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nakji

Revolutionary Chinese Cookbook by Fuchsia Dunlop

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I picked up this book before moving to China in hopes of having a few recipes I could turn out for dinner during the week. While there are several more ambitious dishes included (the yolkless egg with shiitake mushrooms comes to mind), I was happy to find lots of easy dishes with clear instructions. I've tried Mao's red-braised pork a couple of times, such that the page is completely spattered with brown sauce and grease from having been too close to the burner when the water went in the caramel. On Sunday, I made beef with cumin from page 102 - an exceptional success, and not more than thirty minutes from prep to plate. Alongside, I made the coriander salad from page 59 - fresh, simple, and green, adjectives which perhaps not a lot of people associate with Chinese food. Perfect home-cooking, however.

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While the design and the intros to recipes in the book give a real sense of place, it does suffer from something that a lot of other Chinese cook books do as well. [minor rant] The Chinese characters used in the recipe titles are traditional, and are accompanied by pinyin without the tones. So if you can't read the characters, you can make sounds in Chinese that have no meaning to Chinese people, but are pronounceable by anglophones? Why bother putting in pinyin without any guidance to the tones? I'm sure, of course, that this book is not meant to be used as a language source, but it's frustrating for me to try and describe either what I've made (to my Chinese friends) or what I'm trying to make(to the butcher or shop owner, while trying to get an ingredient) and have an incomplete set of information to work from.[/minor rant] I'm not hugely bother by this, and it's a point that can be gotten around by bringing the book to the market with me (tedious) or having my husband copy out the characters (useful only to the extent he knows them), but it's worth showing my support on paper, if you will, for the use of proper, toned pinyin in Chinese cookbooks. We wouldn't expect to see a French cookbook leaving off the accents aigu and grave, why lose the tone markers on pinyin?

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will have to get this book! thanks for the heads up!

agree about not including tone markings along with the pinyin.

i also find it annoying when i get a book in english for ethnic cuisine and they only use transliterations. i suppose costs have something to do with this as well as just how many people will actually use it? but why always bow down to the lowest common denominator?

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Erin, I have a few other comments about this book.

While everything I've made from Revolutionary has been solid, there are a few other items lacking in terms of the cookbook editing (including better translations/transliterations). The index is horrid, and terribly incomplete. Several recipes call for "salted chiles." Well, there's a mention in the ingredient section, with a reference to a recipe for said salted chiles at toward the end of the cookbook. Nowhere in the index do I find an entry for "salted chiles." And, when she gives the recipe for this condiment, she merely says "1 lb. very fresh red chiles." What kind of chiles? How hot? I don't think she's talking red bells, nor is she talking about red Anaheims (and yes, they can turn red).

You mentioned a coriander salad. You can't find this in the index under cilantro or coriander. You need to go to the "S's" for Spicy Coriander salad.

Off my index and ingredient soapbox. The recipes I have done have been solid, and I do think many of the longer-cooking ones can be done in a crock pot.

Oh, and if you're going to do the Tangerine Island Dry-Braised Fish, be warned. If you are serving it to kids, you will spend the entire meal picking out bones. But, this recipe also worked very well with chix thighs, and the beef recipes translated very well to venison.

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I love this book something fierce.

Three of my favorite meat/seafood recipes are the Fisherman's Shrimp with Chinese Chives ("Yu Jia Chao Xia Qiu"), p. 177, [you'll hang me for this one, but it's a more authentic version of] General Tso's Chicken (Changsha version)("Zuo Zong Tang Ji"), p. 122, and Beef with Cumin ("Zi Ran Niu Rou"), p. 102.

Once you figure out the salted chilis (I use the small, Thai ones, which are plenty hot), try the Stir-Fried Chinese Leaf Cabbage with Chopped Salted Chilis ("Duo jiao chao ya bai"), p. 216. Whenever I have leftover cabbage, this recipe makes lunch.

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Oh, and if you're going to do the Tangerine Island Dry-Braised Fish, be warned. If you are serving it to kids, you will spend the entire meal picking out bones. But, this recipe also worked very well with chix thighs, and the beef recipes translated very well to venison.

