When Fuchsia Dunlop first published “Land of Plenty,” it was like an oasis in a desert of Chinese cookbooks: a meticulously researched, carefully glossed, normal-size Chinese cookbook that concentrated on one thing —
Sichuan cooking, in this case — and did it very, very well. It was a guide for shopping, cooking, and eating, and if that wasn’t enough, it was a good read too. Two years later came a Hunan follow-up, “Revolutionary Chinese Cookbook,” which was, if anything, even better.
I kind of hoped that every few years, Dunlop would somehow develop a lifetime’s mastery of each of the great eight Chinese cuisines and release another regional masterpiece onto the market. Instead, she wrote “Every Grain of Rice,” a workhorse of a book for everyday Chinese cooking (like Grace Young’s stir-fry books, it can hold its own on a weeknight). And with a few exceptions (dan dan noodles, for example, which are essential repertoire in two of Dunlop’s books), there’s very little overlap with her previous publications.
As you’d expect, ginger, garlic, and scallions are deployed to create a stunning variety of effects. There’s an emphasis on the often spicy, sometimes sweet, southern Chinese flavors Dunlop loves. And while there are plenty of noodles, don’t look for many dumpling recipes.
Slow-cooked pork ribs seem at first like a typical red braise, aromatic with crushed ginger and scallions. But instead of rock sugar and soy, it has white sugar and mashed red fermented tofu — that secret something that keeps you coming back for roast pork buns.
Chicken with dried shiitakes is a simple last-minute braise whose sweetness draws out the lingering savory taste of the mushrooms. Zhajiang noodles are seasoned with little more than hoisin sauce (confusingly called “sweet fermented sauce” here), but the combination of ground pork belly and a carnival of garnishes makes this everyday dish feel like a special occasion.
Once you take away the sugar, a cosmos of different tastes opens up. Chopped celery with ground beef showcases celery as a vegetable, blistery with a full-bodied Sichuan chili bean sauce. Suzhou “breakfast tofu” is just warm, silken curd,
tasting of the sea with dried shrimp, Tianjin preserved vegetable, seaweed, and scallion. The satisfying pressed tofu, on the other hand, gets an aggressive treatment — dark and garlicky and seething with black bean flavor.
Tender Chinese chives melt into a simple plate of pork slivers. There’s no chance you can stop eating this garlicky take on the meat, so plan on making a double.
Made with portobello mushrooms, a vegetarian version of Gong Bao chicken is a stunner. The mushrooms have a such satisfying texture and play against the peanuts and chili so nicely, I almost prefer it to the original.
Meanwhile, vegetables are simple to prepare, yet full of flavor payoffs. A less oily take on dry-fried green beans (blanched first) is especially tasty, with just enough sour preserved vegetable to keep things interesting, finished with the fragrance of sesame. Bok choy stir-fried with fresh shiitakes are the simplest thing ever, but its sauce drapes with a satiny finish, thickened with a little potato starch.
Not every dish knocked it out of the park. Ho fun rice noodles with mushrooms somehow don’t achieve liftoff, despite their promising ingredients. Stir-fried bean sprouts with Chinese chives and Chinese cabbage with vinegar share a problem: Chinkiang vinegar is such a strong, one-dimensional note that you really have to love it to accept it as these vegetables’ only flavoring.
The portion sizes in “Every Grain of Rice” are unconventional — and often unmarked. As Dunlop notes, in China these recipes would be served several at a time, so few are substantial enough to feed a family of four. But don’t let that stop you from diving in and doubling or tripling a recipe if you want to cook just one. There are so many treasures in here, you can hardly go wrong.T. Susan Chang can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.