Fuchsia Dunlop has written some of the best known English-language books on Chinese cooking, spending years at a time immersing herself in different regions of China in order to learn the area’s dialect and culinary specialties. But as she tells Dan, that wasn’t her original plan. She moved to Chengdu in her 20s because she wanted to live abroad and knew the food there would be great. Still, she says it took years before she stopped eating “like a European.” Her latest book, Invitation to a Banquet, tells a sweeping story of Chinese food through dishes like sweet-and-sour pork balls (an English takeaway standby) and fire-exploded kidney flowers (one of her favorite dishes of Chengdu).
The Sporkful production team includes Dan Pashman, Emma Morgenstern, Andres O'Hara, Nora Ritchie, Jared O'Connell, and Julia Russo, with production this week by Johanna Mayer.
Interstitial music in this episode by Black Label Music:
- "Stacks" by Erick Anderson
- "Gust Of Wind Instrumental" by Max Greenhalgh
- "Iced Coffee" by Josh Leininger
- "Hennepin" by James Buckley and Brian Bradley
- "Get Your Shoes On (Instrumental)" by Will VanDeCrommert
- "Simply Ukelele" by Cullen Fitzpatrick
- "Lost and Found" by Casey Hjelmberg
- "Enigmatic Rhodes" by Stephen Sullivan
Photo courtesy of Fuchsia Dunlop.
Dan Pashman: There’s very little dairy in Chinese cooking. There’s no cheese around.
Fuchsia Dunlop: No.
Dan Pashman: So I understand that you were missing cheese.
Fuchsia Dunlop: There was a traveler's cafe by the river where they had packets of sliced processed cheese kept under lock and key.
Dan Pashman: [LAUGHS]
Fuchsia Dunlop: And they were very expensive and they were only catering for the odd backpacker
Dan Pashman: That reminds me of when I did study abroad in London and I was trying to find American cheese ...
Fuchsia Dunlop: Yes!
Dan Pashman: And the only one that I could find was the Safeway brand cheese food product.
Fuchsia Dunlop: Right. [LAUGHS[
Dan Pashman: It was called — and it looked like yellow wax. [LAUGHS]
Fuchsia Dunlop: Yeah. Oh, yeah. No, it was like that.
Dan Pashman: This is The Sporkful, it’s not for foodies, it’s for eaters. I’m Dan Pashman. Each week on our show we obsess about food to learn more about people. Today, I’m talking with cookbook author Fuchsia Dunlop. Fuchsia has spent the past 30 years learning and writing about Chinese cuisine, and more importantly, cooking and eating it. She first visited China in the early ‘90s, when very few Westerners were traveling there. And she stuck around, immersing herself in China for years at a time, learning the language, and studying traditional cooking techniques.
Dan Pashman: Her cookbooks are some of the best known English-language books on Chinese cooking, and among the few that document the cuisine of specific regions, highlighting how people in China cook and eat today. Her work has introduced many Westerners to the idea that Chinese food is a lot more than orange chicken and crab rangoon.
Dan Pashman: Fuchsia's newest book is called Invitation to a Banquet: The Story of Chinese Food, and it feels like the culmination of her decades of work. But her journey with Chinese food didn’t begin in China. When Fuchsia was growing up in Oxford, England, in the '70s and '80s, English food was the butt of jokes — it’s come a long way since. Still, as Fuchsia told me ...
Fuchsia Dunlop: Yes, I had a very unusual food upbringing because my mother, for a start, is a great cook and always great ...
Dan Pashman: Right. [LAUGHS] That was the first thing that was unusual.
Fuchsia Dunlop: Well, maybe. Yeah, but also just very open minded and curious. And so one of her best friends was Indian and he taught her how to make some Indian dishes, which became part of our family repertoire. And then she was working as an English teacher for foreign students in Oxford. And she had students from all over the world. And sometimes they lived with us. So in my childhood, we had living in our home: Turks, Japanese, Italians, and also bunches of students would come around for an evening and often cook the food from their home country. So we would have a Japanese evening and all the Japanese students would set up a barbecue in the garden and make all these things. And I found actually some photos of the dinner party that my parents had when I must've been about eight. And the guests included people from Japan, Greece, Sudan, Lebanon, etc. So I was brought up with a rather international diet and not just shepherd's pie and toad in the hole.
Dan Pashman: Right. [LAUGH] And what about Chinese food growing up?
