Every Grain of Rice very quickly became one of my favourite cookbooks, since buying it a couple of years ago. As many of the Chinese-inspired recipes that I’ve posted have started life flicking through this book (I’ve written a little about it before), I felt it was time for a full blown review.
Fuchsia Dunlop’s extensive experience of cooking, eating and travelling in China forms the basis of the book which showcases the home cookery of modern China, and includes plenty of stories from this adventure. After training in a Chinese cookery school in Chengdu, Sichuan Province, during the 1990s, she has written previously about China’s regional styles of cooking — in particular Sichuanese and Hunanese, as opposed to the Cantonese food of Hong Kong and Southern China that is more familiar to a Western audience. Though there is a bit of a bias towards Sichuanese dishes in the book, it features dishes from all over China.
The focus on home cooking in Every Grain of Rice means recipes are rustic in style and perhaps err on the side of being too simple — many vegetable dishes have fewer than 5 ingredients, which is certainly a plus to those who are put from cooking Asian cuisines due to the number of unfamiliar flavours and spices. The book is dominated by vegetable-centric recipes, though not all are vegetarian, and with around 300 pages of recipes there are plenty to choose from. The majority of recipes are also quick and simple to prepare, partly thanks to the rapid pace of stir-frying, and besides a sharp knife and a wok require no specialist equipment. There’s also a good selection of slower dishes (soups, braises and stews) as well as more dramatic ones like whole steamed0 fish. Lots of alternatives are also given for vegetarian or less spicy versions of recipes (and vice versa) which also go to informing substitutions and omissions the reader can make in other dishes. For the more experienced or adventurous, you can also try making your own dumplings and steamed breads too.
It goes without saying that a book on Chinese home cooking will include plenty of specialist ingredients. However this shouldn’t be a stumbling block like it can be in some cuisines, as most are store cupboard ingredients with a long shelf life and once bought, many recipes can be made at very short notice. While traditional Chinese food could conjure up for some images of ducks’ tongues, dried jellyfish and shark’s fin recipes, there aren’t any recipes so controversial (though century eggs do get a mention or two). In fact, for every more esoteric Chinese vegetable mentioned, there’ll usually be a recipe for something a little more familiar like broccoli or marrow.
Besides the recipes however, the star of Fuchsia Dunlop’s book is the accompanying text. The thirty page introduction does a lot of demystify Chinese cookery, with insight into the supporting philosophy, traditional flavour combinations, methods and most importantly meal planning. As dishes are almost all designed to form elements of a shared meal with rice, the 19 example menus and advice alongside are a real help to those inexperienced with a “tapas” style of communal eating. The book is rounded off with a twenty page glossary of ingredients to make it a great, illustrated reference to Chinese cooking, and has become a starting point for whenever I bring home some unknown jar or vegetable.
I couldn’t recommend this book more to anyone interested in traditional Chinese cookery, and indeed the cuisines of other nations too. Every Grain of Rice presents traditional cooking with an ancient heritage in an open and accessible way. For me its been a real eye opener into Chinese cookery and gone a long way into inspiring and facilitating my own explorations into food from East Asia, and all over the world.