In the fourth century, a Chinese official, Zhang Han, is said to have abandoned his post in the north of the country, unable any longer to endure his craving for the water shield soup and sliced perch of his hometown in Jiangnan, a region to the south; ever since, “thinking of perch and water shield” (chun lu zhi si) has been the Chinese shorthand for homesickness.
This is a story Fuchsia Dunlop, Britain’s greatest authority on Chinese food, tells in the introduction to her magnificent new book about Jiangnan’s culinary heritage, Land of Fish and Rice – and with good reason. Han wasn’t alone; several emperors felt the same. “No one who has fallen in love with Jiangnan ever wants to leave,” she goes on. “While every Chinese cuisine has its charms … I know of no other that can put one’s heart so much at ease as the food of Jiangnan.” Her own passionate affair with the region – Jiangnan spans the eastern coastal provinces of Zhejiang and Jiangsu, the city of Shanghai, and that part of southern Anhui province once known as Huizhou – began several years ago, when she walked through a moon-gate and into the “enchanted” garden of the Dragon Well Manor restaurant on the outskirts of Hangzhou, where the restaurateur Dai Jianjun had created a sanctuary for Chinese food using “radiantly fresh” produce and ingredients made by artisans to traditional methods. Suddenly, she had the subject of her next book. “I don’t go around choosing regions,” she says, when we meet at Bar Shu in Soho, a restaurant to which she acts as a consultant. “They choose me.”
The food in Jiangnan is known for its gentleness, or qing dan. Often translated as “bland” or “insipid”, the word combines the characters for pure and light, and expresses tastes that comfort and refresh: “It’s feelgood food, made in harmony with the seasons and the landscape.” It’s a cuisine that involves lots of fish, plenty of pork, and a vast range of other, rather more obscure ingredients: wild rice stems, lily bulbs, celtuce (aka asparagus lettuce, whose thick stalks have, paradoxically, a celery-like flavour) and, most bafflingly of all, fox nuts (a kind of chickpea that grows in fresh water). But there’s no need for alarm. “The internet has made things easier,” Dunlop says. “I buy lots of seasonings online. Mostly, though, it’s a case of applying Chinese techniques to produce you can easily find at home. There is a recipe for buns stuffed with shepherd’s purse [a plant belonging to the mustard family], for which I use kale. It works just as well.”
Dunlop, who grew up in Oxford, trained as a chef in China in the mid-1990s, having got interested in the country as a subeditor at the BBC (she took evening classes in Mandarin, and then won a British Council scholarship to study for a year in the Sichuanese capital, Chengdu). Her first cookbook, Sichuan Cookery, came out in 2001, after an initial struggle with publishers who thought it “too regional”. Since then, of course, things have moved on; most of us now know there’s more to Chinese food than sweet and sour pork.
“The emergence of China as a richer, more powerful country has changed perceptions,” she says. “It’s a place people visit, whether for their holidays or to do business. The opening of Hakkasan [in London in 2001] was another turning point – somewhere so smart and glamorous. As a result people no longer think that Chinese food is either cheap and junky or terrifyingly exotic. But without going there, you can’t really open this great casket of wonders. It is such a huge country.” Why, though, do so few people here know about Jiangnanese food? “I guess it’s to do with patterns of immigration. The Cantonese dominated things for so long. When people do come here from this region, they tend to be well-heeled – they’re not the kind of people who would be cooks – while most chefs out there tend to say: ‘Why would we want to leave, when we have all these wonderful ingredients?’ Hangzhou is one of the most loved places to live in all of China.”
China, unlike many countries, has retained a strong sense of the regional when it comes to food. “There are more chain restaurants now. You can get Sichuan food all over China these days and some chefs are concerned about the loss of skills in the countryside; people move to the city leaving only the very young and the very old behind. But it remains incredibly diverse. The more I learn, the more I feel I’m just beginning.” Among her favourite recipes in the book are the one for dungpo pork, a sumptuous dish of meat so tender from slow cooking it will melt at a chopstick’s touch, and her “indispensable” Shanghai noodles with dried shrimps and spring onion oil. “I had it for lunch today,” she says, eyes widening with retrospective greed. “If you have the noodles to hand, that one only takes 10 minutes.”
