clock menu more-arrow no yes mobile

Filed under:

Fuchsia Dunlop's Neverending Obsession with Chinese Cookery

A conversation with the cookbook author and scholar of Chinese gastronomy about the pleasures of following your stomach

If you buy something from an Eater link, Vox Media may earn a commission. See our ethics policy.

Fuchsia Dunlop is a big proponent of the “I’ll have what they’re having” school of restaurant ordering. The cookbook author and veritable historian of Chinese culinary culture has made a career of introducing the country's gastronomic traditions to a Western audience — without dumbing anything down. Fuchsia dropped by the Eater Upsell studios to talk about her latest book, Land of Fish and Rice, as well as 12th century Chinese foodies, and how to make the best of long-distance travel (chocolate and The Girl With The Dragon Tattoo, for starters).

As always, you can get the Eater Upsell on iTunes, listen on Soundcloud, subscribe via RSS, or search your favorite podcast app. You can also get the entire archive of episodes — plus transcripts, behind-the-scenes photos, and more — right here on Eater.

Read the transcript of the Eater Upsell Season 2, Episode 17: Fuchsia Dunlop, edited to just the interview, below. For Helen and Greg dropping some truth bombs about pie (for example, that it's wildly overrated) you'll have to listen to the episode in full.

Helen Rosner: When you travel, do you seek out Chinese restaurants?

Fuchsia Dunlop: I do to an extent. But I have to say, the first time I visited New York was on the publication of my first book, Land of Plenty. It was my first visit to the United States at all and I was dying to go eat pancakes and bacon and maple syrup and burgers and American stuff. But everyone I met insisted on taking me to Sichuanese restaurants. So I think I went to every Sichuanese restaurant in Manhattan at that time.

Helen: Oh my gosh. Sichuanese food is tremendous in New York right now. It is the ascendant Chinese cuisine. Greg is a great aficionado of Manhattan Sichuan restaurants.

Greg Morabito: I'd say an enthusiast more than an aficionado. How do you gauge the New York Sichuan scene?

Fuchsia: Well! We've felt the same effect in London, really, which is that Sichuanese cooking has been so popular in mainland China for the last ten years or so, and that's now rippled out to overseas Chinese communities and, through them, to Westerners. People from China — wherever they come from, particularly young people — they just want to eat Sichuanese. So you've got this captive market of Chinese people, and once the Sichuanese restaurants are there, every other person goes in and falls in love with the food, and there you go.

"It's easy to create a sensation with lots of piles of chilies and Sichuan pepper."

Helen: The hallmarks of Sichuanese food are mostly related to spice and heat and mala and things like that, right?

Fuchsia: The stereotype is that it's all about heat and numbing Sichuan peppercorns. But Sichuanese chefs and Sichuanese food aficionados will always say it's not just about heat. The thing about Sichuanese food is the thrilling variety. There's a saying in Sichuanese that yi cai yi ge, bai cai bai wei, which means, "Each dish has its own style, and a hundred dishes have a hundred different flavors." So it's true that quite a lot of the flavor combinations of Sichuan are hot — like ma la, numbing-and-hot, and yu xiang, fish-fragrant, a gentler heat from pickled chilies with ginger, garlic, and scallion, a bit ofsweet and sour. But there are also quite a lot of flavors that are not hot at all, like xian xian wei, which is salt-savory flavor, or li zhi wei, lychee flavor, a kind of sweet and sour. So a good Sichuanese dinner shouldn't all be blast-your-head-off spicy. It should be a very exciting journey of highs and lows.

Helen: There is an Eater editor — who I will not name to protect the potentially guilty — who I recently shared a Sichuanese meal with, and he was saying that he thinks all of the Sichuanese food in New York is atrocious. That it's basically just Hunanese food that has had a ton of spice thrown on top of it. That there's no nuance, and that these idiot New Yorkers just don't know what it is that they're not eating. Maybe it's not just New Yorkers — I think Sichuanese food is everywhere in the U.S., it is this extraordinarily dominant thing. Why do you think it is that it rose in China as the cuisine of the moment?

Fuchsia: It's an exciting cuisine. Certainly when I first lived in China in the 1990s, the prestige cuisine was Cantonese, and that's what people went out for, for a special dinner. But Sichuanese food is dynamic, exciting, and it's part of a society that's really on the move: Rapid change and people moving around the country.

