I cooked 500 different Chinese dishes in 800 days

Westerners living in China have many reasons for deciding to migrate back to their home countries, whether it is food safety, quality of education for their children or air pollution. But when asked what they miss the most, virtually everyone will answer: ‘The Chinese food!’ Westerners get a strong form of ‘reversed homesickness’ when reminiscing on the fantastic Chinese cuisines.

Before they left their home countries, they might have sometimes ordered take-out Chinese or gone to one of those infamous all-you-can-eat buffets in a Chinese restaurant; the type of Chinese food they’ll snub after having actually lived in China.  Having become authentic Chinese food addicts, they desperately search for an authentic Chinese restaurant back home. In my case it soon dawned on me that even the most well-regarded restaurants in The Netherlands mainly serve Cantonese dishes. But my taste buds had been pampered by Sichuan cuisine and I also liked to feast on the dishes from Shaanxi, Henan, Xinjiang and Dongbei. Alas, I soon found out that restaurant being named ‘Chengdu’ and ‘Sichuan’ was no guarantee for real Sichuanese food. After many attempts I concluded that reasonably authentic Sichuan restaurants in the Netherlands could be counted on one hand and the nearest was a one-hour drive away since we don’t live near a major Dutch city.

Fuchsia to the rescue

I was anticipating this problem during my last months in China, so I desperately tried to learn some Chinese cooking before heading home. Now, you must know that cooking was never really a hobby of mine. As such, my attempts at making Chinese dishes had varying degrees of success. In China it was difficult to find good English recipes and if I found one, they were often rather vague. As a layman in the kitchen, I have a great need for clear steps and even more for clear descriptions of the quantities of different ingredients. In one of my first attempts to make Gong Bao chicken, I asked my Chinese wife (not a top chef either) how much potato flour to use. ‘Use your intuition’, was her answer. That was the last time she would say that in the context of my cooking… Within a few minutes the dish I put on the table changed into a massive, dark lump which could only be served after brutal chopping and was not recommended for anyone with a sensitive digestive system.

Then one day, I came across a review of a cookbook by Fuchsia Dunlop. She was praised as the author of Chinese cookbooks that were clear, simple and authentic. Fuchsia was the first Westerner to study at the Sichuan Institute of Higher Cuisine in Chengdu, so if there was anyone who could explain the secrets of Chinese cooking to me it would be her. In the hope that her books would be the salvation for our kitchen table, I ordered her first three cookbooks: Every Grain of Rice, Sichuan Cookery and the Revolutionary Chinese Cookbook. I was secretly hoping that, missing the food from her homeland as she did, seeing these books would be sufficiently to incentivize my wife to start cooking. But Fuchsia’s books stayed untouched in our bookcase for almost three years.

My wife and I would normally divide cooking tasks between the two of us. Being from a generation used to eating outdoors her range of Chinese dishes turned out to me almost as limited as mine. I myself, having a fierce dislike for local Dutch food, used to cook simple Mexican, Italian, Thai and Indian food. Then, when my wife went back to study in university, she had no more time to cook and even less time to go on road trips exploring far-off restaurants. With the craving becoming close to unbearable, that was the moment I made a lifechanging decision: I had to start cooking Chinese food myself. I pulled out one of Fuchsia’s books, Every Grain of Rice, from the shelf. It was the beginning of a new hobby and obsession …

The 150 or so recipes in Every Grain of Rice are accompanied by nice personal stories in which Fuchsia tells the reader how she discovered each dish. Most dishes come with a colourful photo that immediately makes your mouth water. The book also contains a fascinating introduction and extensive explanation about the basic ingredients, the required cooking utensils and the cooking techniques. With the book, which presents itself as a guide to simple Chinese home cooking, Fuchsia has made a successful attempt at making Chinese cooking accessible to the average Westerner, even if, like me, they do not have great culinary skills.

When things got serious…

When I had made 50 Chinese dishes, all of which tasted remarkably authentic, it felt like an incredible accomplishment. So, I thought, why not make 100? Before long I found myself moving on to Fuchsia’s Sichuan Cookery and Hunan Cuisine cookbook The Revolutionary Chinese Cookbook. And when I was starting to run out of recipes, I bought Land of Fish and Rice, which has dishes from the Shanghai-Jiangsu-Zhejiang region. Having exhausted Fuchsia’s oeuvre, I bought a book that came recommended by Fuchsia, Yan-Kit’s Classic Chinese Cookbook, followed by Maancake & Jasmijn (a Dutch book), Cooking South of the Clouds (Yunnan cuisine) and Chinese Street Food. Although these gave me many new ideas, they also made me appreciate Fuchsia’s books even more. Her clear writing style and instructions and the simplicity of making authentic recipes proved unequalled. Some of these other books tended to have more obscure ingredients, more deep-fried dishes (which I try to avoid after a cooking accident that left one of my wrists severely burned), really complicated recipes, recipes for large groups, etc. In the end, 80% of the dishes I have cooked come from Fuchsia’s books.