Fuchsia Dunlop: the recipes
These dishes are mostly intended to be shared with rice as part of a Chinese meal, rather than eaten individually. For this reason, serving quantities are not included. Most of the ingredients listed can be found online at websites such as souschef.co.uk, waiyeehong.com and wingyipstore.co.uk.
Hangzhou breakfast tofu
Warm silken tofu is seasoned with savoury condiments and topped with fresh and crunchy garnishes. It’s based on the breakfast tofu I enjoyed near the West Lake in Hangzhou.
silken tofu 300g caster sugar ¼ tsp light soy sauce 2 tsp sesame oil 1 tsp chilli oil to tasteSichuan preserved vegetable 2 tbsp, finely chopped spring onions 2 tbsp, green parts only, thinly slicedcoriander 1 tbsp, chopped peanuts 2 tbsp, fried
Boil enough water to cover the tofu in a saucepan and salt it lightly. Use a spoon to scoop up large pieces of tofu and transfer them to the water. Simmer very gently for 5 minutes to heat through.
When the tofu is ready, use a slotted spoon to transfer it to a serving bowl and break up the chunks into smaller pieces. Scatter over the rest of the ingredients and serve. This dish is best eaten with a spoon.
Suzhou breakfast tofu
Instead of the garnishes in the above recipe, put 2 tsp papery dried shrimps and 1 tbsp dried laver seaweed, torn into tiny pieces, in the serving bowl. Add the warm tofu and scatter with 1 tbsp finely chopped Sichuan preserved vegetable, 1½ tbsp thinly sliced spring onion greens, 2 tsp light soy sauce and 1 tsp sesame oil. Mix well before eating. This version is served at the Wumen Renjia restaurant in Suzhou.
One afternoon, exploring the lake near restaurateur Dai Jianjun’s farm in southern Zhejiang, a fisherman offered us some live shrimp he had just caught. Back at the farm, Dai’s chef, Zhu Yinfeng, cooked them up in typical Zhejiang style, deep-frying and then stir-frying them over a high flame with a sweet, rich sauce laced with rice wine and vinegar. The deep-frying in very hot oil is known as “oil-exploding” (you bao), and it shocks the papery shrimp shells away from the flesh, making them delectably crisp and crunchy. The fragrant sauce clings to the prawns like lacquer, so they look as beautiful as they taste.
Small freshwater shrimps are particularly dainty in this recipe, but you can also achieve a marvellous effect using sea prawns, which is what I do at home. Be warned that this dish has what my father calls a “high grapple factor” and be prepared for some messy eating!
prawns 350g, raw, unpeeled (400g if you want to cook them without heads)spring onion 1, white part onlyChinkiang or red rice vinegar 2½ tsp cooking oil 500ml fresh ginger a few slices, peeled
For the sauceShaoxing wine 2 tsp light soy sauce 3 tsp caster sugar 5 tsp
Use a sharp knife to trim the spikes from the head of the prawns (or their entire heads), and their legs. Use a darning needle to remove, as far as possible, the black veins that run along their backs, just under the shell. Rinse them thoroughly and shake dry. Smack the spring onion white lightly with the flat side of a Chinese cleaver or a rolling pin to loosen its fibres. Combine the sauce ingredients in a small bowl, and have the vinegar measured out and ready in another small bowl.
Heat the oil in a seasoned wok over a high flame to 200C. Have another pan or a heatproof container to hand. Carefully tip the prawns into the hot oil and deep-fry for 10-20 seconds (depending on size), stirring constantly, until they have curled up and changed colour. Remove with a slotted spoon and set aside.
Let the oil return to its original temperature. Add the prawns and fry for another 20 seconds or so, until the shells are crisp and tinged golden. Remove with a slotted spoon and set aside. Pour all but about 1 tablespoon of the oil into your heatproof container, then return the wok to a high flame with the spring onion white and ginger. Stir-fry until they smell wonderful. Add the prawns, stir once, then give the sauce a stir and pour it in. Stir rapidly as the sauce boils and becomes syrupy. Splash the vinegar around the edges of the prawns and stir over a high flame for another 5 seconds or so to fuse the flavours. Serve.