I suppose, also, it's easy to create a sensation with lots of piles of chilies and Sichuan pepper, and what your friend was talking about — because Sichuanese cooking is so popular now, you do get people from other regions. Like in London we have people from Dongbei in the northeast, and the whole menu is full of Sichuanese-style dishes, but not necessarily, as you just suggested, as subtle or nuanced as real Sichuanese cooking. And quite a lot of Sichuanese chefs now lament the fact that the dishes that have become the international smash hits are things like lazi ji, Chongqing chicken in a great pile of chilies, or shui zhu yu, that slippery sliced fish in a great cauldron of sizzling chili oil. They're certainly part of Sichuanese cuisine, but they're not the only part. People think maybe they shouldn't be taken to represent the whole. And also, that kind of cooking doesn't require very high culinary skills, it doesn't require very expensive ingredients. You can create drama very easily. Probably a lot of people, restaurateurs, they just want to have a business. They are not necessarily committed to Sichuanese gastronomy.

Greg: Oh, create drama. I love that as a way to talk about something like that. I'm going to steal that, Fuchsia. That's such a good idea.

Helen: That's a very non-cynical way of approaching what I think is a fairly cynical reality: How can we get the maximum effect for the minimum amount of labor.

Greg: I guess this is as good as time as any to introduce our guest on the Eater Upsell today, Fuchsia Dunlop.

Helen: My gosh, have we not done that yet?

Greg: No.

Helen: Fuchsia Dunlop.

Greg: We just got down a rabbit hole of talking about food. But Fuchsia Dunlop is an author. You've probably seen her books in the cookbook section of your favorite bookstore. Her most recent is Land of Fish and Rice: Recipes from the Culinary Heart of China. You might have also seen Every Grain of Rice and the OG: Land of Plenty slash Sichuan Cookery depending on which side of the Atlantic you are on. Welcome to the show, Fuchsia.

Fuchsia: Hi, it's great to be with you today.

Helen: You also wrote a memoir that I loved, called Shark's Fin and Sichuan Pepper.

Fuchia: Yeah, Fuchsia's adventures in eating Chinese food over about twenty years.

Helen: A real pleasure. Highly recommend. If anybody listening has not read Fuchsia's memoir, pick it up, it's fantastic.

Fuchsia: Thank you very much.

Helen: Did you always plan to be a food writer?

Fuchsia: No, not at all. In fact, if you had told me at the age of 18 or 20 that I was going to be any kind of writer, I would have laughed at you, because I was so terribly lazy about handing in essays at school and at college.

Helen: That's the class hallmark of a writer, right? You were blowing deadlines from an early age.

Fuchsia: Yeah.

Helen: We should have seen it coming.

Fuchsia: And I found it so stressful, but I did always want to, since I was about 11, do something to do with food. So I could have turned out to be a restaurant chef. Instead I've managed to mix it up with writing. But definitely the ambition to do something edible.

Greg: Did you grow up in a household where food was a big deal? Did your family cook?

Fuchsia: Yeah, my mother is a great cook and she was very, very adventurous for 1970s Britain. She was always cooking international food. She taught English as a foreign language in Oxford where I grew up. So we always had foreign students living with us as part of the family. A Japanese girl at one point, a Spanish and a Turk at another point, Italians, and they would all cook from time to time. And my mother's students would come home and cook special dinners, and they would leave recipes that became part of the family repertoire. And my father has always enjoyed doing slightly crazy cooking, like making preposterous architectural cakes on special occasions, or enormous pork pies, or flamboyantly dyed foods.

Helen: Showpiece food.

Fuchsia: Showpiece food, yeah. And then my brother and sister and I all grew up cooking. So it's always been something fun and just natural, like breathing. You just cook to eat and to live.

Greg: Growing up, was it fun to have all these people lodging with you? All these foreign exchange students? Or were you like, "Mom, this is weird"?

Fuchsia: No, I think we all enjoyed it. My brother and sister and I, we all enjoy talking to all kinds of people, and we're very used to dealing with cultural differences. No, definitely, I think it was a huge influence on all of us.

Helen: It's so special to have that global perspective, as a child. I think it's rare for people to have such immediate access to diversity of culture in the world, especially as a kid.

"A good Sichuanese dinner shouldn't all be blast-your-head-off spicy. It should be a very exciting journey of highs and lows."

Fuchsia: Yeah, it may be unusual to have such variety at an intimate level, like in your home.

Helen: I haven't heard that much lately about the whole idea of foreign exchange students. It used to be a huge thing — it was the coolest thing possible, I remember, in elementary school or junior high, when a family down the block would host a foreign exchange student for the year and it was so neat.