Fuchsia Dunlop: Well, the only Chinese food we had was the occasional takeout. Takeaway food was a huge treat and the options were Indian or Chinese. And I think it was rather like American takeout food, so chop suey and chow mein, but also we had this particular dish that my sister and I adored, which was sweet and sour pork balls.
Dan Pashman: Mmm.
Fuchsia Dunlop: So a nugget of pork covered in a sort of doughy batter, deep fried, and then with an absolutely bright red sweet and sour sauce, and this was the super special treat.
Dan Pashman: For years, those sweet and sour pork balls were all Fuchsia really knew of Chinese food. After she graduated from college, she got a job at the BBC, editing news articles coming in from the Asia-Pacific region. She started reading more about China, and became very interested.
Dan Pashman: So in 1992, she set off on a backpacking trip to Hong Kong and mainland China. She spent time in Chengdu, the capital of Sichuan province, where she made friends with some locals, and had some very memorable meals.
Fuchsia Dunlop: We went out to a very unexceptional looking restaurant near the bus station and we had dishes like a whole fish in chili bean sauce and a cold chicken with chili oil dressing. And most of all, I remember huo bao yao hua. So my friend presented me with this plateful of something that I — I mean, I had no idea what it was. It was all these pretty frilly little bits of something pinkish, tossed in a wok with a few vegetables. And he said, "Taste it and then I'll tell you what it is." And I did and it was delicious and he said it was pig's kidney, and it was cut in this very artful way. You know, like cut into these little frilly pieces and it was just delicately savory and so surprising to have transformed this rather clunky piece of awful into something so elegant.
Dan Pashman: That dish was called fire exploded kidney flowers — flowers because of their frilly shape. On her last day in Chengdu, Fuschia and her friends went to a tea house on the banks of the river.
Fuchsia Dunlop: And it was a warm day, and we were sitting there sipping jasmine tea and I just decided I'm going to come back and live here. And also I'd been interested in food and cooking since I was really quite small child and I knew that Sichuan was the the — or that Chengdu, was the headquarters of one of the so called great regional cuisines of China.
Dan Pashman: When Fuchsia came home from her backpacking trip, her interest in China continued to grow. She took language classes, and eventually won a scholarship for a full year of academic study in China. She fulfilled her promise to herself to live in Chengdu, choosing to attend Sichuan University.
Fuchsia Dunlop: And so although I came up with all these very academically legitimate reasons for choosing Sichuan University, actually, I thought it would be a great place to live with really good food.
Dan Pashman: Right. [LAUGHS] You had your priorities straight.
Fuchsia Dunlop: I had my priorities right.
Fuchsia Dunlop: But I mean it's so funny, because my career now looks like this very logical progression.
Dan Pashman: Right.
Fuchsia Dunlop: But it absolutely wasn't at the time. I mean, I didn't really know what I wanted to do for a career, but what I did know was that I fancied the idea of going to live in another country and learning another language, and sort of having adventures. And so the fact that it was China was a bit arbitrary. But I was kind of looking for any excuse, really, [LAUGHS] and that's what's so funny in retrospect, because I can't think of anywhere that would have been more fascinating gastronomically, and as a writer writing in English, but it was just, as they say in China, yuen fen, like a sort of serendipitous, chance, really. Yeah.
Dan Pashman: She arrived in Chengdu for her year of study in 1994, when she was in her early 20s. During the Cultural Revolution, China had been famously closed off to the world. But when that ended in the mid-'70s, there were major economic reforms that encouraged private businesses, international trade, and increased openness to the West. The nation’s economy was moving away from agriculture — meaning people were migrating to cities. By the time Fuchsia arrived, those reforms were in full swing, and the country was changing fast. When Fuchsia first came to Chengdu, the city had a population of about 3.5 million. Today, the population has nearly tripled.
Fuchsia Dunlop: It was right on the cusp of a huge redevelopment. So at that time, the city was a maze of old streets with these houses built of bamboo and wood, artisans producing food. You'd have little restaurants, tea houses, medicine shops with drawers full of herbs and a kind of street life that you could recognize if you saw paintings of China about 800 years ago. I mean, of course, it was modernized, but it had that kind of traditional feel. And at the very moment that I was there they had started to clear the old city and so week by week these streets that I was falling in love with were being demolished.
