FOR many Australians, Chinese food was a memorable part of our upbringing. The local Chinese was the place to celebrate family occasions, often soused in sugar, deep-fried and epitomised by sweet and sour pork. Times have long changed in Australia, which is sophisticated in its borrowing of Asian techniques and flavours, although there may still be a way to go before the average home cook is as comfortable with Chinese cooking as they are with, say, Italian.
But celebrated British food writer Fuchsia Dunlop says things have taken longer in Britain. Dunlop is something of an expert on the subject as the first Westerner to study at the Sichuan Higher Institute of Cuisine in China. She says an understanding of what authentic, fresh Chinese food looks like is developing in England but it has not trickled down as widely to ordinary home cooks, who have often viewed Chinese cooking as bad for them.
''[Chinese food] had the reputation of unhealthy sweet and sour pork and fried rice only. It's been a lack of familiarity; we haven't had the same Asian influences as in Australia,'' she says.
Dunlop does have a version of sweet and sour pork in her new book on southern Chinese, especially Sichuan, cuisine, Every Grain of Rice, but it bears little resemblance to the dish with which most people are familiar. Dunlop's uses spare ribs, which she boils first, then deep-fries, with sweetness from sugar (60 grams for 500 grams of ribs); sourness from Chinese vinegar; and extra flavours of ginger, soy and sesame oil. Simple and always popular, she says.
Dunlop is a lover and advocate of Chinese cooking and has gone to great lengths to make it accessible. She grew up in Oxford and first became interested in China while working as a sub-editor with the BBC. She took evening classes in Mandarin and eventually left to study in Chengdu, the capital of the Chinese province of Sichuan.
She has since written three Chinese cookery books. In her latest, she brings to a Western audience the simple home-style cooking of southern Chinese cooking, especially Sichuan, with techniques that lend themselves to easy variation.
Dunlop says the Chinese in the south of the country particularly have access to an array of vegetables year-round and have developed a simple and healthy pattern of eating. At its core, this involves lots of vegetables, a small amount of meat and very little sugar. A fan of the ''eat food, not too much, mostly plants'' approach, she points out that this way of eating, which evolved over generations, falls in line with much modern advice on diet.
Many Chinese people also grow up with a broad knowledge of how to stay healthy and cure ailments through food, Dunlop says. In the south-western province of Sichuan, where conditions are frequently damp, people eat a good deal of chilli as it is considered a drying food. In hot climates, people are encouraged to eat ''cooling foods'', such as green tea or bitter melon.
Dunlop says it is striking that for everyday family meals, Chinese cooks tend to use meat as flavouring, rather than the primary focus of a dish.
According to Dunlop, the Chinese approach to food deserves a place alongside the Mediterranean diet as a healthy, proven method of eating well. Unlike the Western obsession with so-called super foods, the Chinese offer a guide to each meal, every day.
''Perhaps it's the dominance of Chinese restaurant food - with its emphasis on meat, seafood and deep-frying as a cooking method - that has made us overlook the fact that typical Chinese home cooking is centred on grains and vegetables,'' she writes.
But eating habits are changing with China's rapid economic growth, particularly among the middle classes. Children are becoming interested in the same unhealthy food as their Western counterparts - French fries and burgers - and older generations who have been through desperate times sometimes find it hard to deny them.
Like anywhere, it is also considered fun and sophisticated in China to eat foreign food. With both parents in paid work and less home cooking going on, Dunlop fears younger generations may be losing touch with their culinary heritage. But conversely, she says a lot of Chinese find Western cooking monotonous compared with their traditional fare.
So what does the average Westerner need to get started on cooking Chinese? Dunlop lists some basics - soy sauce (light and dark), Chinkiang (rice) vinegar, toasted sesame oil, chilli oil, dried chillies, Sichuan pepper, shaoxing (rice) wine, potato or cornflour, fresh ginger, garlic and spring onions and a few spices. As to equipment, nothing is completely necessary, although a wok is ''almost essential''.
Dunlop's love of Chinese food is evident throughout the book and she seems determined to get us all in front of a wok; almost all excuses are covered in this book. Let the education continue.
