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MICHELE NORRIS, host:

This is ALL THINGS CONSIDERED from NPR News. I'm Michele Norris.

MELISSA BLOCK, host:

And I'm Melissa Block.

The other day, Fuchsia Dunlop came by my kitchen, and she was brandishing a cleaver.

Ms. FUCHSIA DUNLOP (Author, "Revolutionary Chinese Cookbook"): I always carry my own cleaver.

BLOCK: She got down to business with some garlic cloves.

Ms. DUNLOP: Whack the cloves with (unintelligible) side of the cleaver.

(Soundbite of laughter)

BLOCK: Stay away that cleaver.

(Soundbite of cutting sound)

Ms. DUNLOP: This is (unintelligible), which means garlic - sort of rice grains, literally, because as you can see, I'm cutting it very fine like this.

(Soundbite of cutting sound)

BLOCK: Fuchsia Dunlop has always loved food and cooking and collecting recipes. Her work as a journalist took her to China. One thing led to another, and she ended up training as a Chinese chef in Sichuan province. She was the first foreigner to study full time at the famous Sichuan Institute of Higher Cuisine. And she went on to write a Sichuan cookbook. Now, she's turned her attention to Hunanese cooking - Hunan, like Sichuan, famous for its spicy food. Hunan is also famous as the home province of many revolutionaries - most notably, Mao Tse-Tung.

Ms. DUNLOP: Actually, Chairman Mao said that you couldn't be revolutionary if you didn't eat chilis. There's a link between eating hot food and being kind of fiery in personality as well.

BLOCK: And so Fuchsia Dunlop's new cookbook is titled, "Revolutionary Chinese Cookbook: Recipes from Hunan Province".

Ms. DUNLOP: Outsiders will ask people visiting Hunan (Chinese spoken) - are you afraid of chili heat? And there's also - there's another rhyme, which is quite amusing, which is Sichuan (Chinese spoken).

And that means, the Sichuanese are not afraid of chili heat. And however hot it is, the people of Guadjo(ph) are not afraid. But the Hunanese are afraid of food that is not hot.

(Soundbite of laughter)

(Soundbite of cutting sound)

Ms. DUNLOP: I'm cutting it into thin slices here.

BLOCK: Hunanese cooking is known for its bold mix of contrasting flavors. Much of it is rustic, simple peasant food. And today, Fuchsia Dunlop is making one of the most common, everyday Hunanese dishes. It's said to have a favorite of Chairman Mao: home-style bean curd. There are lots of versions of this dish.

Ms. DUNLOP: And this particular version, I guess I owe it a lot to my friend, Fan Chun's(ph) family. They live in this farmhouse in a beautiful valley in the remote north of Hunan province. And it's a place where you sit outside on summer days, and the bean curd vendor would actually come through the village with the bamboo slats on his shoulder, carrying baskets full of home-made bean curd. And her mother would make this dish from it.

(Soundbite of cutting sound)

BLOCK: Our bean curd comes in plastic tub from an Asian market.

Ms. DUNLOP: The first thing with the bean curd is that you want to just put a -fry it in oil until it's golden and crisp. So that will give it a really nice (unintelligible) and make it more delicious as well.

BLOCK: (unintelligible)

Ms. DUNLOP: (Chinese spoken). Yeah, something that you hear about in Chinese (unintelligible). He has spoke to describe, you know, the texture of ingredients, like (unintelligible) crispness of, you know, fresh vegetables (unintelligible). Or the tenderness of the piece of meat. But also, the form into which things are cut - so, you know, where you have stir fried meat that's cut into fine slivers. It will be very be very nice, sort of slinky in the mouth. Okay.

BLOCK: Fuchsia Dunlop has cut the tofu into pretty triangles, and it goes into the wok.

(Soundbite of cooking oil boiling)

BLOCK: You can find the recipe for home-style bean curd at our Web site, npr.org. I'll give you the abbreviated version. When the tofu is golden, it comes out of the wok, in goes slivers of pork tenderloin, some Shaoxing rice wine.

(Soundbite of cooking oil boiling)

Ms. DUNLOP: It's supposed to improve and refine the flavor of the pork.

BLOCK: And two kinds of chili. The sauce in the wok turns a bubbly crimson, and the pungent scent of heat fills my house.

Ms. DUNLOP: So you can see it speckled with the red of the chilis.

BLOCK: It's starting to look a little daunting.

(Soundbite of laughter)

Ms. DUNLOP: It's not a part of the (unintelligible).

BLOCK: A couple of shiitake mushrooms go in, and the minced garlic.

Ms. DUNLOP: Now, when that's all right (unintelligible) and delicious, I'm need to add some salt.

(Soundbite of cooking oil boiling)

Ms. DUNLOP: About a cup full of that. And a little bit of (unintelligible) for (unintelligible) the color.

(Soundbite of cooking oil boiling)

Ms. DUNLOP: Put the bean curd back in the sauce.

BLOCK: And it's smelling wonderful.

Ms. DUNLOP: You want the bean curd to be just sitting in the sauce - though not lots and lots of liquid, but barely covered to rue away, to send in the flavor.

BLOCK: Send in the flavor?

Ms. DUNLOP: Yeah. Something that Chinese chefs talk a lot about (unintelligible).

BLOCK: At the end, Fuchsia Dunlop tosses in a sliced galleons and drizzles on one final flavor.

Ms. DUNLOP: And then finally, I'm going to switch off the heat and add just a little bit of sesame oil. It's not really used as a cooking oil in Chinese cooking. It's added at the end of recipes (unintelligible) dishes after cooking. And to teach (unintelligible) to add fragrance, a wonderful nutty, toasted sesame aroma.

(Soundbite of cooking oil boiling)

Ms. DUNLOP: There you are.

(Soundbite of pots banging)

BLOCK: What do you say in a - what's the equivalent of bon apetit in Chinese?

Ms. DUNLOP: Well, you can say (Chinese spoken), which means that to take your time, enjoy the meal.

(Soundbite of laughter)

BLOCK: Now, I confess, I'm a bit of a wimp when it comes to spicy food. But the heat in this bean curd dish is a beautifully controlled burn, a rich dancing glow in the mouth.

Mm. You don't really taste the heat until the end.

Ms. DUNLOP: Hm.

BLOCK: So remember that question?

Ms. DUNLOP: (Chinese spoken). Are you afraid of chili heat?

BLOCK: Nope, not this time. Fuchsia Dunlop says the Hunanese consider their province the beating heart of China, producing those fiery leaders who changed the destiny of their country. Her book is titled "Revolutionary Chinese Cookbook: Recipes from Hunan Province". You can find recipes at our Web site for home-style bean curd, along with Chairman Mao's red braised pork and General Tso's chicken, which Dunlop unmasks as an inauthentic Hunanese dish. Those recipes are at npr.org.

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