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Fuchsia Dunlop

29th July 2016

Interview: Killian Fox
Photographs: Laura McCluskey

29th July 2016

Interview: Killian Fox
Photographs: Laura McCluskey

Twice a year, for at least a month at a time, Fuchsia Dunlop travels to China to research articles (she writes regularly for the Financial Times) and highly-regarded books on Chinese food. While there, she spends time in restaurant kitchens and private homes, filling little black notebooks with observations and recipes in English and Mandarin. Then she returns to her home off Kingsland Road in east London, where she’s lived for the past 18 years, and exhaustively tests recipes in her kitchen overlooking a huge eucalyptus tree.

The kitchen used to be dark and gloomy, she says, but she had it redone at the beginning of the year – with off-white cabinets, stainless steel counters and a gleaming new oven – and now she spends most of her time in it. On our visit, the kitchen feels like a bright and peaceful corrective to the dull, rain-soaked morning outside. Fuchsia pours us exquisite Dragon Well tea from Longjing village near Hangzhou and sets about preparing us three dishes from her new cookbook.

Her fifth book since Sichuan Cookery in 2001, Land of Fish and Rice focuses on the Lower Yangtze region, known in Chinese as Jiangnan. “It’s one of the richest gastronomic regions of China,” she says, “but almost unknown as a region outside the country. Historically, you can argue it’s the birthplace of what we think of as Chinese cuisine.” Our morning culminates in a delightful lunch of steamed pork with salted mackerel, pak choy with dried shrimps, and matchsticks of potato stir-fried with spring onion – dishes that exemplify the delicacy and refinement of the region’s cooking.

First, though, Fuchsia explains how she became interested in China and shows us the many strange and wonderful objects she’s picked up on her travels. She seems a little guarded when we first arrive, asking that we restrict our focus to the kitchen, but once the conversation turns to steamers and kitchen gods and the inexhaustible riches of Chinese food, her enthusiasm for the subject, which has held her fascination for more than 20 years, opens up. Three hours later, when the rain has stopped and our bowls are clean, we are still deep in conversation.

Continued below...

Describe how you might structure a normal day in terms of food.

There isn’t really a rule. For breakfast I like to have some fruit. I really like noodles, so maybe some noodles with spring onion oil and a fried egg. Or a fried egg with toast, marmite and butter.

What about tea?

I don’t usually have tea first thing in the morning, but if I do, it would probably be Chinese black tea, not too strong. In summer I’m more likely to have green tea, and when it’s a bit colder, oolong. Then pu-erh tea as a digestive. I never ever drink English tea with milk in it. We didn’t really have much milk at home when I was growing up, so I used to drink Earl Grey and lapsang souchong.

Do you tend to cook Chinese food at home?

Yes quite a lot. If you’re working at home and you want a quick lunch, just noodles and a little Chinese salad or stir-fry is fantastic. Or maybe I’d do a salad with some fish.

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Apart from China, which country’s cuisine would you cook most?

Like most Londoners, a bit of Italian, a bit of Turkish.

Did you grow up in a household where food was important?

Yeah. My mother is a great cook, very adventurous and always ahead of the trends – she was eating goat’s cheese when everyone else thought it was weird and cranky. In Oxford, where I grew up, she was teaching English as a foreign language and we often had foreign students living with us at home, so we ate very international food. So in 1970s England, when everyone was eating English food, we were not.

If you can cook, it makes your life and the lives of the people around you so much nicer – even if you only know how to make a nice omelette or scrambled eggs

Were you interested in food from a young age?

My mother claims to remember the moment when I first tasted food, at a few months old, and this look of amazing joy came over my face. It was probably just some mashed-up vegetables but it opened up a whole new range of possibilities. I always loved helping out in the kitchen, preparing vegetables, shelling peas. From when I was very young, my mother would encourage me to judge things, such as how much salt to add.

So you were given responsibility in the kitchen early on.

Oh yeah. And my brother and sister – we all cook. My father usually does some really crazy things.

Like what?

Like very architectural cakes with towers and elaborate details. Or a huge standing pork pie, which he made recently. When I was very small, he stuffed four or five different birds inside each other. Things like that. So my mother would do most of the everyday cooking…

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And he’d do the crazy projects.

Yeah [laughs].

When did food become a professional interest for you?

I remember telling a school teacher aged 11 that I wanted to be a chef. And I remember him laughing at me because I was very academic. People assume that if you’re academic, you’re going to do academic things and not become a cook or a chef. In my teens, I used to earn money by making cakes with designs on them, for birthdays and so on. Then I worked in a deli in Oxford, which I loved, and at university I cooked more adventurously than most people. It’s always been the thing I’ve enjoyed more than anything. Cooking is so life-enhancing. If you can do it, it makes your life and the lives of the people around you so much nicer – even if you only know how to make a nice omelette or scrambled eggs.

