Every Grain of Rice
In the early 1960s I lived in Malaya and travelled from Singapore to Ipoh on the west side and from Johor Bharu to Kota Bahru on the east.
I had travelled overland through Europe. Turkey, Syria, Lebanon, Jordan, Iraq, Iran, Pakistan, India and ran out of money in Singapore. I was staying at the Sikh Temple in Singapore with other indigents. The bed was free as was the chapati and dal. One evening a group of Malay Chinese came to the temple and offered me a job selling snake oil (actually vitamin pills) which is how I ended up travelling for nine months from kampong to kampong throughout Malaya.
At the end of each day a group of eight of us would eat at a local restaurant. For my companions these meals, although taken very seriously, were their every day fare but for me, who had been born, bred and fed in the English East Midlands, the food was nothing short of miraculous. The meal was invariably Chinese and always delicious. The cooks used only the very freshest ingredients which, although simply handled, gave wonderfully complex but clean flavours.
This food was light years away from the overly sweet or overly salty gluggy stuff served in Australian suburban Chinese restaurants in the 1960s and sadly still served nowadays too.
Since Lambley started selling vegetable seed I’ve been sowing a lot of Asian vegetables to discover the best strains. Last spring I had half a dozen snow pea varieties in trial which meant of course that I had such a surfeit that throwing a few blanched snow peas into a salad didn’t make an impression.
As luck it would have about that time I was browsing in Readings bookshop and came across
Fuchsia Dunlop’s new book Every Grain of Rice (Simple Chinese Home Cooking)
This book is by far the most useful Chinese cookbook that I’ve ever read. It’s full of really good recipes with clear instructions on how to cook them. Whilst the book has great recipes for fish, chicken, meat and tofu etc it is especially strong on vegetable cooking. As Dunlop writes in her introduction “The Chinese know how to eat. I’m not talking here about their exquisite haute cuisine or their ancient tradition of gastronomy. I’m talking about the ability of ordinary Chinese home cooks to transform humble and largely vegetarian ingredients into wonderful delicacies, and to eat in a way that not only delights the senses, but also makes sense in terms of health, economy and environment”
Dunlop was the first westerner to train at the Sichuan Higher Institute of Cuisine and has travelled the length and breadth of China for two decades collecting recipes.
I’ve cooked perhaps a score of the recipes in the book and everyone has been a winner. The only failure came about because I misread a recipe and used half a tablespoon of salt instead of half a teaspoon. The food I’ve been cooking from this book took me back fifty years to my days in Malaya when I first learnt just how marvellous Chinese cooking could be.
The book should be available from all good bookstores but if that fails readings [at] readings.com.au have a mail order service.