Fuchsia Dunlop: So it was a kind of curious time but it was — there were all these traditions that have now vanished that were very much alive. Like in March, I remember, there was a particular period when it was windy and there were all these kite sellers selling beautiful kites, hand painted on paper and bamboo, and the sky was full of them. And then when it was hot, people would sell handmade bamboo fans, so it was very magical. And there were not that many foreign students, but we all fell in love with Chengdu.
Dan Pashman: So how were you perceived? Because, as you say, there were not very many Westerners living there at that time.
Fuchsia Dunlop: Well, so everything we did attracted attention. So if you cycled across the city, people would stop what they were doing and look and often shout hello.
Dan Pashman: [LAUGHS]
Fuchsia Dunlop: And then every time — and particularly traveling around in more rural places, if I wanted to buy a bus ticket, a small crowd would gather and people would comment. And so it was sort of — it was very friendly for the most part, but we weren't able to blend into the background.
Dan Pashman: And how did that feel?
Fuchsia Dunlop: The whole experience was very surreal and fun and extraordinary. So, for the foreign students like me, it was this discovery of China and of this particularly appealing and beguiling city, Chengdu. And for local Chinese people, we were usually the first foreigners they'd met. And so, it was just all about discovery and surprises. Every day something extraordinary would happen. [LAUGHS] So it was just, you know, maybe the best year of my life.
Dan Pashman: Ostensibly, Fuchsia was in Chengdu to study Chinese policies on ethnic minorities, but she kept inching towards food. She always had an interest in cooking, but while she loved what she was eating in Chengdu, she had no idea how to make it. She began befriending restaurant owners, asking to hang out in the kitchens and observe. Eventually, she and a friend found out about a local cooking school — The Sichuan Institute of Higher Cuisine.
Fuchsia Dunlop: We went over there one day and just said, "Please can we study here?" And after a long negotiation and much banter, sort of bartering and so on, they agreed to give us some private classes. And so he and I did classes twice a week for a month or two and learn how to make some of the classic dishes, and it was ...
Dan Pashman: Was the bartering just the cost or were there other things that needed to be negotiated?
Fuchsia Dunlop: Well, I think they hadn't really done this before, so it was just — this is what China was like at the time, that that society was changing. All these things were becoming possible that hadn't been possible before. So everyone was making it up as they went along. And so, some foreigners come and they want to study here — well, how do we actually handle it? It wasn't clear. [LAUGHS]
Dan Pashman: Right. There's nothing about this in the handbook.
Fuchsia Dunlop: Exactly. But again, it was fun for us and it was fun for them.
Dan Pashman: Right.
Fuchsia Dunlop: I think they found it very intriguing that we were so fascinated.
Dan Pashman: After her year of study was up, Fuchsia didn’t feel quite ready to go home. So she stuck around Chengdu. One day, she rode her bike over to the cooking school, to say hello to her old teachers, and ask if she could maybe watch some demonstrations. To her surprise, the principal invited her to join a three-month long professional chef’s training course. She said yes on the spot.
Fuchsia Dunlop: They had never had a foreign student. It wasn't, as you say, in the handbook. And so I just enrolled and they gave me a Chinese cleaver and some chef's whites and that was it. And I was in this class of about 50 young Sichuanese men — there were two other women — just learning how to cook and it was fantastically fun and very challenging.
Dan Pashman: All of Fuchsia’s classes were in a Sichuan dialect of Mandarin, and her textbooks were full of highly specific, very technical terms. For example, she learned the characters for a term that translates to: slow-braising with a gently simmering sauce that makes a sound like gu du gu du gu du. She even learned to make those fire exploded kidney flowers that she remembered tasting on her first visit to Chengdu. Each day when it was time for the students to show their teachers what they’d cooked, it was especially stressful for Fuchsia.
Fuchsia Dunlop: Obviously, I felt on the line as the only foreigner and one of very few women and the other nine boys in my group were very skeptical. [LAUGHS] I mean, they'd never met a foreigner before. And so obviously, it was slightly nerve wracking, but we were all learning together, and my cooking was, you know, as good as in up and down as the other students, [Dan Pashman: Right.] and so it was fine.
Dan Pashman: At the same time that you're getting increasingly immersed in the food of Sichuan in particular, what was the perception of the people there of Western food?
Fuchsia Dunlop: Oh, terrible.