Greg: Definitely every American sitcom has one, that was made in the 80s or 90s.

Helen: It was a cheap source of xenophobic humor. So how did you end up in China?

Fuchsia: After graduating from university — I did English literature, and I carried on cooking very enthusiastically through that period — I got a job as a sub-editor for a publication that was all about the Asia-Pacific region. So I was reading all of this stuff about the Asia-Pacific and I got drawn into China and fascinated by it. And I decided to go there on holiday. So I went backpacking around China and was really fascinated and smitten. And I came back and signed up for evening classes in Mandarin in London, and it went on from there. So it wasn't like a decision to commit my life to China, but I got more and more interested, and then applied for a British Council scholarship. When it came to choose where in China to study, I chose Sichuan University in Chengdu. It was partly for very legitimate reasons: Culturally interesting region, on the fringes, on the edge of Han Chinese China, and bordering Tibet, and all these fascinating minority areas. But also because I was very into food. I'd been once to Chengdu and had, in particular, one fabulous lunch. But I had eaten very fascinating food, I knew that Sichuan was supposed to be the headquarters of one of China's great cuisines, and I thought it would be a very nice place to live. And it was.

Helen: This is a slightly bizarre question, but in all of my prep for our interview today, I could not find anywhere where you live.

Fuchsia: Oh, I live in London.

Helen: It's so interesting, it feels almost like a notable omission.

Fuchsia: Yeah, I live in London.

Helen: So you live in London. How much time do you spend in China?

Fuchsia: I tend to make at least two long trips there every year, for a month or more. This year it's been three trips, so three months or more in China. So I go there quite a lot.

Helen: Are there particular cities or regions that you tend to return to over and over?

Fuchsia: For this book — I've been working on this latest book for about ten years on and off, so —

Helen: Not much time at all.

Fuchsia: I've gone repeatedly through Shanghai into the lower Yangtze region to Hangzhou and Shaoxing and Yangzhou and all these fascinating places. I also love going back to my old stomping ground Chengdu to see my friends there and eat the wonderful food. But I also do try to explore new places. I always try on every trip to visit somewhere I haven't been before, because there is so much to learn. I'm just constantly expanding my knowledge and constantly being reminded of what a vast, endless subject Chinese food and gastronomy is.

Helen: One thing that really struck me about your latest book, Land of Fish and Rice, is that you mention in the introduction — and I noticed that the book is also dedicated to the staff — a restaurant called Dragon Well Manor. You describe it in the intro as a restaurant where the chef takes an extraordinary amount of pride in sourcing the best possible ingredients from local farms and working with local artisans to find products that are made with integrity. Cooking in the kitchen in a way that takes no shortcuts. That sounds so incredibly on-trend for the way that, like, modern Brooklyn cooking and the hipster culinary movement in the U.S. is moving. It was remarkable to see that very long line connecting what's happening here in cuisine with the food that you're talking about in this region of China.

Fuchsia: It is absolutely, and what Dai Jianjun — the owner of Longjing Caotang, the Dragon Well Manor in Hangzhou — is doing is completely remarkable and really resonates with what people like Chez Panisse and Stone Barns are doing, with their sourcing of their ingredients and their cooking. But the thing about China is that in modern China, it's quite a radical statement. At a time of rapid industrialization and urbanization, to do this is quite a remarkable feat. But it also has its roots in ancient Chinese culture, because China really was the original foodie culture, and people over the centuries have written about food – there is a Song dynasty , which is to say 12th or €”13th century cookbook by a man called Lin Hong which I think reads a bit like something that could have been written by René Redzepi of Noma in Copenhagen. It's very esoteric, lyrically titled dishes, foraged ingredients, an interest in closeness to nature. So Chinese gourmets through the centuries, through the ages, have been very concerned about the providence of their ingredients, with eating things in the right seasons. So yeah, it's both very ancient and very contemporary.

Helen: That lyrical dish titling seems to be a hallmark of a certain, maybe somewhat Orientalist American view, or maybe it's British, too. A Western view of Eastern food. This idea of dishes with exotic, beautiful, poetic names — which I suppose is what they are, in fact, called in Chinese, but it's become somewhat reductive in English-speaking culture. I noticed that throughout the cookbook, you largely avoid that kind of naming. These are fairly straightforwardly named recipes.

