Interview: Fuchsia Dunlop on Chinese Cuisine


Fuchsia Dunlop was doing her book tour around China and I was fortunate to be given time to harass her a little while she was in Beijing. Here is the interview:

How do you feel about being the authority on Chinese food in the west?

Well, I find it all quite funny. The fact that it’s an English person who is writing all this, it just shows you how China has such an amazing culinary culture. There are so many brilliant chefs and incredible experts here but communication is a real problem. I see my role really as being like a partial interpreter—I’m trying to write from the inside, but as an outsider at the same time.

Are there times that you feel inadequate because cultural differences alienate you?

Well, in my taste I feel like I’ve become quite Chinese, and I really don’t have very many barriers and I can talk to Chinese chefs in a professional capacity.

What about relating to the Chinese who have a very different mentality?

II remember having a conversation with another English friend who lived in China for years, I had an argument with a Chinese friend and I was saying that sometimes I just think that the cultural barrier is so great that I’m never going to understand her country. And she said that you can feel like that with anyone, regardless of geography or nationality. Anyway, in terms of feeling inadequate, I have been doing this for years and years and I’m still a beginner. I could spend my whole life learning about Chinese cuisine and I would need several life times to ever get to the bottom of it. When I go to a new region, it’s a whole new cuisine and I’m learning new things every day. Certainly, I wouldn’t say in any sense that I know everything about Chinese cuisine.

Why didn’t you end up staying in China? You’ve had such a wonderful time here and you’ve embraced the eating habits of the Chinese.

Well, I might come back, it’s very much part of my life. But I also have my friends and family in England and I love Europe too. It’s always a kind of conflict or dilemma, part of me just wants to be out here all the time, but I also like being home. I do come back often, I’m working with a Chinese restaurant back in London. In terms of the work, because I deal with Chinese cuisine, writing and lecturing in America and Europe also makes sense.

What is the most memorable meal you’ve had in China?

Well, the first one in Chengdu in 1993. The first time I ever came to Chengdu, my friends took me to a little restaurant. We had the most wonderful Sichuanese food and it was what changed my life in a way. It was one of the very last reasons that I found to go live in Chengdu. I was so amazed by this delicious fresh food, so unlike any Chinese food I’d had before.

What do you think of the Michelin guides coming to Asia in HK and Macau?

I went to Lung King Heen very briefly and had a couple of small things. I interviewed the director of the Michelin guide for the FT and gave him quite abit of a grilling, because I did think how can you judge it, particularly the textured food. It took me about five years to really start appreciating eating rubbery things. It took me more time than anything and I really like it now. Those kind of food just make no sense in terms of the European gastronomy and you really have to learn something different. Something that occurred to me only last week: from what I understand how the Michelin guides work, they go many times to the same restaurant but often on their own. And with most Chinese restaurants, you need to go as a group. So, I suspect that the way things are now is probably some inherent bias in favor of places where you can have a sort of tasting menus like in hotels. But maybe in Tokyo, they’ve got more local inspectors.

People don’t stick to traditional recipes these days anymore since it’s constantly evolving?

Cuisine as a cultural form is very alive and dynamic, it’s natural because that’s where it is. You might have one chef who goes on doing everything the way his master taught him in London, but no one else is going to be doing the same. It’s natural that things adapt when their environment changes and there are new ingredients. The main thing is that what you taste as Chinese food in the West, you’ll have no idea how diverse and how sophisticated Chinese cuisine is. This is the point that I always want to make. People in England think that Chinese food is low brow and trashy. I mean are they mad? This country has a more serious cuisine than anywhere else in the world and the fact that people come to that conclusion just shows you how little of what they know about China.

But I think it also has to do with the stereotypical perception of Chinese cuisine, it’s the migrants that set up restaurants overseas and people who haven’t been out to China stick to that impression. Also, like you said, the Chinese are unable and not really willing to communicate this to a western audience or sometimes also quite happy to be minding their own business.

I think that this is a big advantage of being a foreigner and trying to talk about Chinese food because I don’t think for a Chinese it would be easy to know where the boundaries lie. People in China will either just give a visiting Westerner a whole load of sea cucumber and slimey things—of course they are going to be freaked out. The other response which is very common is to give them dishes that are totally numbed down, with no bones, familiar dishes like gulaorou (sweet and sour pork). It’s very difficult for a Chinese person who isn’t well versed in the cultures of the west to know how much they can get away with it. It’s easier for me to push it abit and say try pidan (centry egg), try chou doufu (stinky tofu) because I’m a westerner, they are more likely to believe me and try it. I started with shock and grew to love it. There’s also the problem of the linguistic challenge translating menu names or ordering a meal. Even if the westerner goes to a very good restaurant in London, they don’t know how to assemble a meal. How you order makes a tremendous difference—you have to understand the cuisine in order to match the dishes.

