Award-winning food writer Fuchsia Dunlop on the nuances of stir-fries, duck's tongue, and why one of the world's most popular cuisines is also the most misunderstood
It is an uncomfortably warm day in the seaside town of Galle, Sri Lanka, when I first meet Fuchsia Dunlop, the award-winning British food writer and chef who has spent more than two decades specializing in Chinese cuisine. She has just spent the afternoon in the kitchen at the heritage Amangalla Hotel, slicing, dicing and prepping ingredients for a “literary lunch" that she will be hosting—and cooking—the next day (Dunlop was visiting Sri Lanka earlier this year as one of the guest speakers at the annual Fairway Galle Literary Festival).
While I await my turn, I watch her being interviewed by a television crew. It is a familiar story that she must have repeated scores of times over the years—of how a tryst with China in her 20s led to an obsession with Chinese cuisine, a professional chef’s qualification in Sichuan cooking and a successful career as a food writer and cookbook author. But there is nothing jaded about her response: She answers questions, even predictable ones, with the same energy and enthusiasm that underlines both her writing and her observations of China, the country that she has intermittently called home since the late 1990s.
Dunlop’s most recent cookbook, Land Of Fish And Rice: Recipes From The Culinary Heart Of China, was published in 2016 (by WW Norton & Co.). The cookbook, which focuses broadly on the cuisine of the Lower Yangtze or Shanghai region, has already stacked up numerous accolades, both in her native Britain and in the US, adding to a crowded shelf of honours. Her six books—cookbooks and a memoir—and newspaper articles have won four prestigious James Beard awards, and she has been nominated for four more. In 2006, she was named Food Journalist of the Year by the British Guild of Food Writers. Land Of Fish And Rice won the 2016 André Simon Food Book Award in the UK.
But defining Dunlop’s career by awards would be incomplete acknowledgement of her achievements. She is often called the foremost Western scholar of Chinese gastronomy and, although this definition comes close, it still seems lacking. Dunlop’s singular contribution has been to offer the world a nuanced understanding—and appreciation—of a popular yet misunderstood cuisine.
Through her books, Dunlop has challenged the most pervasive stereotypes about Chinese cuisine—as greasy spoon fare lacking finesse or as a sort of hinterland where everything is edible and the rules of civilized eating are turned on their head. Some of the most memorable passages in Shark’s Fin And Sichuan Pepper, her memoir of the time she spent training as a chef in Chengdu and the subsequent years, dwell on the artistry and attention to detail that mark the Chinese approach to cooking.
“...the Chinese make minute distinctions between different shapes into which ingredients may be cut, different combinations of tastes, and different kinds of braising and stir-frying," she writes. “The basic word chao, for example, means ‘stir-fry’, but if you want to be really precise, you should specify whether you mean hua chao (‘slippery stir-fry’), bao chao (‘explode stir-fry’), xiao chao (‘small, simple stir-fry’)...shu chao (‘cooked stir-fry’) or sha chao (‘sand stir-fry’). And those are just the ones that I can remember off the top of my head."
Despite this depth and variety, I ask her why Chinese cuisine has seldom been regarded with the same reverence as other food cultures, such as Japanese, for instance. “It’s partly that Chinese cuisine has the bad luck of being labelled as something cheap," she says, with more than a hint of indignation in her voice. “(That’s) because a lot of the early Chinese immigrants opened cheap Chinese takeaways. Also, I think that Chinese food is widespread but there aren’t that many skilled chefs."
Dunlop’s own journey to becoming a chef was especially remarkable. She was the first foreigner to be accepted into the elite Sichuan Higher Institute of Cuisine in Chengdu—and if that didn’t make her conspicuous enough, she was one of the only two women in class. In addition, she has found herself in the unique position of confronting stereotypes that exist on both sides of the cultural divide that she straddles.
Perhaps the most reductive of prejudices is the one against the slimy, gritty, gloopy, offal-heavy textures of Chinese cuisine. As an insider who has long embraced this landscape of textures and smells, Dunlop says it is all about perspective. “The Chinese have a very refined appreciation of mouthfeel," she says. Far from being turned off by the gristle of cartilage, the rubbery resistance of duck’s tongue or chicken feet or the sliminess of snake meat—the challenging textures that Dunlop’s father calls the “grapple factor"—Chinese cuisine celebrates it.
On the other hand, the Chinese struggle to appreciate desserts or dairy products—both absent from their traditional cuisine. Dunlop recalls taking a group of young chefs from Chengdu to Thomas Keller’s celebrated French Laundry in Yountville, California—and the disappointment that ensued. “I was very excited because it was their first introduction to Western food," she says. “But the meal rapidly proved to be a disaster. They thought the dairy products were disgusting, and that only barbarians eat uncooked food. And there were a series of sweet courses that they had no interest in."
For more than two decades, Dunlop’s curiosity has been held by a cuisine that she says she can “spend several lifetimes studying". As part of her resolve to wholeheartedly embrace it, Dunlop has ventured into the fringes of Chinese gastronomy, trying everything from shark’s fin and snake blood to turtles and muntjac deer. By the end of her memoir, she confesses to having a crisis of conscience—torn between her open-minded omnivorousness and the ethical (and environmental) cost at which it comes. How does she negotiate this delicate balancing act?
“I have had a policy of trying everything and, culturally, I’m willing to eat anything," she says. “But ethically, I don’t want to eat trafficked, endangered species. I think it’s a very complicated area. Where do you draw the line? Some things are very clear cut, like shark’s fin. But are you only going to eat free-range chicken?"
It’s a perplexing question, but one that gives me a renewed appreciation for the curiosity and empathy that marks Dunlop’s explorations. Her latest cookbook, for instance, was inspired by a visit to Dragon Well Manor, a restaurant in Hangzhou in Zhejiang province. In a food landscape tainted by widespread adulteration and hazardous pollution, the restaurant is pioneering a return to the grass roots by following the farm-to-table concept and honouring local recipes from the Yangtze region. The restaurant has given Dunlop a reason to be hopeful. “I don’t know many people who have the level of commitment of the amazing man who runs the Dragon Manor," she says. “There are now a few more organic farms, and I hope that it inspires other people to invest in similar ventures."
Even though Dunlop has written about an exhaustion with her “peripatetic lifestyle", there is no doubt that China still holds her in thrall. She speaks of the absurd lengths she has gone to bring back pieces of China to adorn her home in London. She tells the story of how she once hauled back a long pot, a teapot with a long spout that is used in Chinese teahouses. “It was fragile and it wouldn’t fit anywhere, so I was holding it in my hand on the plane," she says, laughing. “The stewardess offered to keep it safe for me, so she walked down the aisle with it. And all I could hear was a Mexican wave of laughs."