Fire and Oil, My Type of Comfort Food

Sichuan cooking

There’s something about Sichuan peppercorns that make people crazy. Since college, I’ve had a Sichuan dinner party in every city I’ve lived in. People who taste sichuan peppercorns for the first time express a weird mixture of temporary pain and then the joy. Veterans feel the jolt and then are relieved by familiarity.

The inspiration for this party, Fuschia Dunlop’s Land of Plenty, became the cookbook that I became protective of. It’s not that the book is full of glossy photos (though the handful of photos it has are beautiful and illustrative). It’s simply how beautifully researched it is.

Dunlop was both the first westerner and first female to train at the Sichuan Institute of Higher Cuisine. She takes an almost anthropological approach to detailing the elements of Sichuan food. The appendix lists the 23 recognized flavor combinations and 56 cooking methods used in Sichuanese cuisine. This level of detail plus Dunlop’s stories makes this book one of my favorite to cook from.

One of my favorite stories from the cookbook is how she wanted to know the recipe for one of a street hawker’s special dish. He would leave out a few ingredients every time she asked. Only, he would leave out different ingredients each time. Over the years, she was able to piece together a complete recipe. And that’s the research that goes into a single recipe, one out of the hundreds of recipes.

The quest for that satisfying numbing of Sichuan peppercorns may have altered the trajectory of my own life. After a meeting gone badly, I headed to the beach. After a few hours, I went home and cooked Sichuan food for friends. The sound of waves had soothed my thoughts, but it was it was the familiar sizzle of chili that convinced me that I should break away and follow my dreams.

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