Fuchsia Dunlop: Yeah, I mean, that's one of the things that's so funny. I mean, there's a lot of Western prejudice about Chinese food, but there's also Chinese prejudice about Western food. And at that time, people just haven't really had the chance to taste Western food. I was there just before the first KFC opened, for example. There were no pizzas, nobody had ever had cheese. And so, people talked about 西餐, Western food, as if it was one cuisine, just as we talk about Chinese food in a way. And then, the most common damning stereotype, which is still very current today, is that 西餐很简单很单调, which means that western food is very simple and very monotonous.
Dan Pashman: Right. [LAUGHS]
Fuchsia Dunlop: So people thought that it was just hamburgers and sandwiches.
Fuchsia Dunlop: And then when I tried occasionally to cook Western food ...
Dan Pashman: Yeah, what would happen when you tried to change their minds?
Fuchsia Dunlop: Very disastrous.
Dan Pashman: [LAUGHS]
Fuchsia Dunlop: I mean, I made — I once tried to make roast beef and roast potatoes and then apple crumble for some Chinese friends, and they just — they couldn't believe that one would invite guests and have so few dishes. They didn't really like beef and they — you know, Sichuan food is normally highly seasoned and they just — they wanted rice with it and then they had second helpings with the actually the apple crumble with the beef because in China you don't really have a dessert course. So it was all a very interesting cultural scramble and they definitely were not impressed.
Dan Pashman: [LAUGHS]
Dan Pashman: In her new book, Fuchsia writes that “A martial artist or a musician only learns through practice; it’s the same for a professional eater.” During those early days in China, Fuchsia practiced a lot. Out of a mixture of polite English upbringing and genuine curiosity, she made it a point to eat whatever was placed in front of her. But even after two years of living in Chengdu, she says she was still eating like a European.
Fuchsia Dunlop: There's a whole sort of aspect of Chinese gastronomy which is completely alien to Western tastes, which is the appreciation of texture. And for Chinese people, I think texture is as important as taste. So when people are expressing, describing food or expressing appreciation, they always talk about the 口感 or mouthfeel as well as the taste. So eating is a whole sensory experience and texture is important. And that partly is why the Chinese eat a whole range of foods that are mysterious or even revolting to Westerners. So, mysterious in the sense that there are many ingredients that have no taste at all but are just textural, like jellyfish, which is slithery, crisp, transparent sheets or something with no flavor whatsoever. And also grisly things, like chicken cartilage — intricate morsels like chicken's feet and duck's tongues. And they're all most enjoyable if you enjoy the playful interaction between tongue and teeth and your food. And Westerners, as a rule, don't. And so, I always ate everything very politely. And I would go out for hot pot, and my friends would order goose intestines and huā hóu, which is actually the rubbery aortas of pigs and cattle. And all these other rubbery, slithery things. And so I would eat them, but as far as I was concerned, it was just like eating rubber bands. I mean, what was the point? I had no pleasure. I was just doing it out of duty. So that's what I mean by saying that I was eating like a European.
Dan Pashman: After two years in China, Fuchsia realized something had changed. Now, she was eating these foods not out of politeness but because she truly liked them.
Fuchsia Dunlop: When my parents came to visit me in Chengdu, I took them out for hot pot. And Sichuan hot pot, the most popular ingredients for Sichuanese people to dip into their spicy cauldron of chilies and Sichuan pepper are all the slithery, rubbery things. So I was there with my parents and completely without thinking about it, I ordered things like, you know, duck or goose intestines and these rubbery foods. And then when I saw my father trying very politely to eat one of these things, [LAUGHS] I suddenly — I suddenly realized, you know, I hadn't even thought that's going to be really unpleasant for him or challenging. And I’d just forgotten and so I think it was moments like that that made me realize that I was not eating in the same outsider way that I had been before.
Dan Pashman: As I tell Fuchsia, a while back I was at a Chinese restaurant, and I ordered duck tongues. I love duck, and I wanted to try it out. They’re smaller than your pinkie finger, and there’s not really meat on them. They’ve got a sort of rubbery skin and a few little prongs of cartilage inside. I loved the flavor, but I’ll admit the texture was unfamiliar to me. I also just had this sense that I was eating them wrong. So I asked Fuchsia: What is the best way to eat duck tongues?
