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Fuchsia Dunlop Taught Me How to Cook Chinese Food

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A young white woman in an apron cooks a dish in a wok in a traditional Chinese kitchen.
Fuchsia Dunlop cooking in rural Hunan circa 2004. Dunlop's new book, 'Invitation to a Banquet,' explores the history and underlying philosophy of Chinese cooking through the stories of 30 dishes. (Courtesy of Fuchsia Dunlop)

For most of my adult life, I didn’t really know how to cook Chinese food. Once in a while, I’d attempt some big song and dance for a dinner party — scratch-made dumplings, say, or crispy roast pork belly. But the kind of homey, everyday dishes I grew up on as a first-generation immigrant kid? Those remained a mystery.

After I had children of my own, that ignorance started to feel like a personal failing: Americanized as my girls were certain to be, I couldn’t stand the idea that they would grow up not knowing how to eat a proper family-style Chinese meal.

So, I set about trying to learn. This was eight or nine years ago, when reliable English-language recipes for home-style Chinese dishes were still relatively hard to find. When I snagged a copy of Fuchsia Dunlop’s Every Grain of Rice, it felt like I could finally unlock the puzzle box I’d been worrying over for years. Here, at last, was an English-language cookbook packed with straightforward recipes for the kind of simple Chinese dishes that I’d grown up on: pressed tofu stir-fried with green peppers, clams in black bean sauce, napa cabbage with dried shrimp. By the time I finished cooking my way through the book, I was well on my way to becoming the kind of competent Chinese home cook who could whip up three quick stir-fries in the time it takes a pot of rice to finish steaming. All thanks to the clear instruction of a mild-mannered white woman from the U.K.

Dunlop, of course, is a legend in the world of Chinese cookery. In the ’90s, she became the first Westerner to train at the prestigious Sichuan Higher Institute of Cuisine in Chengdu, China, and she has made a career out of translating China’s wildly diverse, and often wildly misunderstood, cuisines for a non-Chinese audience. She’s done it, too, with a humility and earnest curiosity that sets her apart from many of her “white expert” counterparts in other cuisines: No one is quicker than Dunlop to deflect praise back to the Chinese chefs who have befriended her and taught her their secrets.

The book jacket for Fuchsia Dunlop's 'Invitation to a Banquet' depicts a colorful Chinese ceramic bowl against a light blue background.

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Dunlop’s new book, Invitation to a Banquet, isn’t a cookbook at all. Instead, it’s a meandering, often philosophical exploration of what Chinese food culture actually is — and what it’s becoming — told through the story of 30 specific dishes. In one chapter, about a soup of wild catfish cheeks, she writes about the dozens of different food textures that the Chinese both admire and have highly specific words for. In another, she writes about a dish made by braising the cottony, seemingly inedible pith of a pomelo until it becomes ethereally delicious — a creation so ingenious that it flips the famous notion that Chinese people are willing to treat anything vaguely edible as an ingredient entirely on its head.

“No other cuisine,” Dunlop writes of Chinese food, “has had such extraordinary influence or been so much loved, adopted and localized in so many countries.” At the same time, few other cuisines have been as shockingly misunderstood, especially in the West.

On the eve of the book’s U.S. release — and ahead of her San Francisco book tour events on Nov. 13 and 14 — I spoke to Dunlop about new trends in American Chinese food, what Chinese people in China think of her books, and the uniquely British phenomenon of fish and chip shops that have been converted into Chinese restaurants.

The following interview has been edited for length and clarity.

***

Luke Tsai: You’re probably best known for your cookbooks, but this new book, Invitation to a Banquet, very much is not that — it’s more about the history and cultural context behind Chinese food. What inspired this project?

Fuchsia Dunlop: Well, I’ve been eating and thinking about Chinese food for about 30 years now, and there’s always been more that I wanted to say about it than you can reasonably do in the headnotes or introduction of a cookbook. The thing that was preoccupying me more and more is this weird injustice in the way that Chinese food is viewed internationally, which is that it’s incredibly popular globally, and it has been, in many places, for 100 years. But at the same time, people don’t really give it credit for being the sophisticated, extraordinarily diverse and wide-ranging cuisine that it is. Chinese food has been stuck in the kind of easy neighborhood or takeout brackets. And few people in the West have the chance to try really high-level Chinese food — these technically advanced, complicated dishes that are not recognized.

