Good Food Revolution: Hello Mika, and all the best of the season. Damn, it’s cold out right now.
So, this month you have chosen Fuchsia Dunlop’s (what a name!) Land Of Fish and Rice : Recipes From The Culinary Heart Of China… what makes this book so special for you?
Mika Bareket (Good Egg Bookstore): In the intro she mentions how anyone who spends time in the lower-Yangtze region of China, the theme of this book, they never want to leave. When I was a kid, my folks visited the province and came back eager to move the family there. It apparently cast a spell on them, and their stories were infectious even to their jaded youth. They got a divorce instead, but otherwise, I believe my mom would have lobbied to relocate to China.
GFR: My dalliances into Chinese cooking are very limited indeed. Do you feel that this is a good book to give me some kind of grounding?
MB: Indeed. Turn to the end of the book where she discusses traditional Chinese ways of putting a meal together and how to interpret these ideas in your own way. The glossary is dense too. And that’s just the back matter. Throughout the book, she introduces key ingredients, lesser known ingredients, history and lore, regional restaurant recommendations, recipes of course, but also liberal variations to said recipes. And yet the book feels tight and writerly, not like an encyclopedia.
GFR: Aesthetically, I have to say that I found this book quite impressive. The photos of the dishes are really quite something. You must see so many glossy books every day… did anything stand out for you with this one design-wise?
MB: All the books are gorgeous these days. It’s really starting to annoy me. There’s nothing to complain about! But okay, this one has handsome watercolour sploshes on the edges, as well as perfect styling of perfectly glistening food on perfectly earthy, light-coloured ceramics. And gold foil on the cover!!! I like shiny things.
GFR: So you would like to travel to China? I have to say it’s a part of the world that I would really like to visit at some point… they make a shedload of wine there these days, you know?
MB: I did not know that. Exactly how big is a shedload? No, I haven’t been to China. My mom would probably still love it if I did.
GFR: There is also a huge growing market for imported wines, what with the rapidly expanding middle class and all…
MB: That makes sense. China has in general the biggest market for luxury goods these days. I wonder it there’s a bigger market elsewhere in the universe? Do you think there’s a Gucci-clad colony on Mars? Another reason I love this book: it’s often very simple food with not a lot of ingredients or related expense.
GFR: Fuchsia has quite a way with her storytelling, so it’s quite an enjoyable read. Is that something that is important to you with cookbooks? Something above and beyond the actual recipes?
MB: I judge how relatable books are first, and then try to establish trust. She comes across as a human being who strives not merely for “authenticity” but for personal and genuine enjoyment. Experience with her recipes tells me that she can also be trusted.
GFR: How does the food of the lower Yangtze region (the focus of this book) differ from that of the rest of China?
MB: That’s an advanced level question. Though, the little I know is that it is milder, softer and perhaps more balanced than Hunan and Szechuan cooking. It’s earthier and dare I say healthier than Cantonese cooking. Red braising (wine and soy) is a hallmark of this region, as are quality, earthy ingredients cooked with complimentary, not overpowering flavours.
GFR: Any favourite recipes that you would push us towards?
MB: Juicy shiitake mushrooms. I made the vegetarian version, and use weed oil instead of sesame oil. It was a fun afternoon, from what I can remember.
GFR: Now you are based in Kensington… right next to Chinatown… is there anywhere in your ‘hood that does a good job executing the style of cuisine presented in Land Of Fish And Rice? or does one have to travel further afield?
MB: The restaurants in Chinatown use too much sodium. I love it, don’t get me wrong, but I can not in good conscience send people anywhere other than Swatow for noodle soup, or Lee Garden for a safe, Western-world experience. Stay home and cook!!!
GFR: With this book’s slant towards fish and seafood… where do you shop for such things?
MB: It isn’t actually focused on fish and seafood, though it is a highlight. I rarely buy fish these days because of the vegetarian theme around the house, much to my boyfriend’s delight and cat’s chagrin. But f I did, I’d go to Hooked and if someone offered a ride, City Fish.
GFR: Hmmmm… I’m impressed with this book thus far (leafing through pages in a bookstore) so this would make the perfect holiday gift for many a budding Yangtze Chef then? Are you listening Santa?
MB: Who’s Santa (asks the Jew)?
GFR: Ah… yes…
Thanks again, Mika. And all the very best of the season to you and yours.
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Edinburgh-born/Toronto-based Sommelier, consultant, writer, judge, and educator Jamie Drummond is the Director of Programs/Editor of Good Food Revolution… And he’s just glad it’s not another Indian one.