boston.com Arts and Entertainment your connection to The Boston Globe
COOKBOOK REVIEW

Author recreates the spice and flavor of China's Hunan Province

(john dziekan/chicago tribune)

Fuchsia Dunlop burst on the cookbook scene in 2001 with "Land of Plenty," a Sichuan cookbook of such power, confidence, and verve that it was hard to believe the London-based writer hadn't been doing this for years. Now she is back with "Revolutionary Chinese Cookbook, Recipes From Hunan Province," which documents the region of spicy food with the same fierce loyalty and attention to detail she gave Sichuan cuisine.

Hunan province was the birthplace of Chairman Mao, the point from which the revolution sprang. Hunanese cuisine is famous for being the hottest of Chinese cuisines -- also sour, salty, and liberal with oil. I had a strange sensation when I opened the book. The dishes seemed so familiar, but why? I have never been to China, but it turns out that my mother's hometown was not far (as these things go in a massive country) from this province. Maybe that explains why steamed eggs and vinegary cucumbers were some of my favorite childhood foods, and why today nothing settles me better after a rough night than a bowl of rice that is stained mouth-blisteringly crimson with chili sauce. It was almost impossible to winnow my recipe-testing selection down to a handful. By the time I got to the end of my list, I was already going back to the beginning to cook my favorites again.

Fragrant-and-hot spare ribs were simmered in an aromatic broth, then deep-fried and seasoned to a garlicky, gingery, beany intensity. Chairman Mao's red-braised pork, sweetly spiced with cinnamon and anise, was probably the best argument for eating pork belly (the fatty cut used for bacon) I have ever had. The Hunan-American invention called General Tso's chicken was crisp and sour, not as sweet as the ones you'll find on most take out menus.

Thus far the flavors -- soy, rice wine, sesame oil, scallions -- were familiar territory. Beef with cumin, however, struck an unexpected but welcome note. The cumin added warmth and depth to the marinated beef and made the scallions seem brighter by contrast. Fisherman's shrimp with Chinese chives started with a familiar technique of coating shrimp with starch and egg white, but I was pleasantly surprised that they were seasoned with black vinegar, which turned into a mellow note with chilies and chives. Steamed sea bass with ham, shiitake mushrooms, and chilies was rich yet quick and gingery clean.

Peng's home-style bean curd was a thickly scented triumph of the pork and black-bean approach (commonly seen with green beans). "Sounding" radish slivers turned out to be crisp and vinegary shreds of warm daikon. Red-braised winter melon had a yielding texture and "smacked" cucumbers (whacked with a cleaver) were fun to prepare, if far more aggressive than those of my childhood. Noodles with shiitakes and baby bok choy went down in one long, happy, gingery slurp.

But Zhangguying red-braised bean curd puffs were like soy sauce sponges; not, to my thinking, all that appealing. Stir-fried bitter melon with Chinese chives, despite being salted to drain out the bitterness, was still unpalatable for even the bitter-melon fans in my family. Many Hunan vegetable dishes take a bit of getting used to, as the sour palate is a far cry from the ginger stir-fries in most restaurants here.

Most of this enormous repertoire was constructed out of just a few seasonings. So anyone who finds Asian groceries intimidating can get by with a short list of pantry staples: garlic, ginger, rice wine, fresh red chilies, soy sauce, sesame oil, scallions, and a gallon of vegetable oil.

Dunlop is equally good at expounding on cultural history and sharing anecdotes of her years cooking and making friends with Hunanese. This work is cut out for her. China is famous for eight classic cuisines: Sichuan, Hunan, Beijing, Anhui, Guangdong, Fujian, Zhejiang, and Jiangsu.

I'm voting that next she tackle Zhejiang, so I can reconstruct the dishes from my Dad's side.

So keep writing, Ms. Dunlop: Two down and six to go.

SEARCH THE ARCHIVES