Sichuanese numbing-and-hot beef (Ma la niu rou)
MY VERSION of the classic ''man-and-wife lung slices'' dish, made with beef shin instead, uses the same scintillating spices, and it has had a rapturous reception whenever I've served it. The beef can be prepared a couple of days in advance and kept in the refrigerator; just slice and dress it when you're ready. It's not essential to use all the serving flourishes, but try to have at least something nutty and something green.
325g beef shin, boneless and in one piece
50g ginger, unpeeled, cut into thick slices
2 spring onions, crushed slightly
2 star anise
1 piece of cassia bark, or ⅓ of a
½ tsp whole Sichuan pepper
1 tbsp Shaoxing wine
2 tsp salt
For the sauce:
1/8 tsp ground roasted Sichuan pepper
1 garlic clove, very finely chopped
1 tsp light soy sauce
¼ tsp sesame oil
3-5 tbsp chilli oil, with its sediment
1 tsp sesame seeds (optional)
Handful of chopped coriander
2 tbsp finely sliced spring onion greens
1 celery stick, de-stringed and chopped
Good handful of roasted or fried peanuts, roughly chopped or crushed with a mortar and pestle
■Rinse the beef thoroughly in cold and then hot water to remove any bloodiness (under the tap will do). Then place in a saucepan, cover with water and bring to a boil. Skim the liquid. Then add the ginger, spring onions, spices, Shaoxing wine and salt, and return to a boil. Cover and cook over a very low flame for about two hours.
■When the beef is cooked, set it aside to cool, reserving 75ml of the cooking liquid. (The beef and liquid can be kept in the fridge for a few days. The liquid can be frozen and re-used on another occasion to give a spiced flavour to firm tofu, hard-boiled eggs, peanuts, chicken wings, beef or offal of your choice.)
■Gently toast the sesame seeds, if using, in a dry wok or frying pan for a few minutes, until they are fragrant and starting to turn golden, then tip into a dish.
■When you wish to serve the beef, cut it into fairly thin slices and place in a serving dish. If the reserved beef cooking liquid has become jellied, let it stand at room temperature or gently warm it through until it is liquid once more, then allow to cool a little. Combine all the sauce ingredients with the beef cooking liquid in a small bowl, mix well and pour over the beef. Scatter over the other ingredients and serve. Give everything a good mix and invite your guests to help themselves.
Note: If you wish to make this in large quantities for a party, prick your chunks of shin all over with a skewer, rub in salt, a generous slosh of Shaoxing wine and plenty of crushed ginger and spring onions and marinate overnight before cooking.
General Tso's chicken (Zuo zong tang ji)
Deep-frying is a method I prefer to avoid for everyday cooking, but this is one of the dishes for which I make an exception. When served, it tends to provoke that moment of rapt, intense silence at the dinner table that is one of the tokens of true appreciation. Slices of chicken thigh meat are first deep-fried in a light batter, then tossed in a sophisticated sweet-sour sauce laced with chilli. General Tso's chicken is supposedly a Hunanese dish, but it's virtually unknown inHunan Province. It was actually invented by Peng Chang- Kuei, a Hunanese exile chef in Taiwan, and cooked by him in his one-time New York restaurant. It has since been taken so much to the heart of Americans living in the north east that it is now known in the States as the very essence and emblem of Hunanese cuisine.
This version of the dish is based on the recipe I learned in Peng Chang-Kuei's kitchen in Taipei. The dish is usually made with boned chicken leg meat, although you can use breast if you prefer. Do make sure your wok is stable before using it for deep-frying: it's important to use a wok stand with a round-bottomed wok.
4 boneless chicken thighs (about 350g)
6–10 small dried red chillies
Cooking oil, for deep-frying
2 tsp finely chopped ginger
2 tsp finely chopped garlic
2 tsp sesame oil
1 tbsp thinly sliced spring onion greens (optional)
For the marinade/batter:
2 tsp light soy sauce
1/2 tsp dark soy sauce
1 egg yolk
2 tbsp potato flour
2 tsp cooking oil
For the sauce:
1 tbsp double concentrate tomato purée mixed with 1 tbsp water
1/2 tsp potato flour
1/2 tsp dark soy sauce
1 1/2 tsp light soy sauce
1 tbsp clear rice vinegar
3 tbsp stock or water
■Unfold the chicken thighs and lay them, skin side down, on a chopping board. (If some parts are very thick, lay your knife flat and slice them across in half, parallel to the board.) Use a sharp knife to make a few shallow criss-cross cuts into the meat; this will help the flavours to penetrate. Then cut each thigh into 3–4cm slices, an uneven 1/2 cm or so in thickness. Place the slices in a bowl.