Fuchsia: There are a mixture. There are dishes like Dongpo pork, which is named after a poet of the Song dynasty. And for the poetic, there's the Spiced Wheat Gluten with Four Delights. That's a slightly lyrical name. But I think in China, it's just that food is so much a part of culture, talking about food, intellectualizing it. The pleasure that you get from a witticism in the name of a dish, or a cultural reference, is part of the pleasure of food. I think it's the mark of a very developed and sophisticated gastronomic culture.

Helen: Is that something that you don't see in British or American culinary culture?

Fuchsia: I don't think quite to the same extent. Britain is a tiny little country compared with China.

Helen: Sure, China is a continent.

Fuchsia: But we all have dishes with stories attached to them and perhaps unusual names that require some explanation. But in China, and particularly in the Jiangnan, the lower Yangtze region —

Helen: Which is the region your book covers.

Fuchsia: Yeah. There are so many dishes that are tied up with legends about the Qianlong Emperor's visits to the romantic south of China in the late 18th century, the banquets he had there and the times he went out incognito to mingle with his subjects and stumbled upon some delicious dish. There's a pickled vegetable in Shaoxing that's named after a poor servant girl who was trying to nourish her colleagues in the grand household of a miser, and she devised this delicious pickle with wilted vegetables. Her master ended up beating her to death, her cruel master, and the pickle bears her name. And there are other dishes that are associated with impoverished scholars, or with people who made accidental discoveries. And it's all just part of the richness and pleasure of eating Chinese food.

Greg: So when you were learning for the first time how to cook in this style in Chengdu, what did you have difficulty with? Was there anything that you were like, "I don't know if I'm going to be able to figure this out"?

Fuchsia: That was in 1995, when I enrolled as a student in the Sichuan Institute of High Cuisine. I had been living in Chengdu already for a year, but suddenly I was flung into this environment where I was one of only three women and the only foreigner in a class of about 50 young Sichuanese men. And it was all taught in Sichuanese dialect. The textbooks were in Chinese characters and of course, although I could speak everyday Chinese by that stage, the specialist vocabulary of the Chinese kitchen is most particular and I hadn't learned it before. So it was a very steep learning curve. But with cooking, because there are practical aspects and you can see your teachers demonstrating things, it was possible to get stuck in there and learn very quickly. I suppose there were a few culture shocks, like the fact that some of our ingredients were alive, like the fish and the eels. But I really remember it as being a tremendously fun and inspiring period of my life. The food there was so delicious and I really wanted to learn how to make it.

Helen: For a book like this one, which is an extraordinarily comprehensive volume — this is several hundred recipes in here, right? What's the process like? I imagine it's very anthropological to find the recipes and research their histories and speak with people. It seems like investigative reporting almost.

"If you had told me at the age of 18 or 20 that I was going to be any kind of writer, I would have laughed at you."

Fuchsia: Yeah, a bit, because I like to put the recipes in their cultural historical context. I travel around the region, and I'm writing in my notebooks all the time observations about food, and I'm reading books about food, and going to look at museums, and seeing what food-related artifacts they have there. And then spending time in kitchens. There's not really one way to do it. But I suppose I like to get to a point where I feel a real sense of connection with a place, and I have friends there and I love it and want to write about it. Then the whole huge challenge of deciding which recipes to put into a book. This region is so rich. You could write an encyclopedia about the cooking of this region. There are so many potential recipes. Of course, writing a book that's meant to introduce it to Western readers, you can't have all the recipes made with hairy crabs, or freshwater shrimp or very esoteric wild vegetables that you couldn't get here. So it's trying to get a compromise between giving people authentic recipes which they can make at home and — how far do you push your readers to be adventurous, and how much do you want things to be familiar? It's all about trying to get a balance.

Helen: How do you find that balance? That is probably the central tension of a book like this, where you're speaking to readers who might not be familiar with any of the context or history around the foods, let alone some of the basic cooking implements that are required to make it.

Fuchsia: I don't think that there is one perfect solution. There is not one way of doing it. This is just the way I've done it on this occasion. I think the wonderful thing about cookery writing is that you don't just have the recipes. You can use the headnotes and the introductions to chapters to broaden the subject and describe some of the food, some of the recipes that you haven't put in the book. With the recipes, what I've tried to do is represent lots of different facets of a very complex gastronomic culture. So I've got some farmhouse dishes, street food, some very easy dishes, one or two of what they would call Kung Fu dishes — which require quite complicated and labor intensive techniques — but it's trying to show people there's many different sides of the cuisine, and get them interested. And then hope that people will travel more to the region, and experience it for themselves. And also just try to put this region on the map, because it is one of the great gastronomic regions of China and it's remarkably overlooked in the West.