Kids should learn how to pick out their own bones. That's how I (and every kid in China) grew up. It's a valuable skill to learn; I can eat a bony chicken or fish much faster than Americans raised on fillets.

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Indeed, people in Asia seem to enjoy extracting their meat from bones, while most of my friends and family in North America generally find this task tiresome and prefer fillets, breast meat, etc. I won't attempt the fish recipe here, as I don't think the quality of local fish is very nice. I was raised on ocean fish from the Grand Banks, and river fish from Northern Labrador, so I'm pretty picky when it comes to fish I like. I haven't had much in Asia that I thought was to my taste, except for the odd fish pulled out of a rice paddy in Northern Vietnam. And there, I suspect, it was my hunger that made it so delicious!

It's funny you mention the index, Susan, as I don't think I'd even glanced at it once - I take sticky tabs to my new cookbooks, and tab the recipes I want to try right off. If I don't like the recipe, I strip off the tab; otherwise, the recipes stay tabbed. The salted chilis I can buy in the grocery store here, so I hadn't even thought about trying to find a recipe for them. One thing I did notice, however, is that it's probably not a cookbook I'd give to a beginner. I bought this book last July when I was visiting Canada, and my parents requested that I cook the General Tso's chicken for them. You're right Fooey, it was excellent - it's not normally the sort of cooking I like doing at home, since I hate deep-frying, but that's what they wanted. Anyway, the instructions for frying the chicken were pretty basic -

Heat enough oil for deep-frying to 350-400 degrees. Add the chicken and deep-fry until it is crisp and golden...

-with following instructions on draining the chicken and the oil. Now, I know what she means by deep-fry the chicken, and enough oil, but if I handed this recipe to my husband to cook from, I'd be called back into the kitchen every five minutes from the start of cooking until the dish was done to consult on each step. It's not really meant to be a beginner's book, though, so I don't really have a problem with that. But it's worth keeping in mind before choosing the book.

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. . . One thing I did notice, however, is that it's probably not a cookbook I'd give to a beginner. I bought this book last July when I was visiting Canada, and my parents requested that I cook the General Tso's chicken for them. You're right Fooey, it was excellent - it's not normally the sort of cooking I like doing at home, since I hate deep-frying, but that's what they wanted. Anyway, the instructions for frying the chicken were pretty basic -

Heat enough oil for deep-frying to 350-400 degrees. Add the chicken and deep-fry until it is crisp and golden...

-with following instructions on draining the chicken and the oil. Now, I know what she means by deep-fry the chicken, and enough oil, but if I handed this recipe to my husband to cook from, I'd be called back into the kitchen every five minutes from the start of cooking until the dish was done to consult on each step. It's not really meant to be a beginner's book, though, so I don't really have a problem with that. But it's worth keeping in mind before choosing the book.

To me, that's not about cooking skills, but about reading comprehension--specifically how to read recipes. It could have been written more clearly, but if you've got decent reading comprehension, you could figure it out. It could also be about comfort-level in the kitchen, but again, that's not about actual cooking skills.

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I think "enough oil" is pretty vague, and is hard to determine by a closer reading of the recipe. If you'd never deep-fried before, how would you know how much is enough? You could infer that you'd need a greater volume of oil than the one given for chicken, say, but I don't think it would have been difficult for a general quantity of oil for frying to be specified, either.

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I think "enough oil" is pretty vague, and is hard to determine by a closer reading of the recipe. If you'd never deep-fried before, how would you know how much is enough? You could infer that you'd need a greater volume of oil than the one given for chicken, say, but I don't think it would have been difficult for a general quantity of oil for frying to be specified, either.

Deep-frying is pretty clear in meaning to me--the oil is deep, so it should be deeper than the chicken. How much oil you need will depend on the vessel you're frying the chicken in, and the size of your chicken. As long as the oil is deeper than the thing being fried, for all intents and purposes, you're deep frying. Figuring that out isn't about skill, in my opinion.

Even an instruction like "julienne the spring onions" doesn't require great skill to understand. You don't even have to be able to do it, you are just required to you know what "julienne" means, and if you know what it means, you can probably figure out how to do it. I've never julienned a thing, but I could probably do it, and I'm really not that skilled a cook.

