I recently had a very fun dinner with friend, Hal Lipper and his wife, Jing. Hal is a talented and enthusiastic cook and was keen to try some recipes from his new cookbook, Revolutionary Chinese Cookbook: Recipes from Hunan Province by English cookbook author, Fuchsia Dunlop. The Beijing element mentioned in the title of this post refers to the fact that Hal lived in Beijing for many years and his wife is a native of that city. In fact, he has actually been working with his wife to compile her mother's family recipes in the form of a cookbook:
and they have recorded over 100 recipes at this point. I was lucky enough to try a couple of them that night, including a simple but delicious dish of pickled cabbage:
and an appetizer of grilled bell peppers served with 1000 year-old eggs:
However the bulk of the dishes Hal made came from Dunlop's book. One dish that Jing grew up with, but that is also featured in Dunlop's book was something Dunlop calls Lotus Root "Sandwich" Fritters. Hal wasn't able to get ahold of lotus root so he used eggplant instead:
As seen above, the "sandwich" refers to the use of two slices of eggplant surrounding a filling of ground pork mixed with egg. These are coated in a simple batter and fried until crispy:
This was followed by Strange-Flavour Chicken, a combination of cucumbers, shredded chicken and a unique peanut sauce:
According to Dunlop, "The curious name "strange flavour" derives from the a bizarre but deeply satisfying combination of salty, sweet, sour, nutty, hot and numbing flavours." This is probably true, but if one follows Dunlops seasoning suggestions for the sauce, the leading flavour is an deeply unsatisfying bland. Hal was forced to remedy the mixture with some extra vinegar and soy sauce and the result was quite nice, although not nearly as intense as Dunlop suggests.
One of the most unusual dishes of the evening was something that Dunlop calls Pearly Meatballs. This was a combination of ground pork, water chestnuts and spices formed into balls and coated with a mixture of sticky rice, ham and mushrooms:
They are are then steamed:
and the result was very nice; meaty and crunchy (from the chestnuts), but still requiring a boost in the seasoning department, and we were compelled to dip them in soy sauce.
The biggest disappointment of the night (for Hal at least) was Chairman Mao's Red-Braised Pork (shown at the top of the post, as well as on the cover of Dunlop's book). Hal chose to substitute the fatty pork belly with pork ribs, and despite doubling the spices called for in the recipe, the result was still rather bland. Even the braising liquid, reduced to a thick red sauce, was somehow lacking in flavour.
This was coupled with Dongting Stir-Fried Duck Breast:
At this point Hal simply disregarded Dunlop's seasoning suggestions altogether and cooked the dish to taste. The result was a simple, but delicious (and well-cooked) stir fry, and probably the most delicious dish of the meal.
The New York Times' review of Fuchsia Dunlop's book can be seen here. The author of this review declares that, "Every recipe I tried was a rousing success." Not sure if Hal would agree...