One of our Christmas presents was Ken Hom’s ‘Complete Chinese Cookbook’. This has stimulated me to try out a whole new set of Chinese dishes, generally with good results. I haven’t given up my first love – Fuchsia Dunlop’ s ‘Every Grain of Rice’, but I needed some fresh inspiration. I always find with cookbooks – and we have a considerable library of them in Nottingham – that I perfect about six recipes and then stop exploring. With just the one book on Chinese cooking, this had meant a certain amount of repetition. We probably eat about 10 recipes from ‘Every Grain of Rice’ regularly, but still needed some new input.
Ken Hom is an American Chinese, whose family came from Taishan, in Guangdong (Canton), just west of Hong Kong. Wikipedia tells me that this area is famous for its high percentage of celebrities in the entertainment industry, and Ken Hom certainly seems to fall into this category as a TV personality. My cookery book has at least 20 photographs of the man himself – portraits of his head and of his hands with chopsticks. It is a shiny, lavish production and very well adapted to the western market.
Many recipes focus on adapting Cantonese flavours and cooking methods to ingredients available in British and American supermarkets, and not necessarily in Ningbo. Fish is an example. There are many appetising recipes for ‘firm, white fish fillets’ which I’d like to try. Unfortunately, fresh, firm white fish is not obviously available in our market or even in supermarkets, except in its frozen form, which looks somewhat unappetising. Small oily fish, with many bones predominate. One success has been steamed salmon with black beans, as both are readily available in Metro. Ken Hom says that salmon is ‘growing in popularity in cosmopolitan cities’ in China; this was not my experience when I cooked it in plain western style for guests at my graduation party. Perhaps my Chinese friends would have preferred it with the help of the spicy and salty preserved black soya beans.
Fuchsia Dunlop’s book is very different. There are no photographs of the author and the food takes first place. It oozes with the author’s enthusiasm about China and her passion for and profound knowledge of the country’s food. It strives for authenticity, and only makes occasional concessions to western taste. There are few recipes for white fish, and quite a lot for fatty meat. If Chinese people don’t eat something, it’s not in the book.
Both authors patiently describe and explain the main ingredients of Chinese cooking, many of which were unknown to me before we came to Ningbo. What has been a great help is that Fuchsia Dunlop gives the pinyin (Romanised script) and the characters for most ingredients and for the names of dishes. This has been invaluable in restaurants and when I’ve been trying to find vegetables or sauces in supermarkets or in the market. At first, as I struggled to learn the language, I copied out the names and took them with me to the shop; later I’ve been able to ask for them and anyway have learned to recognize more products. In my early, often painful Chinese lessons, my teacher taught me to say simple recipes from Fuchsia Dunlop in Chinese and then learn and repeat them to her. This not only improved my Mandarin, but led to some interesting discussions about cooking and different tastes.
Before we came here, I had no understanding of the regional differences between Chinese cooking. What passes for Chinese cuisine in England is predominantly Cantonese, which is the southern school. In any case, it is often not much like the authentic Cantonese food available say in Hong Kong, and full marks to Ken Hom for trying to help British and American cooks understand how to make real dim sum, spring rolls and won ton. Fucshia Dunlop was extraordinary in being the first British woman to train as a chef in Sichuan province, in south west China. Her recipes are an introduction to the fiery tastes of this school of cooking, which uses large amounts of fresh, dried and pickled chillies.
Of course, with the movement of the population from the countryside to the cities, it is easy to try all the main types of regional cuisine in the big cities. For example, we’ve eaten wonderful ‘dong bei’ or north eastern food from Shandong peninsula, in Shanghai. The signature dish is roast pork served on the bone with thin pancakes, hoisin sauce and spring onions, similar to Beijing duck, but much less fatty.
Despite Fuchsia Dunlop’s best efforts, I still long for a book written in English which would help me do more with the wonderful fresh ingredients I see around me, but don’t know how to prepare. As well as the fish and the seafood, not to say the live turtles, there is a plethora of vegetables that I’m sure would taste wonderful if I knew what to do with them. For the moment, I will continue with my exploration of Ken Hom’s book, but I think it will come into its own more fully when we return to the UK.