A Brit's enduring love affair with Chinese food
When asked about the reality of human existence, French philosopher Rene Descartes answered by coining his famous dictum--"I think, therefore I am;" yet in the eyes of British cook and food writer Fuchsia Dunlop, for Chinese people, there is always this long-hold philosophy: I eat, therefore I am.
"China is a culture in which food has always been extremely important. If you think in the past the religious practice was all about offering food to gods and ancestors and all your great philosophers used food as metaphor to describe the important questions of life." She says that food is a window into all kinds of aspects of Chinese history, culture and society.
In 2014, Fuchsia Dunlop won the James Beard Foundation Award for food culture and travel. [Photo: Courtesy of Shanghai Translation Publishing House]
Namely "Britain's greatest authority on Chinese food" by The Guardian, Fuchsia Dunlop has written passionately about Chinese culinary culture for over two decades and offered hands-on recipes for her readers to make authentic Chinese food at home.
Recently, this celebrated author and Sinophile's memoir, Shark's Fin and Sichuan Pepper, was translated into Chinese.
In this episode of Ink&Quill, she joins the conversation with our reporter Shiyu via a phone call to retrace her apprenticeship at a Chinese cooking school, discuss her fondness for Sichuanese cuisine, and how she, a British cook, becomes a true convert to the Chinese way of eating.
Fuchsia Dunlop's memoir, Shark's Fin and Sichuan Pepper, was the winner of the Jane Grigson Award (2009) and the Kate Whiteman Award for Work on Food and Travel (2009). The book was also shortlisted for the James Beard Writing and Literature Award. [Cover: Courtesy of Shanghai Translation Publishing House]
Some highlights of the interview:
On how food has become an important part of her life
I grew up eating extremely international food, which was very unusual for 1970s England. Because my parents have a lot of foreign friends and my mother was a teacher of English to foreign students in Oxford. So she has students from all over the world and often they would come to our house and cook meals. I was definitely used to eating a great variety of tastes and my mother is a wonderful and adventurous cook too. So I didn't grow up just eating roasted beef and roasted potato.
On her early interest in food and cooking
My mother claimed she can remember the gorgeous smile on my face when I first tasted food. So I always love eating and cooking. From when I was a very small child, I used to help my mother in the kitchen. When I was eleven, I remember telling a teacher at school that I wanted to be a chef. He thought I was a little bit crazy. He laughed at me. Because you know, I grew up in Oxford, which is a very academic city and I was good at school, but the thing that I always really wanted to do was cook.
Making Mapo Tofu in rural Hunan. [Photo: Courtesy of Shanghai Translation Publishing House]
On how she came to China
When I was at university and I didn't really know what I wanted to do as a career, but I did know two things. One is that I wanted to travel and learn a foreign language; and another was that I wanted to do something to do with food anyway. After leaving university, I ended up being a sub-editor for a publication about East Asia. So I was just correcting the English of all this material about East Asia including China and I just got very interested in China. So a few months later I went on holiday. I went backpacking around China for one month. This was in 1992 and I was just completely fascinated. I thought it was so interesting and such an extraordinary country. So I came back to London and I started learning mandarin Chinese and evening classes. That's really how it started. I wanted to know China more deeply. I applied for a British Council scholarship to study in China, and that's when I really threw myself into China.
On the most strange food she has ever had in China
I had so many things that would seem very strange to a foreigner who had never been to China before. But I suppose the most difficult thing for any foreigner in China is that Chinese people enjoy eating a whole load of food which have very particular textures and sometimes no taste. There are lots of things that westerners think: “What's the point in eating this? It's just like eating a rubber band or a plastic bag."Because it doesn't have any taste! And I think Chinese people enjoy certain textures that westerners really dislike, like gristly, slithery, slimy things. Even these words in English sound very nasty. So when I was in Chengdu, I was always being given by my Chinese friends things to eat that's to normal western point of view would be really disgusting. Because my mother brought me up to be very polite and to eat everything, I did eat everything and I tried everything but I didn't really enjoy it. I think it took me a few years before I really started to enjoy the pleasure of the mouthfeel of goose intestines, of chicken feet, and all sort of these things.