Helen: Are there any gastronomic regions of China that are not great?

Fuchsia: I think that because China is a very food-obsessed society, you can go anywhere and find new and interesting ways of cooking and eating. But some regions are richer than others. In the south of China you have more ingredients. It's an area of stunning biodiversity, so many vegetables, creatures, and even flowers, insects, in the far southwest, in Yunnan province for example. But I think that the thing that sets the Jiangnan region apart is that it's been such a foodie culture, and there's such a rich literature of food. And it was a very prosperous region. It still is actually. But it was the center of the southern Chinese economy, you had all the most sophisticated people, and emperors falling in love with it, many members of the literati. It is often talked about as the cuisine of the literati. It has everything from hearty peasant cooking and street food to very esoteric banquet cooking. I think that's what one thinks of a really rich culinary culture, that it exists on so many different levels.

Helen: So why is it, do you think, that it didn't become as known in Western culture as other regional cuisines of China have?

Fuchsia: I think that for a long time, Cantonese cooking dominated Western perceptions of Chinese cuisine, and that was just the matter of immigration. Huge waves of immigrants from the Cantonese south of China brought their food traditions and set the tone of Chinese cooking in the West. And then in recent years, we've talked about Sichuanese cooking, it's been a great fashion in China, and it's taking over China and the world. And from this region, there hasn't been the same mass wave of immigrants taking their flavors and opening restaurants in the West. It's also a more subtle cuisine, so it's not as easy. We've talked about how you can fling a bunch of chilies and Sichuan pepper and call it Sichuanese, but this cuisine is less easy to stereotype and sum up in a word or two. Also, perhaps, it's more difficult to do well. You do need good ingredients. It's a bit subtler like that. And one other reason is it's been known — people often talk in terms of the four great cuisines of China, and it's widely recognized that this region in the east is home to one of the great regional styles. But it's been known by quite a confusing variety of names. You may notice that sometimes people talk about Huaiyang cooking, that's one word for it. Sometimes people talk about Shanghainese cuisine, and Shanghai is the best known city in the region, but it's also a modern upstart city, and doesn't really represent the rich ancient culture. And sometimes people talk about Su cooking, Jiangsu provincial cooking.

Greg: What is your recipe development process like? You've done several of these books now, and I'm curious how that process has evolved, and if it's changed. Do you get feedback? Do you test the recipes for your friends in China that understand the cuisine, or is it testing them for somebody who maybe hasn't cooked like this before?

Fuchsia: I try to taste as many different versions of the dish as I can in China, and go into as many kitchens as possible to see how people make it, and discuss the method with chefs. So I've got notebooks filled with observations and comments and notes taken in Chinese kitchens. And then I will usually check some written recipes, although they're often a bit vague. I wouldn't just go on a written recipe. I look at all these different versions and look at my notes and come up with a strategy, and then I will try to make the dish and see how it goes, really. Sometimes a dish will taste just as I wanted it to taste, and be accurate to my memories of the dish in China the first time, and sometimes it takes a lot longer. Sometimes I will have an issue. In the past I used to make great lists of questions — and this was before email, when I did my first book, I would go to China every year or so with a whole list of questions and corner a few chefs and ask them and try to get answers. But now it's very easy because I'm on social media.

Greg: What were some of the questions you would ask? About technique? Or about flavor?

Fuchsia: Yeah, technique, ingredients, substitutions, issues that I had come up with in making a recipe. Things that didn't quite work out. But now it's so easy because I'm on social media with lots of Chinese chefs, so I can literally be in my kitchen and text someone and say, "By the way, do you normally add the soy sauce at this stage or that stage?" And then like three Chinese chefs will reply within an hour. It's quite amazing, the internet has changed the way I do recipes. But anyway, I test them, and I do sometimes give them to friends from the region to taste and get their approval, but also I think I know when I'm on the right track.

Helen: How many rounds will you go through with testing for the books?

Fuchsia: Until it's right. And that's one of the things that's very complicated and troublesome about testing recipes: You can't really plan for it. You can't say, "Okay, I'll complete these five recipes this week," because one of them might not work, and then you have to keep trying. So there's no rule on that at all.

Greg: With the new book, what was the recipe that was the hardest for you to crack, or took the longest to develop?

Fuchsia: Ooh, let me have a think about it. I think some of the pastries. For example, the xiao long bao, the steamed soup dumplings, and the sheng jian, the potsticker buns. With those, there are lots of different opinions and lots of different versions, so I think those for me were the most challenging.

