Sichuan pep­per

Bri­tish gourmet ex­plores and pro­motes Chi­nese cui­sine for 26 years

Global Times - Weekend - - FRONT PAGE - By Zhang Dan

Ev­ery time Fuch­sia Dun­lop leaves China, her lug­gage is filled with Sichuan pep­pers, cook­books and bot­tles of bean paste.

This Bri­tish chef and food-writer spe­cial­izes in Chi­nese cui­sine. As a con­trib­u­tor to four cook­books and one food and travel mem­oir, she is cur­rently vis­it­ing China to pub­li­cize the Chi­nese edi­tion of Shark’s Fin and Sichuan Pep

per, which has achieved great pop­u­lar­ity among West­ern food­ies since it was re­leased in 2008.

For her, the most charm­ing fea­ture of Chi­nese food is “the way Chi­nese peo­ple re­ally take plea­sure in food,” she told the Global Times.

What Dun­lop ap­pre­ci­ated is she could be hon­est to her­self in the coun­try where rich tastes ex­cite peo­ple’s tongues ev­ery day. In her book, she writes, “Fi­nally, I was able to ad­mit to my­self that I was no so­cio-eco­nomic an­a­lyst, not even re­ally a jour­nal­ist, but a cook. It was in the kitchen, chop­ping veg­eta­bles, mix­ing a dough in my hands or sea­son­ing a soup, that I felt most com­pletely my­self.”

Taste bud ex­plo­ration

Grow­ing up in Ox­ford, study­ing at Cam­bridge, and work­ing in Lon­don, Dun­lop used to dream of be­ing a chef when she was a young girl.

How­ever, when she told her teacher she dreamed of be­ing a chef from the age of 11, he laughed at her, be­cause no one would en­cour­age an out­stand­ing stu­dent to be a cook.

As ex­pected, she en­tered Cam­bridge Uni­ver­sity, study­ing English lit­er­a­ture. Mean­while, she cooked se­ri­ously af­ter classes.

Af­ter grad­u­at­ing from the top uni­ver­sity, Dun­lop didn’t have a con­crete ca­reer plan, but she had three ob­jec­tives: she wanted to do some­thing with food, to travel and live abroad, and to grasp a for­eign lan­guage.

But China was not her plan at all un­til she started her first job as an ed­i­to­rial as­sis­tant for the Asian-Pa­cific re­gion at BBC ra­dio in Lon­don.

“It’s an in­ter­est- ing coun­try with fas­ci­nat­ing his­tory which many peo­ple in the West didn’t know much about,” Dun­lop said of her im­pres­sion about China when work­ing at BBC. In the au­tumn of 1992, she de­cided to visit the coun­try out of cu­rios­ity. In the early 90s, China was just at the be­gin­ning of its open­ing up pol­icy. “Most English peo­ple had never met Chi­nese peo­ple.” Even though she en­coun­tered prob­lems due to lan­guage bar­ri­ers, the un­prece­dented hap­pi­ness she got from food in Hong Kong mo­ti­vated her and her taste buds to ex­plore China even more.

Food shapes cul­ture

As­pir­ing to taste China’s food, Dun­lop went to study in Sichuan Uni­ver­sity as an in­ter­na­tional stu­dent. Liv­ing in Chengdu, the cap­i­tal city of Sichuan Prov­ince and one of the co­zi­est cities in China, gave Dun­lop the op­por­tu­nity to try all va­ri­eties of Sichuan food, such as fish­fra­grant egg­plant, kung pao chicken, and mapo tofu. More­over, she could be hon­est with her­self and ad­mit that cook­ing was her fa­vorite thing and the way she wanted to spend her life. “Wher­ever you go in China, peo­ple are ex­tremely in­ter­ested in food and re­ally en­joy it. I’ve al­ways loved it too. But I think not ev­ery English per­son likes it,” she ex­plained.“In gen­eral, English peo­ple are not as pas­sion­ate about food as Chi­nese.”

As a for­eign gourmet who spe­cial­izes in Sichuan cui­sine, Dun­lop has lots of lo­cal chef friends. Yu Bo is one of them.

“Fuch­sia is a marvelous chef! I feel re­ally touched by a for­eigner’s love for Sichuan food,” Yu said.

Among the eight main va­ri­eties in Chi­nese cui­sine, Sichuan food is Dun­lop’s fa­vorite, be­cause she thinks “it’s very lively, ex­cit­ing, it’s in­cred­i­bly var­ied, and it never be­comes bor­ing.”

