Review: Land of Plenty (Sichuan Cookery)

by Fuschia Dunlop


051773
ISBN-13: 978-0393051773
Publisher: W. W. Norton & Company
Publication Date: 2003
NOTE: First published in Britain by Penguin books under the name ‘Sichuan Cookery’.
 

Fuschia Dunlop is a chef and food writer who also publishes a blog I follow regularly and which is listed in my blog-roll. During a trip to China in 1992, Ms. Dunlop became fascinated with the language and food and subsequently enrolled at the Sichuan Institute of Higher Cuisine in Chengdu where she mastered the complex science and art of Sichuan cookery. Indeed, she was, I gather, the first westerner to complete the program. This book, the first of three she has written to date, is a very in-depth look at the cuisine of that province and it has won her both awards and justifiably favourable reviews from critics around the world.

Content and Organization

The table of contents for this 395 page book is reproduced here as follows:

Click on image to enlarge

The nine main chapters covering the different categories of food together contain 134 different recipes. However, the section at the beginning entitled ‘the Sichuanese Pantry’ also includes another ten recipes for such basics as salted duck eggs, pickled vegetables and chill oil. There is even a recipe for how to make Sichuan-style bacon at home. The introduction, which is some 20 pages in length, is very well-written and provides a good overview of Sichuanese culture and cookery. It is followed by a very useful  look at the basic techniques and equipment involved.

Critique

There are many, many recipes in this work which you will not find in other books supposedly devoted to Sichuan cuisine and each is introduced by a very decent introduction providing background and special details about the dish in question. Ms. Dunlop has a very pleasant, conversational writing style  and though she provides a wealth of information and detail, she never becomes too-weighty or boring. I have had the book for six or seven years now and I would have to say that I had learned more about Sichuan cookery from Ms. Dunlop than I have from any other author. For instance, I was surprised to see that Sichuan cooks make frequent use of spices such as black cardamom, galanga (sand ginger) and fennel seed. This is not something that is noted in a lot of other similar books. I also particularly found her coverage of the various, very formalized, Sichuan cooking techniques to be most interesting and informative.

One feature of this book that I particularly enjoyed is the inclusion of the Chinese character names and the pinyin transliterations for each dish. Ms. Dunlop is, I understand, fluent in Mandarin and has included a glossary of relevant Chinese words at the end of the book which is especially for serious students of Chinese cuisine. It is just a little bit unfortunate that the Pinyin pronunciations to do not include the tone markers, thus requiring one to look elsewhere but, perhaps, this will be rectified in a future edition.

The only other real criticism I have of this book is that, except for two short sections of colour plates, the recipes are not illustrated. Normally, I would subtract at least one review star when this is the case but I have to say that the strengths of particular this book more than make up for that deficiency.

Overall

Quite simply, this is my favourite cookery book out of a collection that, at last count, numbered around 300 volumes. Partly, this is because I have a special affinity for Sichuan cuisine but it is also because it is so well-written, comprehensive and useful. It is clear that Ms. Dunlop has studied general cookery and Sichuanese cuisine in some depth and when I come across conflicting information about Sichuan food in other sources I have no hesitation in looking to her as an authority to settle the issue in question. I seem to recall one reviewer describing this book as a ‘must-have’ for serious ‘foodies’ and I have to agree whole-heartedly.

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