Fuchsia Dunlop: Obviously, you can't eat something like that with a knife and fork. And you can't eat it in what, for an English person, would be a very polite way. So what you do is with chopsticks, which are ideal for sort of nibbling at things, you would put it to your mouth and sort of use your teeth and tongue to negotiate the bits of — the edible bits off the prongs that you can't eat, and then the cartilage that you can then take it out with your chopsticks or even maybe raise your rice bowl and gently spit them out. So, yes, it has what my father always called high grapple factor, so it's not straightforward to eat. And that's the whole point. It's not about the destination, it's about the pleasure of the journey.
Dan Pashman: It sounds like you also had to get past some of your own Western preconceptions to make that leap.
Fuchsia Dunlop: Well, yes, and I think the first preconception was just — I mean, it was an unconscious preconception that it was pointless eating things that didn't have any flavor or pointless eating them for the texture.
Dan Pashman: But also, I mean, the underlying notion that I think we're kind of programmed to have in the West is that like, big pieces of meat are sort of the pinnacle of quality, luxury, and the other bits and pieces of the animal are the things you eat when you can't afford the big piece of meat.
Fuchsia Dunlop: Yes, exactly. And in China, it's very different. So partly, I think because the pleasure of Chinese cuisine lies in infinite variety. If you're having even quite a simple home meal, you might have several dishes. And it's all about contrast. So you you have a mouthful of something that may be strong tasting. And then you have a mouthful of something that's more delicate. You have something that's dry and crisp and then you have something soupy. It's all about variety. So munching your way through a uniform slab of meat is just less interesting from a Chinese point of view than the variegated textures and tastes in, say, a fish head. There's also the idea of privilege. The privilege lies in having the things that are very scarce, like every duck just has one tiny little tongue. It's an extraordinary privilege because you're getting this tiny, prized little morsel. And all the other people are just getting the duck breast or whatever.
Dan Pashman: Right. There's a lot of bites of duck meat on a duck. There's only one bite of duck tongue.
Fuchsia Dunlop: Exactly.
Dan Pashman: As Fuchsia wrapped up her time at the Sichuan Institute of Higher Cuisine, she began to think about writing a Sichuanese cookbook. This was before the era of highly regional cookbooks, and Fuchsia didn’t see any other books out there quite like the one she wanted to write, so she decided to give it a shot.
Dan Pashman: She moved back to England and began pitching the book. Her initial proposal was rejected by six publishers, but eventually she got a book deal. In 2001, Sichuan Cookery was published. The U.S. version, retitled Land of Plenty, came out a couple years later. The book was a hit. And at the time, with the internet still in its relative infancy, this book was one of the few places for English speakers to find traditional recipes for Sichuanese dishes like mapo tofu, dry fried green beans, and many more. As the New York Times noted in 2007, while there were plenty of English-language regional cookbooks about France and Italy, the same didn’t exist for China until Land of Plenty came along.
Dan Pashman: After that success, Fuchsia began to think about a second cookbook. Where should her next adventure take her? She decided to immerse herself in the Chinese province of Hunan. But her experience there would be so intense, she thought she might give up Chinese food writing career for good. We’ll hear about that when we come back. Stick around.
+++ BREAK +++
Dan Pashman: Welcome back to The Sporkful, I’m Dan Pashman. Hey, two quick things — first, a reminder that we have signed cascatelli posters for sale, you can add on boxes of cascatelli. It’s a great holiday gift. You get those at Sporkful.com/merch. And if you want to give the gift of a signed copy of my forthcoming cookbook this holiday season, head on over to Sfoglini.com. That’s S-F-O-G-L-l-N-I dot com.
Dan Pashman: Finally, it’s that time of year: I want to hear your New Year’s Food Resolutions! What food do you resolve to eat more of in the new year and why. Send a voice memo to me at email@example.com — tell me your name, your location, and the food you resolve to eat more of and why. We just might feature you in our annual year end episode. Again, send your voice memo to me at firstname.lastname@example.org. Thanks.
Dan Pashman: Now, back to my conversation with author Fuchsia Dunlop, whose new book is Invitation to a Banquet: The Story of Chinese Food. In 2003, after the success of her first book, Fuchsia decided that her second cookbook would highlight the cuisine of a different region of China — Hunan province.
Fuchsia Dunlop: [LAUGHS] I mean, in retrospect, it was a slightly mad decision.
Dan Pashman: Right. [LAUGHS]
Fuchsia Dunlop: Because I didn't know that much about it. But I thought I liked the spice of Sichuan and Hunan is another famously spicy province and it was also something that had been unexplored in writing in English. And that was about it, so it was quite arbitrary.
