And so, they ended up taking my classes, and from a stranger who had done intensive research, they could recover some of the lost threads of thier own past.

    It touched me to hear these things, and it filled me with a sense of responsibility, I suppose. I felt honor-bound, then to learn as much as I could and preserve the knowledge of Chinese cookery, and pass it on to any who would learn it. That is why, too, when I speak to young Chinese Americans, I always tell them to look to their culture and hold on to it, and learn their mothers’ dishes and pass them on as a legacy to their children.

    Some of them even listen.

    Well, I should stop jabbering–I have to go and do errands and do some baking, and custard making, and meat trimming and the like in preparation for the feast tomorrow.

    And wrap presents, and clean the house…so on and so on.

    When I am in New York next, I would very much like to take one of your tours. I don’t know when we will visit again, but we go not too infrequently. Not as frequently as we did when we lived in Providence or Baltimore, but still, we do like to visit.

    Comment by Barbara — December 24, 2005 #

  12. Oh! I forgot about her book. The museum has it and I’ve looked through it, but not very thoroughly–I’m usually busy prepping for my tours. The next time I go back I’ll check it out. My university library does not have the other two books. I’ll have to go through another library.

    Having spent a lot of time in China, I have to agree with the assesment of of the articles you’ve read, mainland chinese are quickly trying to drum out tradition with all modern and new. It’s not just culinary–it’s everything. Architcture is particularly hit bad as well. When I went back to my old neighborhood in Beijing after only 3 years, I didn’t recognize a single street.

    It is sad, but I view it from a different perspective as well. The chinese are a particularly proud people (I can see this in my own family)and their desire (and drive) to catch up is due in large part to their pride. They associate tradition and older customs with the troubled history of the last 50 years–they were once a great empire and fell lightyears behind. I don’t agree that they should turn their backs on all their traditional culture, but I do understand why they feel this way.

    When I was in Taiwan over the summer I breezed through a couple of (chinese language) magazines that discussed the emergence of high end chinese restaurants in mainland china that are trying to “research” and develop traditional cuisine. My language ablities as such, I could only glean a bit of what they were discussing, but it seems to be at least a step in the right direction.

    I’m lucky enough to live in NYC, a place culturally rich and diverse. But I’ve noticed so many young people of other ethnic groups spurn their own culinary traditions for convienent foods as well. I’m constantly bugging my korean friends how to make certain dishes and they just shrug having no clue how to do it themselves(“Go ask my mom” one of them replied–I would except their mom lives in LA). In this day in age, when are time is limited by so many external factors (80+ hour work weeks, children), food is often the last thing on their minds. A sad aspect of pursing the american dream I suppose.

    I’m more than happy to have you on my tour! I’m curious what you can tell me of the food you eat in Chinatown. I’ll be giving the tours officially from April through the end of August, but then I am leaving the US to go back to Asia :-) However, if you come before then, I can always arrange a tour.

    Comment by Rose — December 24, 2005 #

  13. Barbara, I agree that you need to get yourself to China! With all that you know about the cuisine and culture, you will have such a wonderful time. (Make sure you go to Taiwan and Hong Kong, too, because the food is often much better there). I love Dunlop’s book on Sichuan cooking. I had the good fortune of teaching English for a year in a small town outside of Chongqing (Chungking) the year after I graduated from college. While I was there, my students would come by my apartment and teach me how to make the local delicacies. Since I moved to San Francisco, I don’t cook as much Chinese food as I used to. But I am still glad that I can get Sichuan peppercorns again. My mapo doufu never tasted quite right without them.

    I want to wish you and your family a happy holiday season. I love your blog and look forward to reading more informative posts in the new year! Also, have fun cooking in your new kitchen!

    Comment by Brett — December 24, 2005 #

  14. Maureen–I didn’t want you to feel like I left your comment out. I just thought I had replied to it, and hadn’t.

    I would most be interested in a cultural exchange sort of program, rather than a standard tourist thing. Zak’s family has business interests in China, or had them, anyway, and so, there are some connections there, in some smaller cities.

    Culinary cultural exchange would be the best, though calligraphy does sound interesting, too.

    Rose, you are right–the young folks of many ethnicities spurn the culinary and other traditions of their native lands for the newer ideas of their adopted country. It happens with all ethnic groups when they move to a new place. It is natural, I suppose.

    What I find most interesting, of course, is when folks from different ethnicities interact, and how cuisines change with the intersections between cultures.

    Brett–thank you! I hope you and yours have a happy holiday, too! And I am glad you are enjoying my blog so much. That means a lot.

    I would love to go to China and travel about and just learn to cook from people from all around, and maybe teach them some American food that isn’t McDonald’s. (Because I don’t like the thought of folks thinking that American food is all fast food. Ugh.)

    Oh, and of course, Hong Kong and Taiwan! I am a big movie geek, so I would have to visit Hong Kong! Besides, the dim sum chef who taught me some stuff was from Hong Kong….

    Well, I have to go to bed. The creme part of the creme brulee should be cool enough to go in the fridge, and Morganna tells us that she will wake us up between seven and eight tomorrow….

    Night all, and Merry Christmas!

    Comment by Barbara — December 25, 2005 #

  15. Kaninchen auf Sichuan-Art: einmal scharf und einmal süß

    Foodfreak hat uns eingeladen, zur Feier des chinesischen Neujahrs etwas Chinesisches zu kochen und damit das Jahr des Hundes zu begrüßen. Dem komme ich natürlich sehr gerne nach, da ich damit wahrscheinlich auch unserem neuen Austauschschüler Bo e…

    Trackback by Chili und Ciabatta — February 8, 2006 #

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