Where do you draw the line eating endangered species like bear paws etc?

In some ways, I would long to try it as it’s an alleged delicacy. If I was offered bears paw, I would know that it was offered illegally from the black market and I won’t eat it. I don’t know where you would draw the line because everyone is eating endangered things. Blue fin tuna, sushi, cod, farmed shrimps. Something like bear’s paw is an outstanding example of something that is deliberate eating an endangered species. I won’t pretend that a bit of me would have a pang of refusing it. Well, if it’s there right in front of me, I’d think “let’s eat it!”. Well, I have eaten some endangered species in China, sometimes knowingly, sometimes not. I have eaten shark’s fin and only recently I’ve started saying I really can’t go on eating it. But when people offer you something fantastic as an act of honor and kindness, it’s just rude to refuse. Until very recently, I have started refusing shark’s fin. It is very difficult to draw the line.

In your book, you shared anecdotes of big banquets. Is it difficult to reconcile your gastronomic adventures and discoveries, at the same time show consideration for the poor hungry peasants going?

Basically, you only get haute cuisine and very sophisticated high level banqueting in cultures where there are class differences—you have the very rich and very poor. Just take a look at French cooking. If you completely abolish the inequality, you get the cultural revolution. During the cultural revolution in China, haute cusine was banned in restaurants. It’s the same with any elite craft, fine painting, opera etc all these things come out of having some wealth somewhere. If you’re communist, these things shouldn’t exist. It also depends on the social context, if there was a famine going on and you’re feasting then it’s disgusting, if there isn’t a famine going on and there is a certain measure of inequality in social mobility, then I suppose it’s alright.

Do you think that the slow food movement will take off in China? I read recently about your article on Hangzhou in the New Yorker.

That restaurant in Hangzhou could not exist on a mass scale because it requires too much labor, but I think Dai Jianjun is making a very important point—there are all these environmental concerns and there is a value in so called green produce. In China, the products of rapid industrialization needs to be dealt with. I think it’s essential and the Chinese government recognizes it. It’s a problem for a country that has been very poor and is rapidly industrializing. You get terrible pollution and food scandals because of poor regulation and they are going to have address it. They want to address it, but it’s complicated.

However, with my experience in China in the recent years, the middle class is getting more and more concerned about the source of their food, just like how we are in Europe. I have Chinese friends who get their ayi to bring eggs and chickens from wherever they live in the countryside. There are restaurants that specifically serve things that are pollution-free, wild mushrooms and and tea leaves grown free of pollution. I think for people in China, there is this absolute sense of “food is medicine”. I suspect that Chinese people will wise up to these things faster than we have in the West. I remember having an argument with a farmer in Britain who is into GM technology and he just said “look we can’t feed everyone in the world with green organic food. It’s a luxury and a load of rubbish.” Probably in China, these arguments are even stronger. A lot of fertilizers are made with fossil fuels and energy supplies are under pressure. It’s a global problem. I suppose the question is: Can you de-intensify agriculture?

Could you tell us about the rumors about you being a spy in China?

I think some of the older generation in China until pretty recently felt that it was dangerous to associate with foreigners as they were all seen as spies. Occasionally, I’d run into some old school people who thought that foreigners were always up to some mischief and it was just really frustrating, but also terribly funny. It made life more exciting. At some point, in Hunan I had really had enough. You know I’m trying so hard to do something which could be beneficial to you, in terms of putting your cuisine on the world map.


Amongst other things, I told her that I was craving for the chapter of romance in her latest book Sharks fin and Sichuan Pepper, but she shares that that would be reserved for another book altogether. I’m certainly looking forward to a little more human drama on the pages as much as I like reading about eating caterpillars and the poetic forms of chopping techniques. Despite my dislike for the mouth numbing Sichuan peppers (think: going to the dentist and having the anaesthesia wear off after you’ve had your wisdom teeth extracted), I’m going to try cooking with some Sichuan peppers in my strawberry risotto that I’m going to reattempt after… 3 years? Grinding Sichuan peppers instead of black pepper. Will update on the result.

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