Every other Thursday, we bring you Nicholas Day -- on cooking for children, and with children, and despite children. Also, occasionally, on top of.
Today: Nicholas has a strategy for easing kids into the spicy stuff. Or not.
How do you raise a child to love mapo tofu? How do you raise a child to love duck intestine-y Sichuanese hot pot?
Scratch that: I can’t handle Sichuanese hot pot either. Let’s stick to mapo tofu.
The obvious answer is: you cook it; you eat it; you make appreciative, mouth-closed noises at the dinner table together. And we do all this, especially the last part, which gets a little out of hand, frankly. But our dinner table is all over the map: we’re never going to make Chinese food every night. We don’t make spicy mapo tofu more than once every few weeks. We cannot fool the child into thinking he’s living in China.
I’m thinking about Chinese food in part because at some point in the next few years, we will be living in China—not permanently, not even for longer than a few months, but for long enough that you wouldn’t want to survive solely on your fat stores.
The proximal reasons here are: 1) Anya, my wife, does her academic work on Taiwan and China; and 2) we’ve promised Isaiah he can someday meet The Seven Chinese Brothers. We have a single overarching goal for the trip: that it would be nice if, while we were living there, the children did not starve.
We like to think we’re lowering the bar for child-centered parenting.
If we have a strategy, and that would be putting it generously, it involves this: cooking a lot of Fuchsia.
There are relatively few cookbook authors with whom we’re on a first-name basis in our house. (We’re formal that way.) Dorie. Marcella. We’re on a strictly incorrect last-name basis with Fearnley-Whatsitall.
And then there’s Fuchsia. When I told Fuchsia Dunlop that we’d been referring to her as if we were all close friends for years—as in, So what does Fuchsia say about that?—she was too polite to hang up the phone. The very charming English author of (indispensable) cookbooks on the food of Sichuan and Hunan regions had called to talk about her new book, Every Grain of Rice: Simple Chinese Home Cooking.
There are classics in it. But the point of the book is not the grand, sensational dishes of Chinese cuisine. It is the quieter, often vegetarian dishes of daily life. These are the tastes we need more of around here. They are sometimes too spicy for our preschooler, which is inevitable: he’s not being raised in Sichuan. When we make mapo tofu, we tone it down. But aside from the chilies, these recipes are almost never alienating. They are homey recipes, and they feel very much from homes. They are fast; they are simple; they are practical.
At its core, Every Grain of Rice is an argument for the central importance of vegetables in Chinese home cooking—even if that tradition is now endangered. “When I was first in China, there was no mollycoddling of children,” Dunlop says. “Children were happily sitting at the table, eating their greens.” Twenty years later, she says, more money has meant more meat. Children sit at the table pestering their parents to take them to KFC.
This is particularly frustrating because Chinese vegetable dishes are primed for younger palates. Children look for a kick of sweet and salty in their foods, as Dunlop notes, even in their vegetables, which is why Chinese vegetables are often ideally suited for children. Even Chinese greens, she adds, may be an easier on-ramp to that taste than most Western versions.
Below is a case in point: dry-fried green beans. It’s a paradigmatic Sichuanese dish—you have had it already—but I include it for a few reasons: 1) It is the encapsulation of what Dunlop is saying above: it is simplicity turned up to eleven. 2) This version is more practical than many others. It is not fried—simply blanched and stir-fried— and it is sans pork and purely vegetarian. (For savory oomph, add the optional preserved Chinese vegetables.) 3) It is endlessly customizable. It may no longer be Sichuanese green beans if you add only a trace of Sichuan pepper or a lone chile. But it will still have more taste than any dish of green beans ought to have.
And then next month, you can add another chile.
Fuchsia Dunlop's Sichuanese Dry-Fried Green Beans
From Fuchsia Dunlop's Every Grain of Rice: Simple Chinese Home Cooking (W.W. Norton & Co., 2013)
Makes enough for a small side dish
3/4 pounds green beans
4 to 6 dried chiles
2 scallions, whites only, sliced
3 garlic cloves, sliced
An equivalent amount of ginger, sliced
2 tablespoons Sichuanese ya cai or Tianjin preserved vegetable (optional but recommended)
1/2 teaspoon whole Sichuan pepper
1 teaspoon toasted sesame oil
2 tablespoons canola or peanut oil
Photos by James Ransom
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