Interview: Fuchsia Dunlop
Fuchsia Dunlop is one of the leading authorities on Chinese cuisine in the English-speaking world, with a career trajectory that has taken her from learning Mandarin in her spare time to becoming the first-ever foreigner to be accepted into the prestigious Sichuan Culinary Institute in Chengdu.
With several award-winning (cook)books to her name (among them, the brilliant Shark’s Fin and Sichuan Pepper: A Sweet and Sour Memoir of Eating in China and Sichuan Cookery), Dunlop nevertheless maintains a humble outlook on her position within the culinary world. To her, she is still constantly learning about the juggernaut that is “Chinese cuisine” and is still as much a student as she is a teacher.
Dunlop was recently in town for the Hong Kong Literary Festival to promote her latest offering, Every Grain of Rice, which focuses on simple Chinese home cooking. We caught up with her and her thoughts on Hong Kong, the changing perception of Chinese food, and her favourite recipes from the book.
HongKongTatlerDining: Do you recall the first time you stepped foot in Hong Kong and how you felt?
Fuschia Dunlop: Yes, it was my first time in Asia, and I was about to venture into China alone, and I felt incredibly nervous! Hong Kong seemed thrilling and exotic. I remember being amazed at seeing live fish being butchered in the Wan Chai wet market, and revolted by my first thousand-year-old egg.
HKTD: Did you have any preconceptions about southern Chinese food before you travelled here?
FD: Like most Westerners at the time, I knew very little about southern Chinese food. My impressions were all based on eating out a few times in London Chinese restaurants, and on the reputation of the Chinese for eating wild and exotic things. I didn’t speak or read Chinese at the time, and had no idea how to order a Chinese meal anyway, so like many foreigners I was really able only to skim the surface of what was available. Funnily enough, I don’t have many distinct memories of what I ate in Hong Kong that time, except for the preserved duck eggs – but I do remember enjoying most of it immensely.
HKTD: Do you think people are bored with Chinese cuisine now, preferring ‘trendier’ Asian cuisines such as Japanese, Korean, Vietnamese or Thai?
FD: If someone is bored with Chinese cuisine, they are bored with life! It has something to offer for almost everyone! But in London for example, Chinese cuisine was certainly stuck in a rut for a long time, with restaurants mostly offering a predictable selection of Cantonese dishes, while newer immigrant cuisines such as Japanese and Vietnamese seemed fresher and more exciting. But I think the Western world is beginning to wake up to the magnificence of Chinese culinary culture, so I’m optimistic for the future.
HKTD: In regards to the previous question, how about specific Chinese regions and how they are perceived right now? Are there any very severely underrated cuisines the world should know more about?
FD: I think Cantonese is actually one of the most severely underrated cuisines. I’m also very fond of the cooking of Shanghai and eastern China, which is little known abroad. But I think I’d have to say that Chinese food in general is still underrated, because it's hard to grasp from outside just how regionally diverse it is. Apart from the so-called “Four Great Cuisines”, many provinces, cities and towns have their own gastronomic attractions.
HKTD: Tell us about your most recent book, Every Grain of Rice, and how it came into fruition.
FD: I wanted to write an inspiring and accessible cookbook that would encourage people to see that Chinese home cooking can be quick, easy, healthy and ethical. So I’ve highlighted vegetable recipes, and tried to show how brilliant Chinese cooks are at using small amounts of meat, poultry and fermented foods to make cheap everyday ingredients taste scrumptious. It’s something I’d been thinking about for some time, and includes many of the recipes I make most often at home.
HKTD: Are there any recipes in the book you really can’t live without? How about recipes in there with a story – are there any elements in the book that really resonate with you?
FD: My “emergency midnight noodles”! This is a bowlful of buckwheat noodles with soy sauce, vinegar, chilli oil and a fried egg on top, and I make variations on this recipe all the time. It’s so quick and satisfying. And I also love preparing smacked cucumbers and the kohlrabi salad, which are both crisp and refreshing and take about ten minutes to make. But I think my favourite recipe in the book has to be that old stalwart of mine, fish-fragrant aubergines.
HKTD: When it comes to cooking, what is your philosophy and how do you hope to pass it on via your teaching, talks, and books?
FD: I’m not sure I’d call it a philosophy, but I think eating well is the basis of good health, so cooking is an essential life skill as well as a pleasure. And I think it’s more important to be able to rustle up a healthy and delicious supper from whatever is in the fridge that to be able to impress your friends with a banquet. If I can inspire people to enjoy cooking Chinese food for their family and friends, I’ll be happy.
HKTD: How do you feel about being an ambassador for Chinese food in the Western world?
FD: The more I learn about Chinese food, the more I realise there is to learn. Studying Chinese cookery and gastronomy is task for many lifetimes.