Mao Xue Wang is a traditional dish from Chongqing made from pig's blood, tripe, duck's blood, ham and chicken gizzard. Beansprouts, chili, Sichuan peppercorn, sesame and other spices are often added as seasoning. [Photo: Couretesy of Shanghai Translation Publishing House]
On why some Chinese food make bad first impression for westerners
I mean it's partly because westerners don't really have the same appreciation for texture. There's also what my father calls "the grapple factor," which is when things are very complicated to eat. For example, a chickens foot has lots of little bones and not very much meat. So certainly you can't really eat it with a knife and fork. You have to eat it with chopsticks and you also have to do the sort of thing when you shuffle it about in your mouth; you get the bones out and you slurp a little bit; and then you spit out the bones. I think this is something that's quite rude in English culture anyway, like you don't spit things out. So it can make people feel very awkward. How do you eat it politely? And I also think it's a cultural thing, because I think in China there's a real pleasure in eating things that are different, exotic and unusual. So the greater the range of tastes and textures, the more exciting it is! So if you give someone a very unusual part of an animal, it has a kind of novelty value and it just makes everything more varied. I think for westerners, they just see all these little parts of animals as just being rubbish that you throw away.
On how she got enrolled at Sichuan Institute of Higher Cuisine
I started it very early on when I was living in Chengdu. Having always love to cook, I really wanted to learn how to make some of these amazing dishes and amazing flavors. So I started asking in small restaurants surround the university if I could go and study in the kitchen. Partly because in the 1990s, foreigners were very unusual in Chengdu. We were a bit interesting and also it was very unusual having a university student and a woman and a foreigner who wanted to cook. So I think people thought it was rather funny and interesting, so a lot of them said yes. So I started going into kitchens and just watching how things were made and it was so interesting because it was completely different in all the methods and the flavors from what I was used to home. And then a German friend and I heard about this famous Sichuan cooking school, so we just cycled over there one day and we said: "Please can we have some lessons?" The cooking school agreed to give us some private classes over a month or two and we learned a few classics Sichuanese dishes. I just had such a wonderful time. The food was incredible and it was just so exciting to begin to understand how to make it. When I finished at the university and I went off travelling for the summer, I came back to Chengdu and I didn't want to go home. I went to visit my teachers at the cooking school and they just said: "Well, we have a professional chef training course starting, so would you like to join in?" So I just said yes. So I did this course, which was like three months full time with about fifty young Chinese men and two young women all taught in Sichuan dialect. So I guess that's where it's getting professional. I have to say that I didn't do the course as a professional thing. I did it because I loved it and it was just a sort of interest. But I guess that's what gave me a professional foundation and help teach me the language of Chinese cookery, the cooking methods and techniques. And then it was just a gradual thing that is really just out of interest that I kept wanting to find out more and more because it was so interesting and delicious.
Fuchsia Dunlop was the first full-time foreign student at the famous Sichuan Institute of Higher Cuisine.[Photo: Courtesy of Shanghai Translation Publishing House]
On what was like to be the first full-time foreign student at the cooking school
When I look back on it, I think: "Wow, that was a very challenging and crazy experience!" You know being the only foreigner ever had in a class of like fifty something local people and the language was a challenge. And also because cooking has its own vocabulary, there were all these Chinese characters for cooking methods and cutting I've never learned before. So in retrospect, it was really crazy difficult. But actually I had such a great time. I just loved it. In some ways, learning cooking is easier than other things because there's a practical element in it with demonstrations. I think the most challenging thing was that most of my classmates had never met a foreigner before so they were a bit shy and awkward around me. Some of my classmates would own call me laowai. They didn't want to talk to me and they didn't really know how to interact with a foreigner. But some of them were very nice and my teachers were so kind. Basically I just enjoyed the cooking so much that it was a fantastic.
On how she became a food writer
Ever since I was a teenager, I had always written about food personally. So I always kept a diary and the diary always turned into menus and recipes, descriptions of food. So I sort of started doing that just for myself in Chengdu and keeping notebooks which ended up being all about food. After the cooking school, I went back to England and I went back to university to do a Master’s degree in Chinese studies. When I was there, I just found it extraordinary that no one really knew anything then Sichuanese cuisines. You have this huge region with a famous cuisine that was so delicious and I knew people in England would love. Why didn't they know anything about it? So at some point I had the idea that I would like to write such a nice cookbook and I made a proposal and I sent it to five publishers. They all rejected it and they all said that the focus was too narrow and no one would be interested in regional Chinese cookbook, which is pretty incredible considering Sichuan is about the size of France. I wrote a letter to Timeout magazine which did this restaurant guide and the restaurant views and I explained to them my experience and askedif I could review Chinese restaurants for them. They said yes and I ended up writing little reviews for the guide and eating at all the Chinese restaurants in London. That was my first professional food writing. About a year later or something, I decided to write another book proposal and I wrote it very seriously this time. I sent it to to publishers and they both wanted it. So then I had a book contract. So I went back and did a bit more research. When my book came out, it had really fantastic reviews and I think there’s so little material in English about regional chinese cuisines. That book won a prize and it attracted a lot of attention that really changed my life. That's how it really started.
