British gourmet explores and promotes Chinese cuisine for 26 years
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.
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.
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