Another of the stereotypes that I really wanted to look at in the book is the old thing about the Chinese eating everything, which has always been seen in a really negative light in the West — this idea that it’s a poor country that’s a bit desperate, so they’ll eat anything. It’s true that the Chinese eat an extraordinary range of ingredients, and are much more adventurous than your typical Westerner. But I find this inspirational and joyful. And also at a time when we all have to think more creatively about how we eat because of environmental reasons, I think there’s so much to learn from this radically creative Chinese approach to making delicacies out of everything and not wasting anything.

A cook in a striped apron poses for the camera while holding a plate of Chinese food.
Dunlop poses for a photo in her London kitchen. (Yuki Sugiura)

One of the parts of the book I found really interesting were the differences between British Chinese food and American Chinese food — the fact that Chinese food didn’t really take off in the U.K. until after the 1950s, for instance. What would you say are the main differences today?

We have some parallels like chow mein and chop suey. In the U.K., we have sweet-and-sour pork balls with red sauce and also chips in curry sauce because that was another thing — that Chinese restaurants often took over fish and chip shops. We don’t have General Tso’s chicken, but we do have crispy duck with pancakes everywhere.

In America now, you have whole suburbs with enormous populations of Chinese from all over China. In the U.K., we don’t have anywhere like San Gabriel Valley or New York Chinatown. The amount of produce and the scale is much bigger than ours, and you’ve got a greater diversity of regional restaurants. We have a lot of Sichuan and a bit of Hunan in the U.K., but you’ve got so many Jiangnan or Shanghainese restaurants, which we don’t really have.

You’ve just got bigger centers of Chinese people in the U.S., and having more native Chinese people in an immigrant population makes the food much more “authentic,” in the sense that it’s closer to what people are actually eating in China.

What do you think of the Bay Area’s Chinese food scene, especially in terms of some of the new movements we’re seeing in more “modern” second- or third-generation Chinese American cuisine — the food being put out by chefs like Brandon Jew (of Mister Jiu’s), who is hosting one of your San Francisco book events?

Not just in the Bay Area, but in America generally, I think it’s really interesting that there’s a whole lot of second- and third generation Chinese people who are doing interesting things that involve mixing up different cultural influences and working with their heritage but not being totally bound by it, which is really fun.

Another thing that I tried to bring out in the book is that Chinese food is so diverse and dynamic. In China itself, the food has always been responding to new cultures and new influences. The best example is Sichuanese food itself: They’ve only had chilies for a couple hundred years. They combined the chili with the ancient Chinese spice, the Sichuan pepper, and they created mala. And now you can’t really imagine Sichuan food without it.

I’ve been traveling around for three decades now. Every time I go to China there’s some new craze, some new ingredient. Most of us have an affection and a reverence for tradition. But I think that can coexist with being creative — with breaking the tradition.

The Chinese-language book jacket for the book 'Shark's Fin and Sichuan Pepper' depicts a woman bending down to talk to a Chinese woman seated in front of several bowls of soup.
The book jacket for the Chinese edition of Dunlop’s 2008 food memoir, ‘Shark’s Fin and Sichuan Pepper.’

It seems like you’re very conscious of your responsibility as the person who is introducing many people — even people of Chinese descent — to Chinese cooking. Do you think of your role as being primarily one of translating Chinese food culture to foreigners? Or have Chinese readers also become a part of your audience?

When I started out, what I thought I was doing was writing about Chinese food for people who were not Chinese and didn’t grow up with it. That was the whole motivation, really. And so it’s been really surprising to me that actually the people who appreciate it the most tend to be people like you — who know Chinese food and love it, but don’t necessarily speak the language.

Now, four of my books have been published in China in Chinese — this one is the first book I’ve written that I knew would have a Chinese edition. So I suppose I’m not writing for only one audience anymore.

I am an outsider. I didn’t grow up with this, and I’m observing Chinese food from that outside viewpoint. On the other hand, I’m really trying to understand how food is eaten and understood in China itself — and to be fair and balanced about it.

Maybe that’s why Chinese people like it too. A lot of Chinese readers of the books tell me they find it really interesting. Somebody coming from outside notices things that you don’t really notice as the daily background of your life.

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On Monday, Nov. 13, Dunlop will appear in San Francisco for a book signing at China Live (644 Broadway) from 2–4 p.m., and a book talk and signing at Omnivore Books (3885 Cesar Chavez St.) at 6:30 p.m.. On Tuesday, Nov. 14, she’ll appear at a ticketed release party at Moongate Lounge (28 Waverly Pl.) from 6–9 p.m.

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