Everyday Cooking

Eat Your (Sichuanese) Beans

February 14, 2013

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.

stir-fried green beans

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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.

tianjin preserved vegetables

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

See the full recipe (and save and print it) here.

Photos by James Ransom

More ways to feed the kids:


Sweet-Sour Cabbage Soup

Sweet Potato Salad

Lemongrass-Ginger Patties

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I'm the author of a book on the science and history of infancy, Baby Meets World. My website is nicholasday.net; I tweet over at @nicksday. And if you need any good playdoh recipes, just ask.


kat I. February 17, 2013
I can't recommend Fuschia Dunlop's book enough. This book took the fear out of Chinese cooking for me (and my family is Chinese!). Lots of recipes very do-able. Kids love the gong bao Chicken and buttery fragrant fried eggplants.
kasia S. February 17, 2013
I've made a simialr dish before and it was out of this world amazing!

Question though, 4 to 6 dried chiles - what kind of chilies?
Fairmount_market February 15, 2013
I'm sold on any recipe that promises simplicity turned up to eleven!
student E. February 14, 2013
love fuschia, love ya cai, love when people raise children who will eat anything!
mark.staben February 14, 2013
It drives me nuts when a recipe simply says "dried chiles" as if there was only one kind, or they were all equal in heat and/or flavor.
kasia S. February 17, 2013
Yes, I was just pondering the same thing! Which one lol
Nicholas D. February 17, 2013
The only thing that really matters is that you don't use the tiny Thai dried chiles. You just want the standard Chinese dried red chiles -- in my experience, most Chinese grocery chiles have around the same level of heat -- although Dunlop says that de Arbol chiles are also a-okay.
Kenzi W. February 14, 2013
I could not stop eating these at the shoot. That is all.
EmilyC February 14, 2013
Enjoyed your review of Fuchsia's cookbook (I'll pretend that I'm on a first name basis, too) -- you should toss your hat in the Piglet judging ring for next year! You may have sold me a copy because I've been trying to broaden the way I cook vegetables for my 3-year old, and if it saves us from crappy Chinese takeout, so much the better.
kat I. February 17, 2013
buy the book bec her vegetable dishes are done very simply but tasty
Nicholas D. February 17, 2013
It sort of devolved into a cookbook review, didn't it? It's genuinely useful for the sort of thing you're talking about, Emily, at least for this household.