The real thing

From ‘oil-ex­plod­ing shrimp’ to red-braised pork, food writer Fuch­sia Dun­lop shares her pas­sion for the sub­tleties of Chi­nese food with a wider au­di­ence, Mike Peters re­ports.

China Daily (Hong Kong) - - FRONT PAGE - Con­tact the writer at michaelpeters@ chi­nadaily.com.cn

Bri­tish writer shares pas­sion for au­then­tic Chi­nese cuisines with West.

One spring after­noon on a lake in Zhe­jiang prov­ince, a fish­er­man rowed up and of­fered Fuch­sia Dun­lop some live shrimp he had caught a few mo­ments be­fore. Later that evening, she writes in her new cook­book: A chef in the group “cooked them up in a typ­i­cal Zhe­jiang style, deep-fry­ing and then stir-fry­ing them over a high flame with a sweet, rich sauce laced with rice wine and vine­gar. The deep-fry­ing in very hot oil is known as ‘oil ex­plod­ing’ ( you bao), and it shocks the pa­pery thin shells away from the flesh, mak­ing them delectably crisp and crunchy. The fra­grant sauce clings to the prawns like lacquer, so they look as beau­ti­ful as they taste”.

Dun­lop has been im­mersed in the food cul­ture of China, par­tic­u­larly of Sichuan prov­ince, for more than a decade. Un­til re­cently, how­ever, she doubted West­ern read­ers would buy into her pas­sion.

“For a long time peo­ple saw Chi­nese cui­sine as cheap and junky,” she says.

“A lot of Chi­nese restau­rants in the West were started and run by Can­tonese im­mi­grants who weren’t chefs — they were just try­ing to make a liv­ing. The sell­ing point was ‘cheap and tasty’.”

Things have changed in re­cent years, she says, which has prompted this year’s pub­li­ca­tion of Land of Fish and Rice: Recipes from the Culi­nary Heart of China

— her fifth and most lav­ishly de­tailed culi­nary jour­ney in print.

“Im­mi­grants are not just Can­tonese any­more — so in many Chi­nese com­mu­ni­ties — in New York, Lon­don, wher­ever — you have peo­ple who are from Shang­hai, Dong­bei (North­east), Hu­nan, and they have spread out to small cities, too.

“So the mar­ket is no longer just about ig­no­rant Western­ers,” she says, grin­ning dur­ing a Skype in­ter­view from her home in the UK. “Chi­nese cus­tomers want proper Chi­nese food, and that’s rais­ing the stan­dard.”

Mean­while, she says, most peo­ple in­ter­ested in food now know that China’s food is one of the world’s great culi­nary cul­tures.

“Even in Chi­na­towns in the West,” she says, “some peo­ple like their old fa­vorites like sweet-and­sour pork, and that’s OK. But there’s also plenty of Sichuan and other dishes, so you don’t have to eat le­mon chicken and such any­more.”

Dun­lop was the first Westerner to train at the Sichuan Higher In­sti­tute of Cui­sine, but it wasn’t food that first brought her to China.

“I had been a stu­dent at Sichuan Univer­sity, on a Bri­tish Coun­cil schol­ar­ship to study his­tory and mi­nor­ity cul­tures. How­ever, I found it was more prac­ti­cal to study Chi­nese lan­guage first,” she says.

“I’d al­ways loved cook­ing, and I was ask­ing around to see if I could cook in a small restau­rant and learn. I heard about the in­sti­tute from a friend and just cy­cled over. They let me sit in on ses­sions for a cou­ple of months,” she says.

Af­ter grad­u­a­tion from univer­sity, she went back to the culi­nary in­sti­tute.

“I just popped in to say hello to my teach­ers there. They said, ‘We’re just start­ing a new course. Why don’t you join?’

“I en­rolled on the spot,” she says. “A bit of luck, re­ally.”

Why does she con­sider the lower Yangtze re­gion to be the cen­ter of Chi­nese gas­tron­omy?

“It’s the head­quar­ters of one of the four great re­gional cuisines, but the area has also pro­duced more lit­er­a­ture about food than oth­ers,” she says. “There’s a par­tic­u­lar re­fine­ment, a rich anal­y­sis of fla­vor and tex­ture.”

“You find ev­ery­thing from street food and farm­house cook­ing to the most elab­o­rate ban­quets in the coun­try,” she says. “It’s also the home of some of China’s most es­teemed in­gre­di­ents: Jin­hua ham, Shaox­ing wine, hairy crabs … . But Sichuanese is the cui­sine I started with.”

While the 368-page book is lov­ingly writ­ten and rich with photos, it is clearly meant for the kitchen and not the cof­fee ta­ble. Be­sides the de­tailed recipes, there are tips on plan­ning a menu, find­ing in­gre­di­ents, buy­ing equip­ment and cook­ing tech­niques.

“It’s for peo­ple in­ter­ested in food cul­ture and peo­ple who like to cook,” she says. “I wanted a good mix, easy-to-do dishes as well as more elab­o­rate ones.”

Dun­lop sees the cur­rent bat­tle over pork — fatty pork — in China as mis­placed, though she ap­preci- ates con­cerns about obe­sity and Type 2 di­a­betes.

“Pork is not the prob­lem,” she in­sists. “If you eat meat in the nor­mal Chi­nese way, it’s very healthy. Chi­nese peo­ple eat small amounts of meat with a lot of veg­eta­bles. You can use meat as a fla­vor­ing to make veg­eta­bles taste de­li­cious.”

Dun­lop laughs when I ask why she thinks many Western­ers shy away from tofu.

“Tofu is seen as a sub­sti­tute for things you’d pre­fer to be eat­ing, like meat,” she says.

“Put a plate of mapo tofu in front of some­body, and they are con­verted.”

If you eat meat in the nor­mal Chi­nese way, it’s very healthy.”

Fuch­sia Dun­lop, food writer

PHOTOS BY YUKI SUGIURA / BLOOMS­BURY PUB­LISH­ING

A suc­cu­lent stir-fry of chicken with crisp young gin­ger, Zhe­jiang style.

Bri­tish food writer Fuch­sia Dun­lop and her newly pub­lished Land­ofFis­handRice:Recipes fromtheCuli­naryHeartofChina.

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