Dan Pashman: Not the first arbitrary decision that you made, Fuchsia.
Fuchsia Dunlop: No.
Dan Pashman: [LAUGHS]
Dan Pashman: But after being so comfortable in Sichuan, Hunan was something of a rude awakening. She didn’t know anybody who lived in Hunan. The dialect was different and there were even fewer foreigners than there had been in Sichuan.
Fuchsia Dunlop: And so I was essentially on my own. So it wasn't an extension of Sichuan. It was another place with its own very strong identity and language. So it was very difficult at first and lonely, and I did wonder if I was really committed to doing this project or not.
Dan Pashman: But Fuchsia stuck it out, spending several years immersing herself in Hunan to write her second book.
Fuchsia Dunlop: I think I had just very much adapted to being in Hunan and it was wonderful. But it was just — I just felt a bit lost. China was so separate from the rest of my life. So people I knew in China, most of them didn't speak English. They'd never been abroad, they'd never eaten Western food they didn't really know anything about where I came from. A lot of it was pre-email. It was too expensive to call home. And then, meanwhile, my family and friends in England didn't really know anything about China at all, so it was very disconnected.
Dan Pashman: It must be hard to feel like you have two halves of your existence that are so separate from each other.
Fuchsia Dunlop: Yes, it was very hard.
Dan Pashman: It can be disorienting, I would can imagine.
Fuchsia Dunlop: Exactly, exactly. And I used to always find the first few days in China are a bit difficult. And I found it much easier when I would go and spend a couple of days first in Hong Kong or Shanghai or Beijing and then go to a place where I was the only foreigner and no one spoke English.
Dan Pashman: Fuchsia describes these stopovers in Hong Kong as almost like going through a pressurized chamber – like if she transitions too fast between England and mainland China, she’ll get the bends. Fuchsia’s second cookbook would be called: Revolutionary Chinese Cookbook: Recipes from Hunan Province. She decided to make the book jacket communist red, and sprinkled the pages with the iconography of Mao Zedong, who led the Cultural Revolution. Mao’s regime murdered millions of Chinese in its efforts to consolidate power. Mao is from Hunan province, and his image remains a common site in the region. But back home, Fuchsia got some backlash for her design choice.
Fuchsia Dunlop: I just felt that I had been so immersed in China and in Hunan that I was just used to seeing Mao, his image dangling from the windscreen in taxis and on the walls of people's houses. And that I was not assessing him as a political figure. I was just seeing him as part of the normal backdrop of everyday life.
Dan Pashman: Fuchsia had so thoroughly immersed herself in Hunan, she was seeing Mao’s image the way many locals see it. In her memoir, she writes that it was in Hunan where she really lost herself in China.
Fuchsia Dunlop: I was just completely in a Chinese environment in China and I did feel that I was sort of losing touch with where I came from. [LAUGHS]
Dan Pashman: How did that realization feel?
Fuchsia Dunlop: Well, it was just ... It was a bit strange and I... I felt that I'm very adaptable, which is one of the reasons that I've been able to do what I do. But I think sometimes there is a cost because you do want to always know [LAUGHS] your roots and where you come from.
Dan Pashman: Fuchsia says it’s easier to transition between England and China these days — with the internet and cellphones, the two worlds are more connected. But that first time coming back from Hunan, reentering Western society after being so deeply embedded … she says it was so intense that for a while she thought she might be done working in China for good.
Fuchsia Dunlop: Oh yeah, I've had several moments.
Dan Pashman: Right.
Fuchsia Dunlop: Because it's just that I absolutely love what I do and it's endlessly fascinating. But it's quite difficult. It takes a lot of time and immersion like some of my cookbooks take years. I don't want to go in cold and just sort of quickly go and hoover up information and write a book. I want to feel connected to the place and feel connected to people and have real friends and just — I want it to get a bit under my skin. There have been a few moments when I just got fed up with it and thought why don't I just have an easy life and go home, you know, [Dan Pashman: Right.] and be a normal English person.
Dan Pashman: [LAUGHS]
Fuchsia Dunlop: But then always whenever I felt like that, I would meet someone in China. Sometimes people who would really appreciate what I was doing or who would say, come to my province and write about our food. [LAUGHS] Or I would just feel just, I just this old kind of magic again.