Shanghai red-braised pork with eggs
Red-braised pork, in which chunks of belly pork are simmered with soy sauce, rice wine and sugar, is beloved across China, and there are many regional variations. In Jiangnan, and especially Shanghai, they like theirs dark, sleek and seductively sweet. The pork is only cooked for about an hour in total, so the meat and fat retain a little spring in their step. A secondary ingredient is often added, such as bamboo shoot, deep-fried tofu, cuttlefish, salted fish or, as in this recipe, hard-boiled eggs.
eggs 6, small if possible fresh ginger 20g, skin on spring onion 1, white part onlypork belly 750g, skin oncooking oil 1 tbsp star anise 1 cassia bark a small piece Shaoxing wine 3 tbsp stock or hot water 700ml light soy sauce 2 tbsp dark soy sauce 1½ tbsp plus 1 tsp caster sugar 3 tbsp, or 40g rock 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 flavours 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 fibres.
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.
Green pak choy with dried shrimps
In Chinese markets, especially in places near the coast such as Ningbo and Zhoushan, you will find great tubs of dried shrimps of different colours and sizes, from the moon-white papery variety to orange-pink creatures as large as the fresh sea prawns that are eaten as a main ingredient. In this dish I use the smallish pink ones that are known as “open ocean”, “sea rice” and “rice shrimp” in different dialects.
dried shrimps 2 tbsp (about 10g)Shaoxing wine 1 tbsp green pak choy 300g cooking oil 2 tbsp stock or water 3 tbsp potato starch ¼ tsp mixed with 1 tsp cold water (optional) salt
Put the shrimps and Shaoxing wine in a bowl and cover with hot water; soak for at least half an hour. Quarter the pak choy lengthways, then cut it into chopstickable lengths.
Heat the oil in a seasoned wok over a high flame. Add the shrimps and stir-fry until they smell delicious, then add the pak choy and stir until the leaves have wilted. Pour the stock or water around the sides of the wok. Bring to the boil, cover and cook for a minute or so to heat through. Remove the lid, season with salt and stir briefly to allow the liquid to reduce. Give the potato starch mixture a stir and mix into the wok, if using. Serve.
Soupy rice with chopped greens
“Soaked” or soupy rice is an excellent way of using up leftovers. All you need to do is reheat yesterday’s rice in stock or water with any little titbits you have hanging around, and perhaps a smidgeon of lard for extra richness.
Not surprisingly, there are many variations on this theme. In Zhenjiang I once had a wonderful version made with chopped greens, salt pork and dried shiitake, while a Hangzhou favourite is soupy rice with morsels of intensely flavoured soy sauce-cured duck. The mouthfeel of soupy rice, with its individual rice grains, is distinct from the mouthfeel of congee, in which rice and liquid fuse into one voluptuous mass.
There’s no need to weigh and measure ingredients for this kind of dish: the measurements in the recipe are just a guide. Add enough liquid to generously cover but not overwhelm the rice, which will swell and become juicy in the stock. Season the rice properly if you plan to make a meal of it; under-season if you’ll be eating it with other dishes or just a salty relish – cubes of fermented tofu, perhaps, or a hard-boiled salted duck egg or some pickles.
fresh shiitake mushrooms 100g green pak choy 175g lard or cooking oil 1½ tbsp stock 600ml leftover cooked rice 300g (150g when raw)salt and ground white pepper
Remove the mushroom stalks and thickly slice the caps. Chop the pak choy into bite-sized pieces. Heat the lard or cooking oil in a seasoned wok over a high flame. Add the mushrooms to the wok and stir-fry until softened, then add the pak choy and continue to stir-fry until just wilted. Set aside.
Bring the stock to the boil in a wok or saucepan. Add the leftover rice, breaking up any clumps, bring to the boil again and cook until just heated through. Stir in the pak choy and mushrooms and season with salt and pepper. Serve.