I've always said that if you can read, you can cook.

I have RCC and like I said, I'm not that skilled a cook. If you put me in a professional kitchen or in a cooking class, people would think I were a beginner in terms of my actual skill level. But I'm pretty good at figuring out instructions, and more importantly (in my opinion), I'm not afraid of the style of food or cooking in this book (and I'm pretty familiar with a lot of it).

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Dear Nakji,

May I comment on your "minor rant"?

I agree that the characters should be the simplified ones and that, if the pinyin is given, it should have the tones. Giving the characters is useful, for example for ordering in a restaurant or especially for buying ingredients.

But I have my doubts about the pinyin, even if the tones were given since there are also the different pronunciations of vowels and consonants. Would tones really enable someone to pronounce the sounds understandably, even if there were a one-page note on transliteration as in her "Land of Plenty", p.10? I wish it were that easy!

I wonder if others have similar reactions? Or opposite ones!

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It's a good point. When I start my Shanghai restaurant blog I'm going to include the tones.

But it is almost universal to leave out the tones. Even the street signs in China and Google Maps do not have them. That's pretty annoying for trying to tell a taxi driver where you want to go.

The only English publication I've seen that has them is the Lonely Planet guide for Shanghai (presumably the Beijing guide would have them too). They have tones for everything including "Shanghai" itself -- which seems a bit overdoing it.

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Personally, I don't think the tones are particularly useful for anyone that doesn't have a solid grasp of any of the Chinese languages (or tonal languages, for that matter). Even if you know what the diacritics mean, you may not be able to approximate the tones well enough for people to understand what you're saying.

Copying the characters is a far more reliable way to communicate when you don't speak the language well. Even in Japan where there language isn't tonal, a lot of Japanese people still have "foreigner block", and if a non-Japanese person speaks Japanese, they still don't understand you.

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I find I can communicate reasonably well, and am understood using standard pinyin pronunciation of Mandarin. My point is, I guess, that if you don't need the proper tones, having tones won't interfere with your pronunciation any less than not having them. And if you are trying to speak Mandarin correctly, they make it possible to communicate accurately. Surely I'm not the only person in China using English-language Chinese cook books to try and cook local dishes, while studying the language? There are many flaws with pinyin, I'm sure, but it's the romanisation system we've got - why not use it, rather than some random version of the publisher's choosing? I could argue that the accents on French aren't useful to anyone who hasn't studied French, or may interfere with their pronunciation, but a serious French cookbook would still include them. For those who can speak it, and do know what they mean.

Copying the characters is a far more reliable way to communicate when you don't speak the language well.

An excellent suggestion; however, the publisher has chosen to use traditional characters to "illustrate" the recipes, rather than the simplified versions common to mainland China. In a book about mainland China. Many people would recognize both, I suppose, but my argument is that if there's a system to make a language available to non-native speakers, why don't we expect it to be used in a cookbook about that cuisine?

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All of that being said, I do quite enjoy the recipes. Last week I tried the farmhouse stir-fried pork with green peppers, p. 85. The green peppers at my local market are quite thin-skinned and have mild heat, and fried up to a nostril-twitching crackle. I didn't have pork belly on hand for the two kinds of pork, so I subbed in smoked pork instead. The smoke and heat made for a great dish, and it wasn't more than twenty minutes from cleaver to table. This will go into my rotation of pork fried with ______ dishes, which I usually hit once a week or so.

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Last week I tried the farmhouse stir-fried pork with green peppers, p. 85.

Nakji, that pork stir-fry is a family favorite and yours looks delish. For tonight's dinner, we made other family favorites from RCC:

Beef with cumin (zi ran niu rou). Using Thai chiles from the garden provided plenty of zip to go with the lovely flavors. Jasmine rice to tame the chile heat.

Stir-fried peppers with black beans and garlic (qing jiao suan cai rou ni). We used a mix of red bell peppers and Poblano chiles from the garden, deep-frying the peppers in the hot oil used to deep-fry the marinated beef. Not sure if this was why, but the peppers turned out particularly well.

