Nobody I know of in the West understands more about food in China than Fuchsia Dunlop. The author of two remarkable Chinese cookbooks, Land of Plenty (about Sichuan food), and The Revolutionary Cookbook (about Hunanese cooking), Dunlop was not only the first Westerner to attend the Sichuan Institute of Higher Cuisine, she spent the better part of the last 14 years traveling through China to explore the food culture. So when her newest book, Shark's Fin and Sichuan Pepper: A Sweet-Sour Memoir of Eating in China, was published a few months ago, I knew it was going to be good. I just wasn't prepared for how good.
The book is an evocative and emotionally resonant account of her visits to China, from the time she first went as a student in 1994 to the many trips she took after to research for her two cookbooks. In traveling around the country, Dunlop discovered just how much her feelings about Chinese food had evolved in tandem with how the cultural fabric of China had evolved in the post-Mao era.
As this go-go, free enterprise period unfolded, Dunlop became profoundly aware and disturbed by all the attendant environmental problems and food safety issues that accompanied all this "progress." She found herself questioning her love for and commitment to Chinese food culture. Dunlop's restless quest to make peace with a rapidly evolving China is at the heart of her journey and this book. I won't give away the ending, but sweet and sour is an apt description for the conclusion.
Starting this Friday through the weekend, we'll be giving away five copies of this terrific memoir. Stay tuned for details, and read more about my conversation with Dunlop a few months back over dinner at Momofuku Ssam Bar in New York—which she loved, for the record.
She begged me not to force her into a Sichuan restaurant like I did a few years ago when she was promoting Land of Plenty (we had an incredible meal at Grand Sichuan Eastern on 55th Street and Second Avenue in New York, where the chef was beside himself to speak about Sichuan cuisine in Chinese with a young Englishwoman).
Most recently, we did have a free-flowing discussion about the book and yesterday I sent her a few extra questions to learn even more:
What is the most important thing you learned about China and its food in the time you spent there? Never to underestimate it. Chinese food culture continues to amaze me with its diversity and sophistication, even after about fifteen years of culinary research. There always seems to be something else to explore, whether in terms of regional flavours, culinary techniques, ingredients, or different ways of eating. I could never have imagined how endlessly fascinating this journey of discovery would be!
Related to that, what's the one thing you'd like people to know about food in China? That it can be not only delicious, but also incredibly healthy. The Chinese know how to eat, perhaps more than people in any other culture, in the sense of both of enjoying their food and of nourishing their bodies and minds.
What would your ideal Chinese meal be composed of? I would have slow-cooked pork prepared by the Song Dynasty poet Su Dongpo, stir-fried bamboo shoots gathered from a hillside in northern Fujian, fish-fragrant aubergines from the former Bamboo Bar in Chengdu, stir-fried amaranth leaves with garlic, chicken soup made by the mother of my Hunanese friend Fan Qun, and a bowl of simple rice porridge made by the private cook of the famous eighteenth-century food writer Yuan Mei.
What is the biggest misconception people have about food in China and Chinese food in general? That Chinese food is unhealthy and junky. Most people I know in China eat, at home, a fantastically balanced diet dominated by grains and vegetables, with a little meat, fish or poultry. And the cooking at the finest restaurants (not to mention the décor and the service) is incredibly good.
If people are visiting Bar Shu, the restaurant you consult for in London, what should they order if they're an adventurous or unadventurous eater? Adventurous eaters tend to adore the man-and-wife offal slices, fire exploded kidney flowers, fragrant chicken in a pile of chillies and, if they want to splash out, the boiled sea bass with sizzling chili oil. Less adventurous people won’t be able to resist the Gong Bao prawns with cashews, dry-fried green beans or fish-fragrant aubergines.
Video: Fuchsia Dunlop Prepares General Tso's Chicken
Fuchsia Dunlop's General Tso's Chicken Recipe
Serious Eats' Cookbook Interview with Fuchsia Dunlop
Joe DiStefano and Fuchsia Dunlop Take on Flushing's Golden Shopping Mall