Greg: From a textural point of view? Or was it more the flavor?

Fuchsia: You've got so many elements with the xiao long bao, the soup dumplings: You want to get skins that are nice and tender, but which are strong enough to hold the soup and the stuffing within. With the stuffing you want to get the right proportion of the jellied stock that makes the soup and the good flavor for the stuffing. So it's several elements. But in particular, getting the right sort of dough, and there are lots of different ways of doing this: Do you make the dough with hot water, or with cold water, or with a proportion of each? It's a bit technical.

Greg: People definitely seem to obsess over soup dumplings and buns everywhere, it seems.

Fuchsia: Yeah, they are addictively delicious. And they're so elegant and dainty. They're kind of fun to eat.

Helen: You wrote an article not too long ago for the Telegraph about the way that Chinese cuisine has been changing in restaurants in London. It sounds a lot like an echo of the way that I think it's been changing here in the US, which is increased interest in regionalism and that incredibly slippery and often destructive notion of "authenticity," which I think can sometimes result in a certain sort of calcification. But it seems really exciting that London is opening up its affection for true Chinese food.

"Chinese gourmets through the centuries have been very concerned about the providence of their ingredients, with eating things in the right seasons."

Fuchsia: Yeah. China really does have the world's most complex and diverse and sophisticated cuisine, viewed overall. And it has for so long been drastically, grievously underestimated in the West. So it's wonderful to see that people in the West are changing their opinions about it. Starting from this point of diversity: Chinese food isn't just about Cantonese-style, it's not just about takeout. Even though we are only seeing the beginning of the regionalization, there are countless other specialties, little regions, and places that you could taste. But already here in New York I've tasted Dongbei northeastern food, Hunanese food, Fujianese food, food from Xi'an in the north where the terracotta warriors are. It really serves to break up that notion that you can talk about Chinese cuisine as if it was one cuisine.

Helen: Earlier in our conversation you mentioned, somewhat offhandedly, the idea that familiarizing people with the cuisines of particular regions might encourage them to visit there. How much do you see the connection between becoming familiar with this type of food and actual hop-on-a-plane tourism?

Fuchsia: I think with Sichuanese food, very much. I know that my old cooking school in Sichuan now does short courses for foreigners, and I have personally met and communicated with quite a lot of people who have gone there and done two week courses, two month courses. More and more people do go to Sichuan to eat this famous Sichuanese cuisine. All over the world, people from cosmopolitan areas of the West want a local food experience to be part of their travel experience.

I think that one problem with China is that if you don't speak Chinese, it can be quite intimidating. Where do you begin? Where do you go to eat? How do you order? What are the dishes are on the menu? Because even if the dishes are translated, the names translated into English, it is often done very badly—or hilariously, sometimes. But the other thing with Chinese food, is that it's one thing having dumplings and noodles which are very easy to order. But to order a Chinese meal, you really need to have a nice variety of dishes. You want to have different colors and textures and cooking methods to create an organic whole, and it's actually very difficult to do that if you don't really have any idea about what the dishes will be like when you order them. So I think that it's possible for Western tourists to go to China with the intention of eating the local cuisine, but to find it very difficult to actually get a handle on how to do it.

Greg: Do you have any tips for approaching a restaurant that you don't know — a Chinese restaurant or any restaurant, a restaurant that you just don't know anything about? What to order or even necessarily the cuisine?

Fuchsia: One thing you can always do is look at what people are having on other tables, if you can do that without being too rude. Point, ask the waiter to have some of that, please. That's one thing you can do. I think it's quite hard with a language barrier, because not only might you not be able to communicate well with a Chinese-speaking waiter or waitress, but also it's very difficult for them to gauge how far you want to go. Because Chinese people will know that many Westerners don't want to eat some weird ingredients or offal that they consider strange. But the fact is that quite a lot of Western foodie people do want to try these things now, but it's difficult. A Chinese waiter might be afraid of giving offense by ordering something that you might not like. So it's very easy for them to err on the safe side. I find even when I'm in China with a group of foreigners ordering for a table, and I'm ordering in fluent Chinese with knowledge of the food, I often get told by the waiter or waitress, "Oh, no no no no. You mustn't order that, they won't like it. Have instead the sweet-and-sour pork." And I have to really insist and say, "No, we're not like like normal foreigners. We're just going to eat everything." And then I order these dishes and we do eat everything and they're suitably amazed.

