A visual stunner, but flavors more suitable for the Advanced Chinese Foodie
Reviewed in the United States 🇺🇸 on 2 January 2017
I lived in China for several years, and grew to love the food. Since I returned to the US, I've been chasing down cookbooks to help me recreate the authentic tastes of my favorite nibbles from China. I thoroughly enjoy Fuchsia Dunlop's enthusiasm for Chinese cuisine, and I own all her books. This is an interesting addition, but not my favorite for a few reasons.
Firstly, the good: the food photography, as well as the general design of the book, is stunning. This would make a lovely gift for a Chinese food lover, even if one never cooks any of the recipes. As Fuchsia Dunlop has become more famous, the budget (and resulting visual quality) of her cookbooks has increased dramatically. This one's definitely a visual stunner, her best yet. The writing is classic Dunlop, as well--a mix of chatty anecdotes from her travels, well-placed historical tidbits, and practical tips on additions and substitutions. Most recipes I've tried are clear, though of course it helps if one is at least generally familiar with the tastes of authentic Jiangnan cuisine (the area around the lower Yangtze, including Shanghai, Zhejiang and Jiangsu provinces). Orange mandarin chicken stir-fry, this is not.
Which leads me to the main drawback of the book: taste-wise and recipe-wise, this is probably one of her less accessible books for Western readers. When done well, Jiangnan cuisine is light but flavorful, often seafood-focused--a midpoint between the bold and hearty tastes of Northern Chinese cuisine, and the ultra-light and delicate tastes of Southern Chinese food. However, when done badly, it can be bland, oily, sugary and strange to the Western palate. Dunlop chooses her recipes carefully, providing both choices that are easily palatable to Westerners as well as more challenging classics within the Jiangnan culinary canon. That being said, there were just fewer recipes that I can add to my everyday repertoire from this book, versus her other books. Many include Chinese pickles, preserved meats, freshwater fishes, and less-common ingredients such as goose, snow vegetable, and chayote.
It's a solid choice for hardcore China foodies who want to expand their culinary repertoire; however, most of us will not be using this as a day-to-day cookbook. If you're looking for workhorse everyday Chinese favorites, choose Dunlop's Every Grain of Rice instead. If you want to stretch your Chinese tastebuds in a way that will probably offer more recipes to the average Westerner's liking, try her Hunanese book The Revolutionary Chinese Cookbook. Favorite recipes from this book included: green bok choy with dried shrimp, West Lake fish in vinegar sauce, oil-exploded shrimp, and Hangzhou sweet-and-sour pork.
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