Clear-steamed sea bass
This recipe uses the techniques and seasonings traditionally applied to one of the most celebrated Jiangnan fish, the Reeves shad, to cook the more easily available sea bass.
dried shiitake mushroom 1 bamboo shoots a few rectangular slices fresh ginger 30g, skin onspring onions 3, white parts onlysea bass 1 (about 650g), scaled and guttedsaltShaoxing wine 4 tbsp Spanish or Chinese cured ham a few rectangular slices, steamed brieflyclear chicken stock 100ml light soy sauce 3 tbsp caster sugar ½ tsp fermented glutinous rice 3 tbsp chicken oil or lard 1 tbsp ground white pepper
For the dipping saucefresh ginger 1 tbsp, finely chopped Chinkiang vinegar 2 tbsp
Cover the shiitake mushroom in boiling water and leave to soak for at least half an hour. Bring a pan of water to the boil and blanch the bamboo shoot slices, then drain them. Smack the ginger and spring onion whites with the flat side of a Chinese cleaver or a rolling pin to loosen their fibres.
Put the fish on a chopping board and make a few parallel diagonal slashes into the thickest part of the flesh. Repeat on the other side. Rub the fish inside and out with a little salt and 1 tablespoon of the Shaoxing wine. Put half the ginger and one of the spring onion whites in its belly and set aside for 10-15 minutes.
When the mushroom has softened, remove the stalk and cut the cap in half. If you wish to be a bit fancy, make lots of tiny parallel cuts perpendicular to the cut edge, so you can fan out the mushroom on the fish. Mix the chopped ginger and vinegar for the dip in a dipping dish.
Put the remaining spring onion whites in the base of a serving bowl deep enough to hold the fish and some liquid, but which will also fit into your steamer. (If a whole fish doesn’t fit in your steamer, hold your knife at a steep angle to the board and cut the fish in half. Place the two pieces parallel to each other in the dish.) Lay the fish across the spring onions. Arrange the bamboo shoot and ham slices along the centre of the fish, with a shiitake half at either end.
Mix together the rest of the Shaoxing wine, the stock, soy sauce and sugar and pour it around the fish. Spoon the fermented glutinous rice down the centre of the fish. Place the ginger beside the fish and the chicken oil or lard on top of it. Steam over a medium flame for about 10 minutes, until you can push a blunt chopstick easily into the thickest part of the fish.
Remove and discard the ginger. Strain the cooking juices into a bowl and season them with a little ground white pepper. Tidy up the sliced ham arrangement on the fish, then pour over the cooking juices. Serve with the vinegar and ginger dip.
Land of Fish and Rice by Fuchsia Dunlop (Bloomsbury, £26). Click here to order a copy for £20.80 from the Guardian Bookshop
- ‘The Masked Singer’ Winner Interview: ‘It’s the First Time in My Life I Kept a Secret Months on End’
- Xbox Series X reveal was kept a secret by giving Phil Spencer a fake Game Awards script for rehearsals
- Make your way through the 101 Best Restaurants list at these affordable places to eat
- Food freestyling: how lateral cooking can turn soda bread into scones
- China's top-secret nuclear town known only as '816': How Beijing tried to build weapons of mass destruction in the world's largest man-made cave during the Cold War
- The Best And Most Shocking Scenes From TV And Movies This Decade
- Do you have a little chef? Great British Bake Off winner reveals her top tips for baking with kids
- Wood from forests in northern Vietnam secretly sold to China
- Mother-of-three, 44, who looks half her age shares her VERY surprising beauty secrets - including using aloe for serum and raw honey as exfoliator
- Politics | With the Rajapaksas back in power in Sri Lanka, how will the China factor play out?
- The Caribbean party island that seduced rock stars and royals: Princess Margaret's confidante reveals how her husband turned Mustique from a mosquito-infested wasteland to a hedonistic playground - at a crippling cost
- From Elle Macpherson's ageless figure to Tammy Hembrow's Insta-famous curves: Australian celebrities reveal the bikini body secrets that will help YOU achieve your fitness goals in 2019
China’s best-kept food secret, revealed by Fuchsia Dunlop have 3348 words, post on www.theguardian.com at July 17, 2016. This is cached page on VietNam Breaking News. If you want remove this page, please contact us.