Helen: It is interesting, especially given the current hot-button issue of authenticity, that you have become, I think in many senses, one of the foremost ambassadors of regional Chinese cooking to a Western readership — and you're not Chinese. You're a white woman. Have you run in to obstacles because of that?

Fuchsia: No, not really. I'm very aware that it's a really weird position to be in. And I sort of expect obstacles, but in China, I've had such a warm welcome and so much encouragement and it really feels like a collaboration. I am working with people whom I respect and who have immense knowledge and skill. They might be fantastic chefs but they don't have the English language skills to express and describe what they are doing for an English audience. So it's quite a symbiotic relationship, and I think we work together very well.

In the West sometimes it feels very strange. I remember when I went to the Sydney Food Festival and I was giving a talk, and of course Sydney is a really Chinese city, because so many Chinese people have been there for many generations. And I was giving a talk with an audience with lots of people who were Chinese, and for me that was a bit of a culture shock. And actually it was quite funny, because after my talk, a couple of Chinese-Australians came up and said, "We have to admit that we were very skeptical and a bit cross when we saw that an English woman was going to be talking about Chinese food, but we learned a lot and we appreciate your interest and enthusiasm." So I find that, in the end, my Chinese chef friends and I, we are just all very interested in the same thing. I don't sit there thinking, "They are Chinese and I'm English and we're fundamentally different." We're just friends and we have a shared interest and we do this thing together and it's fun.

Greg: Do you think that you would ever want to write a book or work on any major project that was outside of regional Chinese food? Would you ever want to explore some other type of cuisine, either one that you knew intimately growing up or otherwise?

Fuchsia: I remember when I wrote my Hunan cookbook, my second cookbook, it was a really tough time for me because I was feeling a bit isolated. I went to live in Hunan during the SARS epidemic, and I felt very lonely and cut off. There were moments when this friend of mine in Beijing would say, "Fuchsia don't you think it's time you wrote a Tuscan cookbook? Wouldn't it be easier?" But the thing is, I am still completely fascinated and gripped by Chinese cuisine. I'm never going to get to the bottom of it. I'm always learning. And also, having spent so many years learning a very difficult language, learning the language of gastronomy, I can't see a point where I would want to put that aside and start learning another language, because I am never going to finish with Chinese food. And I suppose as long as it's interesting, and it is always going to be interesting, and I'm never going to finish learning about it. So yeah, I think I'm stuck with Chinese.

"The pleasure that you get from a witticism in the name of a dish, or a cultural reference, is part of the pleasure of food."

Greg: You are in New York right now, which I think has a pretty deep and interesting history of Chinese-American cuisine, especially in Manhattan's Chinatown. Do you like that stuff? Does that stuff interest you? They're diminishing a little bit, but the Wo Hops and the Hop Kees and places like that?

Fuchsia: I am interested in everything to do with Chinese food. So yes, it's interesting, and I'm also theoretically interested in the idea of Chinese diaspora cooking and the way it's different in different countries. I haven't been to India but I know they have their versions of Chinese cuisine there. So yes, I'm interested, but I'm more interested by China. Or rather, there is enough to occupy me there. I'm not looking for other subjects outside China to capture my attention.

Helen: Well, Fuchsia, we have come to the portion of our interview that we call the lightning round.

Greg: Yes.

Helen: In which time, Greg and I will ask you a bunch of questions and you can just answer them however you like. So the first question for you in the lightning round: What is the secret to peaceful international travel on a long-haul flight?

Fuchsia: Peaceful international travel?

Helen: Peaceful for you personally. What's your secret for surviving in more or less one piece a very long flight from, say, London to Shanghai?

Fuchsia: Enough food, a few snacks, so that I don't get hungry along the way.

Helen: Do you bring your own snacks or do you rely on the airport to provide them for you?

Fuchsia: No, I bring a few snacks.

Helen: What do you bring?

Fuchsia: Probably some biscuits, because they are easy to transport. Some fruit, some dried fruit, maybe a bit of chocolate.

Helen: That always works.

Greg: Alright.

Fuchsia: The best thing is to take a really good thriller. If you can find a book that will absolutely grip you for the course of the flight. But it's not easy to do because you have to know before you get on the plane that it's going to grip you.

Helen: What have been some of your favorites?

Fuchsia: I remember actually reading The Girl with the Dragon Tattoo on one flight to China, and I think I read the whole thing on the flight.

Helen: That's perfect.

Greg: Speaking of books, lightning round question number two: What are your three desert island cookbooks? You could only have these books for the rest of your life, these could be the only ones, what would they be?