The photo shows Fuchsia Dunlop's diary during her stay in China. [Photo: Courtesy of Shanghai Translation Publishing House]
On how Sichunese cuisine stands out among other regional Chinese cuisines
You know in Sichuan, they say that each dish has its own style and a hundred dishes have a hundred different flavors. And I think that's the thing. Sichunese cuisine has the most extraordinary variety of tastes of any Chinese cuisine. So it's just endlessly stimulating and you know you never get bored. And the thing that it's also very interesting about it is that the heart and soul of Sichunese cuisine is in the flavors and not special expensive ingredients or anything like that. So one dish which I think expresses the genius of Sichunese cooking is fish-fragrant eggplant(鱼香茄子). Because this is a very simple ingredients, but using the arts of Sichunese flavors, you make it into something just insane delicious. And I also think that Sichuanese cuisine has a very modern appeal, because people living in big cities now all over the world have so many choices. You know we're all very spoiled and we can have such a stimulating variety of dishes and I think Sichuanese cuisine is one of these that just go on being exciting. You never get bored with it because it has highs and lows. It has spicy and sweet and gentle and all these different flavors. So I think that's what is so special.
Self-made fish-fragrant eggplant. [Photo: Courtesy of Shanghai Translation Publishing House]
On why Sichunese cooking is more than hot and spicy
Dishes, such as fish in a great cauldron of chilies and sichuan pepper(水煮鱼), are the most dramatic dishes. I think that Sichuan cooking in the last ten years or so has become popular all over the world and it's these dishes which have become most popular. So Sichuanese cuisine is kind of like a victim of its own success. They are dramatic; they attract your attention; they look incredible; but they only represent one aspect of the Sichuanese food. So I think there's a sort of danger that people just overlook the subtlety and the variety. You know not all Sichuanese food is spicy and even the food that has chili in it. There are many different kinds of chilis. It is not just "ma la," which means numbing and hot. For example, there is also fish fragrant flavour (鱼香味), which is a very gentle sweet kind of heat. So I think Sichuan has the advantage that it has this famous symbol, chili and Sichuan pepper, but it does mean that people simplify it.
On other regional cuisines that she has been interested in
My last book called Land of Fish and Rice was about the Jiangnan region, including Zhejiang, Jiangsu and Shanghai. That region has been the one that I have been very interested in. Partly because it's a cultural center of Chinese gastronomy. So historically, many of China's great food writers came from this region and that's where people talked about food, wrote about food and developed an exquisite style of cooking. So that has shown me a very different side of Chinese food culture from Sichuan, which is so quieter, more refined, more gentle and very historic.
On the status of food in Chinese way of life
China is a culture in which food has always been extremely important. You know if you think about in the past the religious practice which was all about offering food to gods and ancestors and all your great philosophers used food as metaphor to describe the important questions of life. So I think that food is just very naturally a window into all kinds of aspects of Chinese history, culture and society. So it wasn't really a conscious decision. It was just that in learning about food, I found that I was learning about other aspects of China.
An illustration from Fuchsia Dunlop's diary. [Photo: Courtesy of Shanghai Translation Publishing House]
On the myths and misconceptions about Chinese food in the west
I think the biggest misconception about Chinese food in the west, which seems completely crazy, is that it's very unhealthy. And that's because the most popular and the most famous Chinese food is all deep fried. It's all meat and a lots of strong source, salt, sugar, MSG, and all this sort of thing. I think no one in the world understands how to eat for health better than the Chinese. You have this incredible culture of eating food as medicine and every chinese person I know has a sort of understanding of how you can adjust your diet to keep yourself in good health or to treat disease. So I think it's really crazy and it's something that I'm always talking about westerners and always writing about, trying to get people to understand. The Chinese diet is a model of balance and health and also it can be a model for sustainability, because actually the way most people in China eat traditionally is that you eat a lot of vegetables, tofu, rice or wheat, and not very much meat. Actually the Chinese way of cooking is brilliant at making vegetables taste delicious. At a time when people all over the world need to eat less meat and fish for environmental reasons and for health reasons, I think the Chinese cooking and Chinese food offers a real model of how to do it and how to eat delicious food but with just that's more healthy. I think that that's one of the misconceptions and the other is just that the chinese cuisine is just one cuisine. You know when people talk about Chinese food, it's in a way oversimplification because China is this huge continent and every province has its own style of cooking. So in a way we should really be talking about Chinese cuisines in the plural but I do think it's changing. In the last ten fifteen years, regional Chinese restaurants have been opening up in cities all over the world really. So people can just see and taste that Chinese food is not the simple thing that they once thought it was.
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