Many Chi­nese peo­ple be­lieve food is cul­ture. So does Dun­lop. Due to her ex­plo­ration of Chi­nese food, “I don’t only see things from a Bri­tish point of view,” she said, not­ing ex­plor­ing an­other cul­ture and its food gives peo­ple real em­pa­thy.

“When I cook a West­ern dish, I will use Chi­nese cut­ting skills. When I cook meat for a West­ern dish, I will also use the Chi­nese method to get rid of the fishy odor and im­prove the fla­vor.”

Healthy Chi­nese diet

One of the cra­zi­est mis­con­cep­tions about Chi­nese food in the West is it’s un­healthy and junky, ac­cord­ing to Dun­lop.

“It’s partly be­cause western­ers re­ally don’t like MSG [monosodium glu­ta­mate] and many Chi­nese restau­rants in the West use it and their dishes are deep fried, very sweet and salty,” she told the Global Times, adding some Western­ers judge Chi­nese food by these restau­rants. This type of food is not how sen­si­ble Chi­nese peo­ple re­ally eat.

In­stead, Dun­lop thinks a Chi­nese diet is the health­i­est one in the world since Chi­nese peo­ple have a very bal­anced ap­proach to­ward food — not al­ways rich and heavy, but in­clud­ing lighter food, which is not com­mon in West­ern cui­sine.

She gave an ex­am­ple of a well-bal­anced Chi­nese meal: kung pao chicken, stir-fried veg­eta­bles, smashed cu­cum­ber, plain rice and soup.

“Western­ers could learn a lot from the Chi­nese tra­di­tional diet, be­cause at the mo­ment, we face an en­vi­ron­men­tal cri­sis as well as a health cri­sis. Lots of peo­ple want to eat more healthily and eat less meat,” she said. She be­lieves Chi­nese have many so­lu­tions on how to make veg­eta­bles taste re­ally de­li­cious rather than hav­ing meat.

For in­stance, peo­ple could learn from Chi­nese how to take a piece of steak that a sin­gle Amer­i­can would eat and pre­pare it so it could feed four.

“In Chi­nese cook­ing, they can cut it into sliv­ers and stir fry with veg­eta­bles so that four peo­ple could eat it. And it’s very tasty,” Dun­lop said with a proud tone.

Read­ing about an­cient Chi­nese cui­sine, she has learned that food and medicine have been in­sep­a­ra­ble in Chi­nese his­tory. The way Chi­nese peo­ple view food as the foun­da­tion of good health is at­trac­tive to Dun­lop.

“They [Chi­nese] con­sider ill­ness as an im­bal­ance, then use food as one of the most im­por­tant ways to re­bal­ance the body to re­gain the state of health,” she said, adding she tries a Chi­nese diet and does not rely too much on medicine when she gets ill.

Food in­her­i­tance

Whether the rich Chi­nese food cul­ture can be passed from gen­er­a­tion to gen­er­a­tion con­cerns Dun­lop. She is wor­ried that young Chi­nese are not learn­ing to cook from their par­ents nowa­days.

“It’s very sad be­cause the older gen­er­a­tion in China knows so much about cook­ing, pick­ling and pre­serv­ing, about nutri­tion and how to eat well,” she told the Global Times, en­cour­ag­ing this re­porter to learn home cook­ing from her mother.

But on the other hand, young Chi­nese in big cities pay at­ten­tion to how to eat healthy, as Dun­lop ob­served. Also, well-ed­u­cated Chi­nese and those with an in­ter­na­tional out­look are more open­minded about West­ern food than they used to be.

Dun­lop planted a pep­per tree in her Ox­ford home. This year, she will have a good har­vest. “I was just one of a bunch of homesick and cul­tur­ally dis­ori­ented for­eign­ers, try­ing to find our feet in a coun­try about which, de­spite all our stud­ies, we ac­tu­ally knew very lit­tle about. It took me some time to ac­cept this, but in the end it was the best thing that could have hap­pened to me,” Dun­lop ap­pre­ci­ated her love story with China in her book.

Pho­tos: Cour­tesy of Fuch­sia Dun­lop

Fuch­sia Dun­lop wins the James Beard Foun­da­tion Awards for her ar­ti­cle Lucky Peach, in New York, 2013. Top: Dishes made by Fuch­sia Dun­lop (from left to right): an ed­i­ble Christ­mas tree made from pieces of cu­cum­ber skin sliced into lit­tle fans; mapo tofu, Dun­lop’s fa­vorite Sichuan dish; fish-fra­grant egg­plant, a sig­na­ture dish of Sichuan cook­ing

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