Helen: And they can't be yours.

Greg: And they can't be yours.

Fuchsia: There's one that I'm very sentimentally attached to which is Leith's Cookery Course by Prue Leith and Caroline Waldegrave. It's a handbook of foundation cooking skills. I was given it when I was eleven years old and it was my inspiration and my manual throughout my teenage years. I'm guessing on my desert island I'm not going to have a kitchen, not actually going to be able to use these books, so I might as well —

Greg: It's a pretty unusual desert island, actually, where there is a kitchen and a grocery store.

Helen: And you have ingredients, yeah.

Fuchsia: Okay. Well, I love Fergus Henderson's book, Nose to Tail Eating.

Helen: Oh yeah, that's a great one.

Fuchsia: I think that the complete edition is called The Complete Nose to Tail, a compilation of both. I love his writing and I love his recipes. I also adore Marcella Hazan's Italian recipes because they work. They're not over-complicated, and the food is just really excellent.

Greg: That's great, although I'm not a fan of that tomato sauce everyone loves from that book for some reason, it's so antithetical to what I —

Helen: Sacrilege!

Greg: I know, I just think it's too rich for me. But I should explore more, I suppose.

"How far do you push your readers to be adventurous, and how much do you want things to be familiar? It's all about trying to get a balance."

Helen: Greg, I'm horrified by you.

Fuchsia: But if I am allowed a food book that is not a cookery book, then I would take the complete works of MFK Fisher because I just think she is the ultimate food writer.

Helen: She's everything. Yes.

Greg: Alright, lightning round question number I can't remember which number we're on, but okay: Fuchsia, you're in a car. You're racing down the freeway. You're by yourself. The music is blasting and you're singing along to it. What are you singing along to?

Fuchsia: Ella Fitzgerald. I love those old Cole Porter songs, and they're great fun to sing along to. As long as no one is listening.

Helen: I love that answer. I can totally picture you doing that. That's so fantastic. Well Fuchsia, our last lightning round question for you: What advice would you give to someone who wants to have your life?

Fuchsia: Goodness me. I feel very, very lucky to be doing something that I love. I think it's been a combination of serendipity — being in China at a remarkable moment when it was beginning to open up, and when doing things as a foreigner like going to Chinese cooking school was suddenly possible, maybe for the first time ever — so a combination of serendipity, and some work, and some luck. It's kind of unrepeatable. But I suppose that I have done things just because I'm interested in them, without always having a very clear motive for doing them, and I think that doing things with your whole heart, particularly with writing — writing things that you really feel need to be written, that you really want to write, and not trying too hard. There's so many words in the world. You want to write things that are deeply felt and which are honestly written and written with some integrity. I would say: Try to do things with your whole heart, and try to do them honestly.

Greg: Awesome inspiration.

Helen: Well, Fuchsia, thank you so much for coming by the Eater Upsell. Your latest cookbook, Land of Fish and Rice, is available everywhere. And where can our listeners find you on Twitter or Instagram or anywhere else on the wider internet?

Fuchsia: It's very easy. I'm @FuchsiaDunlop on Twitter. I'm @FuchsiaDunlop on Instagram. I have a website which I've been very lazy about keeping up, but it's there, and I also have a Facebook page which I post things on.

Helen: Fantastic. Fuchsia, thanks for being here.

Fuchsia: Thank you very much!

Subscribe on iTunes | Listen on Soundcloud | Subscribe to the RSS | See the archives

The Eater Upsell is recorded at Vox Media Studios in Manhattan
Hosts: Greg Morabito and Helen Rosner
Producers: Patrick Bulger and Maureen Giannone
Associate Producer/Editor: Daniel Geneen
Associate Producer: Kendra Vaculin

More from the Eater Upsell

J. Kenji Lopez-Alt in the Eater Upsell studios

J. Kenji Lopez-Alt Has All The Answers

Getting to know the recipe developer and cookbook author that completely changed the game

Evan Sung in the Eater Upsell studios

Evan Sung Wants to Get to Know You First

Meet the influential food photographer who all the coolest chefs are clamoring to work with

Vivian Howard in the Eater Upsell studios

Vivian Howard Has a Lot of Thoughts About Mayonaise

The Southern chef-turned-PBS star on television, her new book and (re)making a home for herself in the South


Alton Brown Is the Food World's Philosopher King


A Brief History of Modern American Dining, Featuring Andrew Zimmern


Carla Hall Is a Total Badass, Culinarily and Otherwise

View all stories in Eater's Digest