This is the cookbook you didn’t know you needed!
A book review by Franz Scheurer
The cooking of the Sichuan (Szechuan) region in southwestern China is one of the great unknown cuisines of the world. Legendary in China for its sophistication and diversity, it is known in the western world only through a few commercialised dishes and a hot and spicy reputation.
Chinese people say that “China is the place for food but Sichuan is the place for flavour”.
With a repertoire of over 5000 local dishes the Sichuan cuisine is unlike any other. Famous for its mouth-numbing spiciness due to the liberal use of chillies and Sichuan pepper combating the damp and humid climate of the region.
Western science identifies four fundamental tastes, salty, sweet, sour and bitter. The Chinese, however, traditionally have five, in keeping with their theories of the five elements, (metal, wood, water, fire and earth) and five directions, (north, south, east, west and centre) and their liking for fives in general. The five fundamental Chinese tastes, which have been recognised since the time of Confucius, are salty (xian or han), sweet (gan or tian), sour (suan), hot or pungent (xin or la) and bitter (ku). The Sichuanese, who like to go their own way in so many respects, have their own localised version of these five fundamental tastes: they replace bitter with ‘ma’, the extraordinary numbing taste of Sichuan pepper.
These basic tastes are combined into a vast array of complex flavours and with a typically Chinese love of numbers and of categorisation, Sichuanese cooks and gourmets have precisely labelled at least twenty-three of them. Each has its own distinct characteristics, its balance of sweet and sour, its degree of spiciness, its effect on the tongue and palate. The Sichuanese culinary canon lists 56 distinct cooking methods in the 1998 Sichuan culinary encyclopedia published by the Chongging Publishing House.
Fuchsia Dunlop, the author of the book ‘Sichuan Cookery’, studied as a full time student at the Sichuan Institute of Higher Cuisine in Chengdu, China, where she lived from 1994 to 1996. She now works as an East Asia specialist at the BBC World Service and writes about Chinese food for ‘Time Out’ magazine and guides. She speaks, reads and writes Chinese and she has an incredible understanding of food and the creation of great dishes.
Her book, Sichuan Cookery, is an outstanding collection of Sichuan food history, insights into the Chinese mind, precise descriptions of local customs, food implements, techniques and recipes and last but not least an education in how to enjoy the food once created. It’s an invaluable reference and, although not a book for beginners, no serious cook should be without it. This is a must have in your cookery book collection.
To quote Alan Davidson, author of The Oxford Companion to Food: “It is a very long time since I saw a new book which is so patently an absolute ‘must’. With the first book Fuchsia Dunlop has immediately established a new benchmark for excellence. The depth of research and elegance of presentation conspire to make her book a real treasure”.
Published by the Penguin Group
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