Chinese food authority and writer Fuchsia Dunlop talks junk food, women chefs and the cookery school back in her heartland of Chengdu
“Average Chinese takeaway contains equivalent of a glass of fat”: the Daily Mirror headline informatively tells us in August. This is the backdrop that Fuchsia Dunlop, award-winning food writer, is working against. Easy slurs on the reputation of Chinese food, preconceptions of artery-clogging meals, a historical association with fast food and junk that has been difficult to shake off.
Despite these perceptions, Dunlop is still lauded as one of the main ambassadors and heroes of authentic Chinese cooking. Both academic and accessible in her approach, her journey from novice to expert becomes ours when reading her acclaimed book Sichuan Cookery which sits proudly in Observer Food Monthly’s top 10 best cookbooks and more recently into The Independent’s 50 best cookbooks.
So, why is Chinese food so ubiquitous yet so misunderstood? Dunlop believes this is down to being one of the earliest immigrant cuisines in the country.
“Chinese restaurants were starting to pop up more than 100 years ago.” Dunlop explains, “But Brits were very conservative in their tastes so [the Chinese] adapted the food and dumbed it down.
“Chinese food was handicapped from coming very early and I don’t think the community has been historically very good at communicating their food. I never understood why they weren’t they giving the good stuff to westerners, and that was because westerners weren’t used to it.”
Dunlop has been partly responsible for an exciting development in recent years - the regionalisation of Chinese food, and restaurants specialising in cuisine from Sichuan or Hunan have been appearing among unvarying Cantonese restaurants and takeaways. As consultant to Soho restaurant, Bar Shu, which in its success has spin off sisters Baozi Inn and Ba Shan (which has just launched its new Hunan menu) she has seen London embracing this regionality.
“When Bar Shu opened, we knew that the Chinese community were dying for a Sichuanese restaurant and had a guaranteed market of Chinese people. And that so many people are going on business to Shanghai, going on holiday to China, makes it easier.”
The audience she writes for may be well travelled and keen to try new things, but there’s no point being too adventurous. “The recipes have to be able to work outside of China so there’s no point writing recipes for bamboo shoots that you can’t get here.”
When I meet her over a pot of chrysanthemum tea in Bar Shu, she is very much the English lady and Cambridge graduate who grew up in Oxford, casually elegant in long white skirt and pearls, graciously apologetic for being slightly late. I’m only slightly put out that she can speak better Chinese than me and read better Chinese than me - the only thing she can’t trump me on is looking more Chinese than me, but then - she has used that to her advantage. As the first Westerner to be taken on by the Sichuan Institute of Higher Cuisine in Chengdu, she has often said that being an outsider gave her the “license to do anything”.
“But there was such a stultifying system in China; nothing would happen unless you made it happen.”
Unafraid by the bureaucracy and layers presented by the Chinese when she was there, she soldiered on with the course, as recounted in her autobiography Shark’s Fin and Sichuan Pepper, learning to read and write Chinese so she could understand the theory behind the cooking, and was only one of two women on the course among 50 men. In a system where women did not generally become chefs in kitchens, and where the provincial government would not let her take her final chef exams, these circumstances have not held her back.
She doesn’t think the number of women chefs in China will change and recounts the time she interviewed a head chef who told her women were just not strong enough. “I said 'HA!' and he said ‘come on then!’ and I made a complete fool of myself. I’ve only really met one female chef running a large kitchen and she’s a really tough cookie.”
She is now collaborating with businesswoman Diane Drey in designing the program for a cookery school back in her alma mater in Chengdu. It’s a project that lets her pass on the knowledge she so obsessively learnt when she was out there over fifteen years ago.
“I’m committed to the writing and communicating so it’s very complimentary to be working with Diane who loves the organising side of things.”
The school runs over two weeks, and mimics the intensity she originally experienced. The students are shown key skills and classic Sichuanese dishes to cook in the morning, and recreate them in the afternoon. And it’s a huge immersion into the culture - not just in the learning but eating at the local restaurants and spending time in the Chengdu so evoked in Shark’s Fin.
With more interest in real Chinese food Dunlop may well see those headlines change for the better. “What’s so completely mad is that most people in this country think that Chinese food is unhealthy and junky.
“One of the things that occurred to me more than anything else in China was how healthily people ate. The Mediterranean diet is held up as the ideal. Why not the Chinese diet?”
Cooking School in China
Course dates for Autumn: 24th October 2010 - November 5th 2010
Course dates for Spring: March 13th 2011 - March 25th 2011
Fuchsia Dunlop’s Chinese Restaurant picks in London
"When I was reviewing for Time Out I use to go to lots of places but now I’ve just got my favourites. Chinatown is not always the best place to eat."
Hunan: 51 Pimlico Road, London SW1W 8NE
“It’s lovely, very good, although I haven’t been for a while.”
Phoenix Palace: 5 Glentworth Street, London NW1 5PG
Bar Shu: 28 Frith St, London W1D 5LF
Baozi Inn: 25 Newport Court, Chinatown, London, WC2H 7JS
“I come to Bar Shu. And Baozi Inn, obviously. I LOVE that place.”
Royal China: 30 Westferry Circus, London, E14 8RR
“My favourite place for Dim Sum. The food is heavenly.”
Royal China Club: 40-42 Baker Street, London, W1U 7AJ
“A good place to splash out. I don’t often go because the ordinary Royal China is so damn good.”