"You have so much more to buy here than we do in London!"
It's the third time in half an hour that Fuchsia Dunlop, cook, writer, and scholar of Chinese food, has said this on our shopping trip through Chinatown. We haven't seen anyone so delighted by the neighborhood since Susan Feniger tucked into some curbside cheung fun.
The shopkeepers seem pretty excited too—it's not every day a tall white person in an impressive fur hat starts asking them questions in fluent Chinese. "Where'd you learn to speak so well?" they ask. Fuchsia gets this question a lot.
We're here on Mott Street because, love Chinese cuisine though we do, we don't cook it as much as we'd like. Okay, Kenji does, but the rest of us not so much. The gap is more mental than anything: with good ingredients in easy reach and no shortage of tips to get us cooking, we don't have much of an excuse.
That's the case Fuchsia makes in her new book, Every Grain of Rice, which we featured recipes from last week. It's a home cook's cookbook, and it shows how with some good produce, a decent pantry, and some basic technique, Chinese cooking is no harder or more foreign than making a plate of pasta or building a salad.
So when Fuchsia wanted to spend some time with us, we put her to work, taking her on a walk through Chinatown while she gave us a closer look at the produce and pantry goods we pass every day.
Every Grain of Rice begins with a list of pantry basics to start cooking Chinese food yourself. Many are the usual suspects: light and dark soy sauce, rice vinegar and wine, sesame and chili oil, aromatics like ginger and spices like Sichuan peppercorn. (Notably absent: oyster sauce—Fuchsia thinks most commonly available brands are more MSG and sugar than anything else.)
Less common, and a little harder to find, are her "magic ingredients," super-savory items like fermented soy beans, chili bean paste, preserved vegetables, and dried shrimp. "Getting to know these magic ingredients is the key to making largely vegetarian ingredients taste so delicious," she says. Plenty of Chinese dishes are mostly vegetables—stir fries and braises, salads and eggs, cold appetizers—amplified with just a little meat, pickles, or flavorful nubs of dried fish. Learn what those magic ingredients are—and how to cook with them—and Chinese food gets a whole lot more approachable to cook at home.
You can find most of these ingredients at large groceries like New York Mart, but the street stalls that weave through Chinatown also have an impressive selection of esoteric ingredients. If you ever wanted to know more about all those dried fish and mushrooms but were put off by a language barrier, consider this a helping hand.
- Shaoxing rice wine
- Toasted Sesame Oil
- Soy Sauce or Tamari
- Chinkiang Black Vinegar
- Lee Kum Kee Chili Bean Paste
- Cassia Bark
- Dried Black Soy Beans
- Green Garlic
Fuchsia's Magic Ingredients
Our shopping trip sticks to Mott Street, focusing on New York Mart and the nearby street stalls you'll find just below Grand Street. Take a tour with us for a look at Fuchsia's pantry essentials and special ingredients.
New York Mart
128 Mott Street, New York, NY 10013 (map)