Getting to know so many new dishes proved to have another advantage. When living in China it can be quite a challenge to discover new dishes. An overtly adventurous attitude combined with lacking Chinese reading skills can result in unpleasant surprises, like the time I accidentally ordered cow stomach. Or that time when my interpreter treated me to her personal favourite, pig intestines noodles. As a result, I tended to stick to personal favourites from previous meals like Gong Bao Ji Ding, Tang Cu Li Ji and Yu Xiang Qiezi. All very tasty, but at the same time you’re oblivious to so many other marvellous dishes you are missing out on. Fuchsia’s books have helped me discover many new favourites which I’m now able to order myself whenever I’m back in China.

When things got obsessive…

After having reached a new milestone of 100 prepared dishes I wondered, why not make 200? Of course, the more dishes I made the harder it was to tell the great ones from the nice ones and the nice ones from the rare dish you never, ever want to taste again. After all, in every cuisine you’ll find things that are just not to your personal liking. So, me and my wife set up a rating system of red (‘disgusting’), yellow (‘tasty’) and green (‘amazing’) stickers that we would put on the pages of the recipes after trying a dish.

Halfway 2017 I passed the milestone of 200 dishes and making the occasional Chinese dish turned into a quest of discovery. I decided it was time to get organised and set up what an Excel spreadsheet with all of the dishes I had prepared. My wife and I would come to refer to it as ‘The Administration’. This file was not just meant to keep track of the number of dishes, but also helped to quickly find our favourites (the file included the colour ratings) the book from my expanding collection in which it could be found if I ever wanted to cook it again. Indeed, I didn’t always cook ‘new’ dishes. Whenever we had friends over for dinner, we would treat them to our best discoveries so far. The Administration also proved highly useful when I went beyond my first cookbook and started noticing overlaps between cookbooks.

Eventually I reached 250 different dishes, a milestone many might consider a good moment to retire. But considering its Chinese association with idiocy, I realised I couldn’t simply stop there…

Seeing the pictures I have terrorised my friends with on my WeChat’s Moments timeline, people have started asking me – or maybe it was pleading – when our restaurant would open. I have also often been asked what dish I liked best, a question that is impossible to answer. Out of 500 dishes I made in the past 800 days no less than 150 have earned a ‘green sticker’. How could I ever pick one from such an extensive list? Having said that, we have found that we still strongly prefer the Sichuan and Hunan cuisine and anything that involves ‘fish-fragrant’ (yú xiāng, 鱼香) sauce or fermented black beans (dòu chǐ, 豆豉) is very high on our list, as well as any red braised (hóng shāo, 红烧) meat dishes.

Rules for obsessive Chinese cooking

As far as the count of dishes is concerned, I set a few rules for myself. The recipes only count as ‘new’ if …

  • … they are considerably different from what I made before. Therefore, named variations of a dish from one specific cookbook count as separate dishes, but a highly identical one from a different cookbook doesn’t. If a dish appears in another cookbook under a (partially) different name it doesn’t count as a new dish.
  • … every dish must involve real preparation. So, if a book has a recipe for making your own chilli oil to be used as an ingredient in other dishes that counts. Simply buying a jar of chilli oil does not count. As such, there are dishes and drinks that can be bought fully prepared in the store (e.g. sweet and sour sauce, hot pot broth, etc) but the ones appearing on The Administration are all homemade.
  • … dishes must come from the collection of cookbooks I had bought; I have not prepared any personal creations. I have made a few exceptions though for dishes I really wanted to make, were not present in any book from my collection but were available on the Internet.

So, did I really make all these 500 dishes all by myself? Yes, almost … I will admit that for some dishes I had a bit of help from my wife. When trying out so many different recipes one quickly learns the enjoyable and less enjoyable elements of home cooking. I found that I personally don’t care much for dealing with flour and dough. I simply don’t have the patience or refinedness to create beautifully crafted jiaozi, baozi or shao mai. Also, working with flour tends to turn me (even more) into a resemblance of the abominable snowman. Since some of the most delicious dishes do involve flour and dough, I have overcome my culinary pride and asked for my wife’s help in a few steps of the concerned recipes. So, should you check out the pictures in our online photo album (the visual part of ‘The Administration’), please don’t tell me that I have such lovely hands!

Having started in October 2016 I was aiming to reach 500 dishes by Chinese New Year 2019, and I have succeeded. I had expected that a serene sense of tranquillity would finally fall over me, and I could relax for a while. But no such thing has happened. I just find myself staring at all the sticky bookmarks sticking out of my collection of cookbooks, realising that there’s still so many recipes in these 8 books I haven’t tried. And last weekend I found myself adding two new books to my Amazon shopping cart for a possible future purchase. I guess there’s no rest for the wokked…