Dan Pashman: A year after she published her Hunan cookbook, Fuchsia returned once again to China. She says at first, her heart wasn’t in it — she was still weary from the experience she’d had in Hunan. But then, she visited the city of Yangzhou, in Jiangsu province. She took a bicycle rickshaw through the old streets, which hadn’t been demolished in favor of skyscrapers. She walked through landscaped gardens and watched people selling pheasants and baskets of fruit along the canal. And of course, she ate — steamed buns stuffed with radish slivers, fried peanuts and cubes of fermented beancurd, and sweet-sour cucumber. Fuchsia writes that she “had the sense there of a city being rescued and reborn from the ashes of the Cultural Revolution, and of hope in a Chinese future that was more than just rampant capitalism.” For her, the magic was back.
Dan Pashman: From there, four more cookbooks and a memoir followed. Today, more than 20 years after the publication of her first cookbook, Fuchsia is known as one of the English speaking world’s foremost authorities on regional Chinese cuisine. Her new book is not a cookbook, or a memoir. It’s called Invitation to a Banquet, and as she puts it, it’s the story of Chinese food, told in the form of the stories behind 30 dishes — from bitter melon and pork rib soup to rinsed mutton hotpot to Chongqing chicken in a pile of chillies.
Fuchsia Dunlop: So what I wanted to do was just to look at, you know, what Chinese food is. [LAUGHS] You know, why have Westerners misconstrued it, and why have they had so many ridiculous stereotypes about Chinese food. What makes it Chinese — historically, materially, like in terms of ingredients, technically in terms of cooking methods, and then sort of emotionally and philosophically. I just really wanted to encourage readers to open their minds to Chinese food as being this very diverse and interesting and ancient and very developed culture. [LAUGHS] You know, it's not — there's nothing wrong with takeaway food or, you know, the American Chinese food. It's great and it's popular, but there's so much more to Chinese food than that.
Dan Pashman: One of the other misconceptions that you take on in the book is this notion that Chinese food is unhealthy. It may be that Chinese takeout food in the West is not the healthiest. But as you said, that's not a representation. You make the case that, possibly more than any other culture, Chinese people see an incredibly strong connection between what you eat and your health.
Fuchsia Dunlop: Of all the Western stereotypes of Chinese food, this is the most ridiculous, that it's unhealthy. Because, really through the — from the beginnings of Chinese civilization, like, the earliest Chinese recipes were manuscripts of tonic medicinal recipes.
Dan Pashman: Like prescriptions.
Fuchsia Dunlop: Yeah. And the Chinese have always understood that diet is the basis of health. And they've always seen food as being medicine.
Dan Pashman: And there's also great consideration given to not just like, if you don't feel well eat this, but also like when you decide what to eat and how it's gonna make you feel, it's, you should also be thinking about how you're gonna feel after you eat it. Sometimes in the West, especially in America, there's sort of a celebration of gluttony sometimes, and it's sort of like, yeah, you're gonna feel like crap after you eat this, but like, while you're eating it, you'll feel great. But it sounds like in Chinese culture, you would never divorce the eating the food from how it makes you feel after you eat it.
Fuchsia Dunlop: No, and as you say, I think good food in the West is all about immediate sensory pleasure. I had dinner at one of — I mean, probably the most famous restaurant in Britain, The Fat Duck, with a Malaysian Chinese friend who was very keen to go there, and we had the most wonderful feast. I mean it was an incredible meal. But afterwards, my friend pointed out that the last few courses had all been sweet and heavy. And in China, a well planned banquet is designed to also make you feel good. So you'll have some rich and opulent and heavy dishes, but you'll also have some very light broths, some understated dishes, and you'll typically finish with something very light, like fresh fruit — or in Sichuan, you finish with a broth, a refreshing broth. And she just said, you know, this has all been wonderful, but now I feel pretty much comatose.
Dan Pashman: Right.
Fuchsia Dunlop: And if we were in China, even if we'd had a spectacular banquet of 40 courses, it would have taken us to a place of feeling shufu: well and comfortable — and we would have finished with something light and then we'd go home and have a good night's sleep. And that really struck me.
Dan Pashman: As I said Invitation to a Banquet looks at Chinese food history through specific dishes, and one story really blew my mind …
Dan Pashman: This was a big one for me, Fuchsia — mapo tofu is new?
Fuchsia Dunlop: [LAUGHS]
Dan Pashman: Like, I would have guessed that that was one of the ancient recipes.
Fuchsia Dunlop: No, no — late 19th century.