■For the marinade, add the soy sauces and egg yolk to the chicken and mix well. Then stir in the potato flour, and lastly the oil. Set aside while you prepare the other ingredients.
■Combine the sauce ingredients in a small bowl. Use a pair of scissors to snip the chillies into 2cm sections, discarding seeds as far as possible.
■Heat a wok over a high flame.
■Pour in the deep-frying oil and heat to 180–200°C (350–400°F). Add the chicken and fry until crisp and golden. (If you are deep-frying in a wok with a relatively small volume of oil, fry the chicken in a couple of batches.) Remove the chicken with a slotted spoon and set aside. Pour the oil into a heatproof container and clean the wok if necessary.
■Return the wok to a high flame. Add 2–3 tbsp cooking oil and the chillies and stir-fry briefly until they are fragrant and just changing colour (do not burn them). Toss in the ginger and garlic and stir-fry for a few seconds more, until you can smell their aromas. Then add the sauce and stir as it thickens. Return the chicken to the wok and stir vigorously to coat the pieces in sauce. Stir in the sesame oil, then serve, with a scattering of spring onion greens if desired.
Smacked cucumber in garlicky sauce (Su an ni pai huang gua)
This exceptionally quick and easy dish was a favourite of mine at the now demolished and much-missed Bamboo Bar, a small restaurant just outside the Sichuan University campus. The serving girls there, who lodged like sardines in the attic at the top of the old wooden building, used to mix up the seasonings behind the counter, taking spoonfuls of garnet-red chilli oil and dark soy sauce from the bowls in the glass cabinet beside them and tossing the cucumber in the piquant sauce. The combination of seasonings, known as 'garlic paste flavour' (suan ni wei), is a Sichuanese classic, with its garlicky pungency and undercurrent of sweetness: the same sauce may be used to dress fresh broad beans, thinly sliced cooked pork (perhaps mixed with fine slivers of carrot and Asian radish), boiled pork dumplings or wontons, and many other ingredients. You may use sweet, aromatic soy sauce instead of light soy sauce if you like.
The cucumber is smacked before cutting to loosen its flesh and help it absorb the flavours of the sauce. Try not to smash it into smithereens!
1 cucumber (about 300g)
1/2 tsp salt
1 tbsp finely chopped garlic
1/2 tsp caster sugar
2 tsp light soy sauce
1/2 tsp Chinkiang vinegar
2 tbsp chilli oil
A pinch or two of ground roasted Sichuan pepper
■Lay the cucumber on a chopping board and smack it hard a few times with the flat blade of a Chinese cleaver or with a rolling pin.
■Then cut it, lengthways, into four pieces. Hold your knife at an angle to the chopping board and cut the cucumber on the diagonal into 1/2–1cm slices. Place in a bowl with the salt, mix well and set aside for about 10 minutes.
■Combine all the other ingredients in a small bowl.
■Drain the cucumber, pour over the sauce, stir well and serve immediately.
A sweet-and-sour sauce for smacked cucumber
A lovely variation. Smack, cut and salt the cucumber as in the main recipe, but dress it with the following seasonings: 1/2 tsp salt, 1 tbsp finely chopped garlic, 2 tsp caster sugar, 2 tsp Chinkiang vinegar, 1 tsp light soy sauce and, if you fancy a bit of heat, 2 tbsp chilli oil.
Smacked cucumber with sesame and preserved mustard greens
For a nutty, savoury flavour, smack, cut and salt the cucumber as in the main recipe, but dress it with the following seasonings: 2 tbsp Sichuan preserved mustard greens (ya cai), 1 tsp finely chopped garlic, 1 tbsp runny sesame paste, 1 1/2 tsp clear rice vinegar, 1 tsp sesame oil and salt to taste.
Every Grain of Rice by Fuchsia Dunlop is published by Bloomsbury ($55).