Review: Revolutionary Chinese Cookbook

By Fuschia Dunlop

2007 W.W. Norton & Co.  ISBN-13: 978-0393062229

Fuschia Dunlop has become widely recognized as something of an authority on Sichuan cuisine since the publication of her ‘Land of Plenty’ some years ago. In this book, she tackles the cuisine of Sichuan’s neighboring Hunan Province and gives it the same excellent treatment. The title might initially suggest that Ms. Dunlop is going to provide a new ‘take’ on Chinese cookery but it was actually chosen to reflect the underlying theme. Chairman Mao Zedong originally came from Hunan and, not only does Ms. Dunlop introduce us to his favorite dish, she examines Hunan and its cuisine in terms of the larger context of the communist revolution, scattering the text with many relevant pictures. Some critics have taken umbrage at this, complaining that she ‘glorifies’ Mao Zedong, but such silly pseudo-political quibbles deserve to be ignored, as this is truly an excellent culinary work…

Content and Organization

The layout of the book is fairly straightforward and covers the recipes, as you can see, according to the main ingredient. The exception to this is the first chapter on ‘Appetizers and Street Food’, which offers a lot of delicious ‘small eats’ as well as a terrific recipe for an aromatic broth to accompany noodles. There is a fairly short introduction covering Hunan, its cuisine, and the impact of the revolution, but Ms. Dunlop supplements this all the way through the book with several additional sections containing a variety of interesting topics.

Critique

The range and variety of recipes in the book is excellent and includes everything from the simple and the ‘homey’ to more complex preparations. There are some names that most people will recognize, such as General Tso’s chicken (two versions, actually), but there are plenty of unusual and novel dishes as well. One feature of the book that really makes it enjoyable to browse through is the lengthy introduction to almost every recipe. It is a little unfortunate, though, that very few of the dishes are accompanied by pictures.

A few of the recipes may frustrate those who live in smaller communities and can’t easily find some of the ingredients but, actually, most of the dishes will be accessible to nearly everyone. Interestingly, this book, as does Henry Chung’s Hunan-Style Chinese Cookbook, suggests that regular western smoked bacon makes a perfect substitute for the famous Hunan variety. The glossary of ingredients, and the description of cooking methods, are not nearly extensive as their counterparts in ‘Land of Plenty’ but they are both still a lot better than most cookery books and novices to the cuisine will find them extremely helpful.

Overall

Despite the limited number of recipe illustrations, this book is an excellent introduction to Hunan cuisine. Ms. Dunlop is a natural teacher and has a nice writing style that make it an interesting volume to browse through, even for those who never attempt any of the dishes. There are plenty of books on Hunan cuisine nowadays but, at present, I would say that this is the best…

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2 thoughts on “Review: Revolutionary Chinese Cookbook”

  1. I cook from this book often. My Father In-Law is from Hunan so I’m told the recipes are pretty much spot on…except it’s not spicy enough. I do wish it contained a good recipe for La Rou.

  2. I suspect Ms Dunlop toned down the ‘heat’ a little to appeal to a broader readership…

    In ‘Land of Plenty’, she gives a recipe using pork that is given a short cure using salt and saltpetre, but I agree, a recipe for a Hunan style ‘winter-sacrifice’ meat would have been nice.

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