Q&A: Sichuan Food Expert Fuchsia Dunlop

As part two of our kitchen tribute to Chengdu, I tracked down Sichuan cooking expert Fuchsia Dunlop, who is presently in Shanghai, leading a culinary tour.

Fuchsia Dunlop, at market.

While eagerly awaiting Dunlop's reply, I recreated her recipe for Dan Dan noodles (from "Shark's Fin and Sichuan Pepper") yesterday afternoon, complete with a shopping expedition to Maxim Gourmet Oriental market in Rockville (460 Hungerford Drive; 301-279-0110). The recipe, below the jump, includes metric conversions and cooking notes. And the dish -- well, it blew through my nostrils, it numbed my tongue and it really and truly warmed my belly. It was my first experience cooking with Sichuan peppercorns, which until 2005, had been banned by the FDA (due to a strange citrus virus -- they all belong to the same family). The Sichuan pepper is a sensory phenomenon to behold in a most unexpected way -- there's a floral, surprisingly un-spicy quality to it yet it has an anesthetic quality, numbing your lips with the first bite. Exhilarating.

Dunlop, whose work appears on BBC World Service and in various publications, including The Financial Times and Gourmet, responded to my questions, below, via e-mail.

I cannot imagine how it must feel at this moment ---to have lived, learned and cooked in a place that is now a shadow of itself. Just two weeks ago, you were on NPR prepping Melissa Block for Sichuan cuisine. What have the past eight days been like for you? I understand you are in Shanghai leading a culinary tour -- were you in the region at the time of the earthquake?

It's been a very strange time. I left London for Beijing two days after the quake, when the worst news was still filtering in from outlying parts of the province. The enormity of the disaster took a little while to sink in. I managed to call a couple of my close friends in Chengdu the day it happened -- luckily they were OK, though badly shaken. Since then I've been speaking often to friends in the city. The situation in Chengdu seems not to be too bad, although some people are still sleeping in the open for fear of aftershocks, and everyone is a little nervous. I don't think it's clear how much structural damage has been done to buildings. Obviously we have had to reroute the culinary tour, so I won't be going there on Sunday as planned.

Some of the worst-afflicted areas are familiar to me from my travels and my culinary researches. Many years ago I spent several happy days with a fellow student from the Sichuan cookery school who lived in Wolong, near the panda research centre, and I travelled through Wenchuan and Lixian with friends when I was studying at Sichuan University in the mid-1990s. Dujiangyan is very close to Chengdu, and I've been there many times. The north of Sichuan is a region of spectacular beauty and I have wonderful memories of places I've visited -- it's appalling to think of what has happened there.

I excerpted a passage from your book about the Chinese ritual of feeding the dead. Have you been able to participate in any such tributes over the last week?

No, I'm quite removed from the immediate situation over here in Shanghai. It's mainly in the countryside that you see these kinds of rituals, anyway. And I think people in the worst-affected areas may be too shocked and confused to be doing these things now.

How are people as far as Shanghai handling the news? How is the mood?

On the surface things are fairly normal, though for the last three days flags have been flying at half-mast, public entertainments have been cancelled and there has been no music in bars and restaurants. Newsreaders on TV are wearing black and the Olympic torch procession was postponed. The TV and radio stations are broadcasting almost no-stop coverage of the quake aftermath. The weather here is beautiful and calm -- but then I catch a glimpse of a newspaper or hear a snatch of radio news in a taxi and feel incredibly sad.

Have you received word on any of your colleagues/friends in Chengdu?

My close friends are all fine, thank goodness. I've no idea what happened to people I met during my travels in the worst-hit parts of the regions and I don't know if I'll ever find out.

Will your travels take you to Sichuan province after the culinary tour is over?

I was planning to go to Chengdu for a few days after the tour was over, but I'm not sure now that I will. It's not that I think it would be risky, but just that my friends probably have enough to deal with at the moment. And life in the city must be under great strain in general from the stresses of taking care of quake victims, possible damage to buildings, the outflux of rescue workers and so on. I'll try to visit a little later in the year, when things have settled down.

I am planning to test the Dan Dan noodles recipe from your book (recipe below the jump) and share with my readers, so they can recreate something Sichuan in their own homes. Any other ideas to pay tribute to Chengdu?

Certainly cooking and eating Sichuanese food is one way of honouring the spirit of the province. Dan Dan noodles evoke the liveliness of Chengdu's traditional street life, and other recipes like fish-fragrant eggplants and Gong Bao chicken give a taste of its thrilling and varied flavours (both of which can be found in Dunlop's book, "Land of Plenty"). Fish-fragrant eggplants is probably my favourite recipe of all time -- it's incredible. And of course all these dishes can be seen as a symbol of the warmth and charm of Sichuanese people -- qualities that made Chengdu the most wonderful place to live.

Don't forget also that supporting the province in material ways is going to be a long-term project -- several international charities (MercyCorps, World Vision, Tsinghua Foundation and Unicef, to name a few) are running appeals.