CuminBeef09-10.jpg

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Oh, wow, those peppers look great. There's a wide variety of peppers available in my local market, but I have no idea what they are. The green peppers I used for my this were small and thin-skinned, not bell peppers. I'll try this recipe with some of the red ones available. What else have you made that you liked?

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What else have you made that you liked?

Thank you, Erin. Besides the two dishes mentioned above (cumin beef, and Farmhouse stir-fried pork with green peppers), here are our favorites from RCC:

Liuyang black bean chicken (p. 124): absolutely delicious.

Slow-braised beef with potatoes (p. 106): absolutely delicious. I lowered the oven temperature to 275F to keep the meat tender.

Farmhouse stir-fried pork with green peppers (p. 85): a quick family favorite

Tangerine Island dry-braised fish (p. 158): excellent with Thai basil instead of purple perilla leaves.

Fragrant-and-hot tiger prawns (p. 175): delicious!

Fisherman’s shrimp with Chinese chives (p. 177): very good, easy. Might add ginger next time.

Red-braised bream (p. 156) Good with tilapia.

Stir-fried mixed mushrooms (p. 211): very good.

Stir-fried water spinach stems with black beans and chiles (p. 219): I have never seen water spinach in the store, but this is excellent with spinach or similar greens.

Red-braised winter-cold mushrooms (p. 231)

Stir-fried peppers with black beans and garlic (p. 201): a family favorite, works with many different vegetables.

Also good:

Yellow-cooked salt cod in chili sauce (p. 160): good, but watch the salt

Chicken with ginger (p. 130): not bad, quite easy.

Quick-fried lamb (p. 107)

Stir-fried green peppers with ground pork and preserved greens (p. 200): We usually make this with yard-long beans or green beans, and occasionally Mexican chorizo instead of minced pork.

Hand-torn cabbage with vinegar (p. 217): vinegary, simple, and pretty good.

Chicken soup with cloud ears and ginger (p. 248)

Not-so-successful recipes (always possible that I goofed something up, of course):

Steamed chicken with chopped salted chiles (p. 123): I found this very one-dimensional, but perhaps my chopped salted chiles were the wrong type.

Numbing-and-hot chicken (p. 127): Relatively labor intensive, tasted like a not-fully-committed Sichuan dish.

Stir-fried bitter melon with Chinese chives (p. 208): yowza, bitter!

Purple seaweed and egg “flower” soup (p. 242): didn’t do it for me.

Edited to fix goofed-up quote


Edited by C. sapidus (log)

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Wow! A comprehensive list. I'm steering away from the fish dishes, because I'm not happy with the quality of fish I can get here. But the pork and vegetable dishes are looking good. I think I'll make the Liuyang black bean chicken next. I made the ginger chicken a couple of weeks ago, and forgot to post it here. It was quite delicious, especially with the really fresh, thin-skinned ginger I had available. I used a trick I developed in Japan, which is to serve ginger-y things with a creamy salad, and served steamed broccoli with creamy sesame dressing as a side.

2009 10 24 008.JPG

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Erin, I've also done the tangerine braised fish with chicken thighs, leaving them covered until almost done, then uncovering! Fabulous.

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Erin, I've also done the tangerine braised fish with chicken thighs, leaving them covered until almost done, then uncovering! Fabulous.

That's a stroke of genius that I just may copy. As soon as I find some tangerine peel. I know there's got to be some around somewhere, I just don't know where. If the trees in my garden are any indication, though, we're coming into tangerine season, and then I can dry my own, is that correct?

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If the trees in my garden are any indication, though, we're coming into tangerine season, and then I can dry my own, is that correct?

Yes, we have done this (but not with tangerines from our own garden - lucky you). According to Fuchsia Dunlop in Land of Plenty, you can dry the peel of mandarin oranges or tangerines by . . .

. . . scraping the pith out from strips of fragrant orange peel and drying them in an airy place. When the strips are bone-dry, place them in an airtight jar and they will keep for ages.

Anyway, tonight’s main course was from RCC:

Slow-braised beef with potatoes (p. 106): A beautifully marbled piece of chuck roast finished meltingly tender. I removed the dried chiles at the 90-minute mark when capsaicin levels reached the family’s tolerance. Baby red potatoes were sliced in half, fried in a mix of peanut oil and bacon grease, and then added to the braise for the last 30 minutes or so.

