Think delicious Chinese dishes are out of reach for beginners? Think again.
In Hackney the basic ingredients are right on our doorstep according to Chinese food expert and writer Fuchsia Dunlop, who says you can pick up the basics for a good meal from shops on Kingsland Road or Mare Street.
A holiday to China in 1992 kindled a curiosity about the country and its many different regional cooking styles that’s seen her become fluent in Mandarin, with five books to her name including the latest – Every Grain Of Rice – written as an introduction to some of the world’s most stunning food.
“Cuisine varies hugely by area,” she says. “In some ways it’s crazy talking about ‘Chinese’ food because it’s so different. It’s like Chinese people talking about ‘Western’ cuisine. If you think about the difference between Danish and Sicilian food – it’s pretty much like that in China.”
Her journey started off in Sichuan. It’s a province that borders Tibet in its mountainous western reaches, while in its eastern regions the fertile plains of the Sichuan basin have lent it the tag-line ‘Land of Plenty’.
In the capital, Chengdu, she became the first Westerner to study full-time at the Sichuan Institute of Higher Cuisine, which is no small feat in itself, let alone the fact classes are taught in dialect. Food is typically very spicy, characterised by the Sichuan pepper, which tingles and numbs the lips, and chilli.
“They have dazzling flavours – the nearest equivalent is probably Thai food. You get salty and sweet and spicy and nutty – there’s lots of things going on and so quite a cheap meal can be very exciting.
“When I’m working at home I often make simple and delicious noodle dishes like dandan noodles with chilli, soy sauce, vinegar and minced pork.”
After 20 years of break-neck modernisation, China is virtually unrecognisable from the country where she first sailed past the Three Gorges in a boat and spent time in Chengdu. Back then, Chengdu was full of tea houses, clay duck roasting ovens and no sign of Western brands. Today it’s a major Chinese city with a skyline cluttered with skyscrapers, although the food apparently remains broadly traditional.
Today Dunlop is consulted widely on Chinese cuisine, leads culinary tours and is currently working on her latest book, with one foot planted in her Dalston kitchen and the other in China discovering new dishes.
“I’ve eaten some really weird things,” she says. “Goose intestines are a great delicacy. They’re cleaned and dipped into a spicy hotpot bubbling on the table. Then you dip them in sesame and garlic.
“In the West we don’t really appreciate eating things just for their texture. In China there are a lot of slithery, rubbery things that are real delicacies.”
That might be a step too far for some of us, but this beginner is definitely going to give it a bash.
“In my latest book, the recipes are chosen because they are simple,” says Dunlop. “You could go out to a Chinese supermarket on Kingsland Road and buy eight or ten jars that will set you up for making an awful lot of recipes. It’s just about taking that first leap, buying some ingredients you don’t have and building from there.”