In the years before its 2001 release, Sichuan cookbook “Land of Plenty” was a tough sell to publishers, British author Fuchsia Dunlop said over dinner in the fall. Nearly 20 years later, the update, called “The Food of Sichuan,” has helped the English-speaking world better understand cuisine from the region. And it has even been translated to Chinese.
“Because I am a foreigner, I feel like I have to do my very best to [convey dishes] authentically,” Dunlop said. “Otherwise, what’s the point?”
While this year’s “Pasta Grannies” cookbook captures the dying art of regional Italian pasta making, “The Food of Sichuan” chronicles dishes that are also in danger of fading out.
“Things change very fast,” Dunlop said, citing a few dishes that were easy finds when the book was first published that have become rarer in the culinary landscape. One is pork in lychee sauce with crispy rice. “So you have this rice crust and pork, and you pour this sauce over it so it crackles and pops,” she said. In the recipe notes, she calls it“dramatic” and “quite the party piece.”
Fast-forward to the present and some dishes that were considered old-fashioned are back in style, thanks to restaurants’ efforts to revive them. “You’ve got a particularly food-obsessed country and a particularly food-obsessed province,” Dunlop said. “Every time I go back, there is a new trend.”
Of “The Food of Sichuan,” she observed, “You can’t write a comprehensive book, but you can try to reflect all of these different facets to tell a story of the cuisine.”
It’s not just trends that make a dish or an ingredient ubiquitous — or increasingly hard to find. Dunlop looks back to the 1990s, during her early years in Chengdu, when “all the grown-ups basically could cook,” make pickles, etc., because home cooking signaled a point of pride in the decades following the lean years of China’s Cultural Revolution.
Today, she pointed out, most of her contemporaries know just basic cooking skills and “for the young guard, it’s all takeout now.”