I cannot think of a more delightful aroma than beef braising with ginger, cassia cinnamon, star anise, and chiles. Served with a crusty baguette (for sopping up the sauce) and a Thai stir-fry of yard-long beans with sliced pork loin and egg.

RCCbraisedBeef09-10.jpg

LongBeanEgg09-10.jpg

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Nice, very nice. I may have to try this with a cut of pork, since a "well-marbled piece of chuck roast" is also not to be had from my local supermarket. What do you think - pork shoulder?

The tangerines are technically my land-lady's but I sure if I ask nicely I can get a bag. Thanks for the tip.

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The slow-braised beef with potatoes is one of my family's very favorite dishes, hands down. Actually, I should say "slow braised venison" or slow braised chicken" as I've only done it once with beef. The venison I have is not very well marbled, and this dish still comes out meltingly good, as it does with chicken thighs.

Bruce, I didn't notice if you've done the beef and cilantro? Another favorite here.

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I have just come back from my local independent bookshop, where I learned Ms. Dunlop had a book signing in March. I can't believe I missed her! She also held a private dinner at a local Sichuan restaurant, for which tickets were available. Nuts! I did manage to snag a copy of her memoir, signed, however.

Bruce, I didn't notice if you've done the beef and cilantro? Another favorite here.
Does this differ much from the beef with cumin? I have some beef strips I could put to use this week. Susan, it's heartening to hear you've used venison with success, that's usually quite lean, isn't it. I'll have to try my luck. I did find a source that sells Korean beef, which is much richer than the Australian product my supermarket carries.

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Bruce, I didn't notice if you've done the beef and cilantro? Another favorite here.
Does this differ much from the beef with cumin? I have some beef strips I could put to use this week. Susan, it's heartening to hear you've used venison with success, that's usually quite lean, isn't it. I'll have to try my luck. I did find a source that sells Korean beef, which is much richer than the Australian product my supermarket carries.

Erin, to answer your questions:

The beef and cilantro does differ from the beef and cumin (which I'm making tonight with venison and cumin seed since I seem to be out of the ground stuff -- how that happened I'll never know!). The beef with cilantro calls for a LOT of cilantro -- almost half a pound, sans tough stems. I include the tender stems and ust use my kitchen shears or hands to rip it up into hunks. So, there is a lot more veg.

Venison. Yes, it's very lean. I sub it all of the time for beef, especially in braised dishes. I'm sure it's not as melting as chuck, but we love the taste, and since I get two deer every year, it is cheap meat!

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Nice, very nice. I may have to try this with a cut of pork, since a "well-marbled piece of chuck roast" is also not to be had from my local supermarket. What do you think - pork shoulder?

Erin, thank you. I would expect pork shoulder to be delicious in that recipe.

Susan, I have not yet tried the beef and cilantro. The recipe looks great, but we would need a meal when both cilantrophobic boys were safely elsewhere.

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      After our seranade we headed off again, this time to the east and the most memorable meal of the trip. Coming soon.
       
       
    • By KennethT
      Is there a discussion in the book about the purpose of adding ascorbic acid?  I just saw the contest #2 in which the recipe called for it.  I'm curious because a woman I know on the internet used to work in a bakery in Vietnam, and said that to get similar results to the banh mi there, you need to add ascorbic acid.  Does it act as a gluten relaxer?  Traditional banh mi have a very tender and crisp crust, and a very light and tender, relatively closed crumb.
    • By quiet1
      We have a local Italian bakery my mom loves, but they are very expensive and hard for her to get to. She also really likes cookbooks (she reads them even if she never cooks from them  ) so I was thinking for her birthday I could get her a cookbook that has similar cookies and cakes, and offer to make a few things for her on request also.
       
      I'll obviously look myself, but eGullet is always well informed about the quality of cookbooks so I wanted to know if anyone has any recommendations. The thing about the Italian bakery is that the stuff they make seems to me to be not as sweet as classic American recipes, and often have more complex flavors and also are usually on the light end for whatever the item is. (Like even something that's intended to be dense doesn't have a very heavy sensation in the mouth.)
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