One of the side benefits of writing about Bamboo Garden this past week was getting to reread Land of Plenty, Fuschia Dunlop's amazing 2003 Sichuanese cookbook. Dunlop was the first Westerner to study full-time at the Sichuan Institute of Higher Cuisine in Chengdu, and her book presents the food's theory, history, and context. She lists, for example, the 23 essential flavors of Sichuan and gives instructions on how to make your own smoked bacon and glutinous rice wine, and her prose is almost as vivid as the pictures that accompany.
Land of Plenty is one of my permanent favorites, not just because it's entertaining reading but because the recipes are so solid. For me, cooking from Chinese cookbooks is flying blind -- not only do I have to put each new book I buy through the "are these recipes well thought out or underwritten and undertested?" question, but my Western palate is still unable to spot potential errors when I'm reading over the recipes and correct what's wrong if the finished product tastes off.
But I got inspired to cook from Dunlop's book again, and everything I've made so far this week has come out great. The only change I've made to dishes like the Xie Laoban's Dan Dan noodles (with sesame paste, hand-made chile oil and toasted Sichuan peppercorns) is to reduce the amount of oil by half; the small sacrifice in mouthfeel is worth the subsequent loss of guilt.
Bamboo Garden has also renewed my ingredient crush on Sichuan peppercorns, which were so hard to get for so long. When I haven't been putting them into my food, I've been taking little whiffs from the bag in my cabinet to get a hit of that pine-citrus-celery perfume.
But I have to say, even though I'm having a great time cooking Sichuanese food, I'm still going back to Bamboo Garden for the tea-smoked duck and ma po tofu, which keep insinuating themselves into my daydreams.