Dan Pashman: It's 125-years-old, give or take. By Chinese standards, that makes it like hot off the shelves.
Fuchsia Dunlop: Yes, yes.
Fuchsia Dunlop: Yeah, but I suppose it's — I mean, I think that people become very attached to ideas of culinary history and handing down recipes and authenticity and so on. But I think the point is that a cuisine is a very much a living form of culture that is reinvented every single day and every single time you cook a recipe. And it's always in a state of flux. And the best example of that for me is just the chili in Sichuan, because that's a relatively recent import from the Americas. You know, it was first seen in China late 16th century and wasn't established in Sichuan until, you know, sometime later. We don't know exactly when. And now you cannot imagine Sichuanese food without the chili. Yes, and Mapo Tofu. So there was a woman restauranteur, Mrs. Chen, who invented it in the north of Chengdu in the late 19th century, and the dish bears her name: Chen Mapo, which means pockmarked old mother Chen.
Dan Pashman: Okay. [LAUGHS]
Fuchsia Dunlop: Which sounds pretty rude in English but is meant very affectionately.
Dan Pashman: Right. [LAUGHING]
Dan Pashman: For decades after she first visited China, Fuchsia experienced the country’s increasing openness. But over the past ten years, she’s watched the nation move in a different direction. In 2012, President Xi Jinping launched an anti-corruption campaign — which The New Yorker magazine has called “a vast machine of arrest and detention.” Under this campaign, The New Yorker reports, more than 4 million people have been “investigated and punished,” and many of those have wound up in courts that have a 99% conviction rate.
Dan Pashman: This past May, Fuchsia went back to China for the first time since the pandemic. She says the country felt different.
Fuchsia Dunlop: The thing that was most striking was that there were almost no foreigners. So you know, as I've said earlier, when I was first in China there were very few foreigners, we were very conspicuous, and it felt a bit like that again. And that for me — it was strange. And I do feel that right at the beginning, when I was writing about Chinese food in the 1990s, Westerners had very negative or ignorant views about China. They didn't know much about it at all. So I was really very much writing, trying to encourage Western people to relate to China and by writing about the food and the people and the context. And then in the intervening sort of couple of decades, there was this great excitement in the West about China. Everyone was going there and saying, "Oh, wow, Shanghai is so modern and there's great optimism." And now again, we're in a period of great geopolitical tensions and separation. And so, you know, on the one hand, it's a real shame. You know, I'm someone who is in the business of cultural exchange and relation and dialogue. But on the other hand, it makes me feel more committed to what I do. I mean, we have to remember the humanity of other cultures. We have to try to understand each other. We have to talk to each other. And China is a huge and complex country with many layers to it and many aspects to it. And I think that food is a really good way of relating to China and understanding something that is beyond all the headlines and something else at this very difficult time.
Dan Pashman: How has your relationship with Chinese food and culture changed in more recent years? How would you characterize it today?
Fuchsia Dunlop: It’s very deeply ingrained. Obviously, Chinese food is not part of my heritage or my ancestry, but I’ve been speaking Chinese and deeply involved in China and Chinese food for more than half my life.
Fuchsia Dunlop: And so when I think of the dishes and the places and the food that tug at my heartstrings and make me make me feel kind of romantic and nostalgic, then they’re as likely or more likely to be Chinese as they are English.
Dan Pashman: That’s cookbook author Fuchsia Dunlop. She currently lives in London, and she’s the author of seven books about Chinese cuisine. Her newest is called Invitation to a Banquet, it’s out now. And we’re also doing a giveaway of that new book right now! If you want to enter to win Fuschia's new book, all you got to do is sign up for The Sporkful newsletter at sporkful.com/newsletter by December 17th. You have have noticed that we do a lot of giveaways through our newsletter, so you really want to be in that list cause if you don't win this prize, you might win the next one. If you're already on our list, you're automatically entered to win this and all of our giveaways. Open to U.S. and Canada addresses only. Again, please sign up at sporkful.com/newsletter.
Dan Pashman: Next week on the show, it's time for Salad Spinner year end edition. We're going to do a retrospective on the year in food. We’ll bring you the quirky, the silly, the surprising, the substantive — everything you need to know and a few stories you forgot from this year in the world of food with some of special guests. That’s next week.
Dan Pashman: While you’re waiting for that one, check out last week’s episode about the restaurant where all the chefs are grandmas. That’s up now.