Xie Laoban's Dan Dan Noodles
From "Shark's Fin and Sichuan Pepper" by Fuchsia Dunlop

200 grams (approximately 7-8 ounces) dried Chinese flour-and-water noodles

For the meat topping:
1 tablespoon peanut oil
3 Sichuanese dried chiles (if you can't find, substitute small red chiles of your choice), cut in half, seeds discarded
1/2 teaspoon whole Sichuan (aka Szechuan) pepper (found online at Penzey's and Kalustyans
25 grams (1 tablespoon plus 2 teaspoons) Sichuanese ya cai or Tianjin preserved vegetable (available at Asian groceries -- ya cai is pickled bean sprouts, available in foil sealed packets)
100 grams (about 1/4 pound) ground beef
2 teaspoons light soy sauce (not to be confused with "lite")
KOD addition: 1/4 cup fresh green beans, chopped into 1-inch pieces

For the sauce:
1/2 teaspoon Sichuan pepper, toasted and ground
2 tablespoons sesame paste (tahini is a great substitute)
3 tablespoons light soy sauce
2 teaspoons dark soy sauce (if you don't have, substitute light)
4 tablespoons chili oil, plus sediment from jar, if possible

Heat peanut oil in a wok over moderate heat. When oil is hot but not smoking, add chiles and Sichuan pepper and stirfry briefly until oil is spicy and fragrant. Be careful not to burn spices.

Add pickled vegetables and continue to stir fry until hot and fragrant. Add meat and soy sauce and cook meat until brown and crisp. Add green beans (if using) and toss with meat, coating with seasonings. Remove from heat.

Bring a pot of water to a boil and cook noodles according to instructions on the package.

In a small mixing bowl, combine all sauce ingredients. Either portion sauce among individual serving bowls or into one large bowl.

Drain cooked noodles and combine with sauce, followed by meat mixture. With chopsticks, mix noodels so that sauce and meat are evenly distributed.

Feeds two for supper, four for a street snack.

By Kim ODonnel |  May 22, 2008; 7:45 AM ET Q&A , Wok Cookery
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Please email us to report offensive comments.

Has anyone else objected to the title of this blog? Every time I see it, I'm reminded of "A Mighty Heart," the book and movie about the murdered Wall Street Journal reporter, Daniel Pearl. It seems to me a callous play on words.

Posted by: Kathleen Naureckas | May 22, 2008 10:53 AM

I'm pretty sure the blog came out before those events.

Posted by: Anonymous | May 22, 2008 11:03 AM

Um, no.

Even if this blog didn't predate the book/movie you mention, it's not as if the phrase "A Mighty _____" didn't exist in hundreds of different applications prior to that.

Posted by: Divine Ms K | May 22, 2008 12:17 PM

I think this blog has been around much longer than the book. I just assumed the title is a play on words of "The Mighty Aphrodite" which is a Woody Allen movie from the 90's. People need to stop and think and not be so opinionated before they know the facts!

Posted by: falls church | May 22, 2008 12:17 PM

In the early '90's I visited Chengdu while on a professional exchange with a group of funeral directors. We'd had some last minute changes in our schedule which resulted in a couple hours free time after dinner so my room mate and I went for a stroll.

When she was too shy to accept the invitation of a local, I ended up dancing a fox trot in the middle of a dimly lit public park to what I think was Cole Porter playing on an ancient boom box.

What I remember most is a beautiful city with streets lined with roses. I was told it has always been popular as a tourist destination and the food, while memorably spicy, was the best we experienced in China.

Yes, funeral customs include visiting the resting place of the loved one and bringing along food, setting off firecrackers to scare away the evil spirits and burning pretend money for them to use in the after life (it would be wasteful to use real money) on the 7, 14, and 28th days, then usually annually after that. The custom of including a picture of their loved one in the event is also common.

Posted by: JDM | May 22, 2008 12:56 PM

I really don't think "a mighty appetite" refers to anything other than a mighty appetite. One shouldn't be held accountable for the odd associations others make. For instance, the sub-blog, "Saluting mom"--I kept thinking it said, sauteing mom. My problem, I know. Kim had nothing to do with it.

Posted by: Bertson | May 22, 2008 7:46 PM

Hi Kim
I guess we are really running out of things to attack when we attack the title of your blog.
Mighty, I hope the critics observe, can mean large, great, overpowering, (they can check a dictionary) Your title means to me, a hungry person, good appetite, etc.
I hope the critics will soon find something else to find fault with.

Posted by: OHIO | May 23, 2008 8:21 AM

Thank you for a morning chuckle. I do that sort of word-merge thing all the time, and it cracks me up to see that you did as well. It always results in something akin to "sauteing Mom" and then I can never look at the words correctly again.
Thank you! And thanks for a very appropriate, well-tempered response to the initial question about the blog title.

A good weekend to all!

Posted by: Anonymous | May 23, 2008 9:30 AM

I'm just waiting for the interview with Magenta Goodyear. Or perhaps Coral Michelin.

Posted by: Lindemann | May 23, 2008 11:13 AM

Thanks for the interview and contact info for the charities.

I was looking at some of new photos of the devastation yesterday--interrupted weddings at an old monastery--and it was horrifying. Not to mention the collapsed school where hundreds of students died. Some of the pandas, as well as some of the employees from the panda research center were also killed. It's hard to even wrap my mind around it.

I hope Ms. Dunlop is able to make it back to Chengdu later in the year, but I think it will take a very long time before things start to return to normal there.

Posted by: alex | May 23, 2008 2:35 PM

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