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What did you study at university?

English literature.

So you were resisting the lure of food as a career?

I suppose it was just because I grew up in Oxford and all my friends were going to university and I did well in my exams. That experience has been great in the long run but I prefer doing things with my hands.

How did you get interested in China?

It was by accident really. Soon after graduating I got offered a job as a sub-editor on a fairly dry publication on the Asia-Pacific region. I went to China on holiday and just found it fascinating and amazing. At the time, it was really obscure. Few people in this part of the world had been or were interested in going.

I’m excited because a couple of months ago SeeWoo opened a new seafood and meat counter, so they have things like pig’s trotters and chicken hearts.
Fuchsia on her favourite food shops in London

What year was this?

1992. It was at the tail-end of Maoism, so all the old people were still wearing Mao jackets. The country was very uncommercial and felt quite isolated – I met a lot of people who had never met foreigners before. Afterwards, I came back and started evening classes in Mandarin. Then I applied for a British Council scholarship to live in China. I chose Sichuan partly because of the food reputation.

How long did you stay?

A year and a half, but I kept going back for months at a time.

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What appealed to you about Sichuan?

Sichuan is wonderful. It’s very charming, has a lovely dialect and people are very friendly and open. And the food is amazing. It had a remarkable cuisine that was really undiscovered.

Were you writing about it from the start?

Not journalistically, but since I was a teenager I kept a diary on the go. I was usually writing menus and recipes in it, so I just carried on doing that. Later, I got more serious. While in Sichuan, I started asking little restaurants near the university if I could study in the kitchens. Also, a friend and I persuaded a famous cooking school [the Sichuan Institute of Higher Cuisine in Chengdu] to let us take some private classes. At one point, one of my classmates said I should write a book about it.

In Sichuan, they love eating all these rubbery, slithery, gristly things, such as goose intestines, rabbits ears and tripe… I thought they had no taste, like eating rubber bands

How long did it take you to write the first book?

It came out five years later. First, I went back to London and did a Masters in Chinese studies at SOAS. My dissertation was on Sichuanese food. Towards the end, I started reviewing Chinese restaurants for Time Out. Then I sent a proposal for a Sichuanese cookbook to six publishers. They all said it was much too narrow: no one’s interested in regional Chinese cuisine. A year later, I thought I’d give it another go, so I spent a couple of months really honing the proposal, then sent it to two publishers and they both made me offers.

You mentioned studying in Sichuanese restaurants. What was that like?

They were very small neighbourhood restaurants where people were still cooking over coal-fired stoves. No gadgets at all, which was fantastic. All the cutting was done with cleavers on wooden boards and all the produce, apart from the dried and pickled things, was bought from a market just around the corner, so they had incredible fresh seasonal vegetables. It was very Sichuanese – things like fish-fragrant aubergines and twice-cooked pork. Of course, they all thought it was completely weird and hilarious: I was a foreigner, I was a woman, and I was at university. Chefs in China are not usually educated. But people were very nice to me. At one very famous state-run restaurant in Chengdu called Long Chao Shou, the wonderful head chef would teach me about making dumplings. I used to sit next to the chefs and practice.

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How often do you go back to China?

A lot. I tend to do two long trips a year, for at least a month at a time.

To the same areas, or all over?

I’ve travelled pretty widely in China over the years. I’m usually working on an article or a book so I tend to go back repeatedly to the place I’m researching. But I try to go to new places as well, because there’s always more to learn.

When was the last time you arrived at a new place and thought, I can’t believe I haven’t been here already?

It happens all the time. Wherever you go in China, there are interesting food practices and interesting things to eat. Some regions are richer than others in food, but everywhere is interesting. I’ve been travelling in China for 20 years and I’m still finding new dishes and ingredients. It’s amazing.

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In the Financial Times a few years back, you wrote about bringing cheese to China for people to try.

Yeah, to Shaoxing.

You were exploring the affinities between cheese and…

The stinking foods of Shaoxing. But they didn’t agree that there were affinities. They thought the cheese was pretty appalling in most cases [laughs].

What did you make of the stinking foods of Shaoxing?

Oh I loved them. I found them delicious and fascinating. Stinking tofu is quite well-known, but they also have these rotted vegetable stalks. The tastes are amazing – unlike anything I’ve had anywhere else. As a food adventurer, I’m really curious about new things. I thought they would have the same sort of sensation as blue cheese, or washed-rind cheeses, but they are alien to my culture just as the cheeses are alien to theirs.

You wipe the kitchen god’s lips with honey and make offerings before he reports to the heavenly bureaucracy, to bribe him to say sweet things about you.
Fuchsia on the objects in her kitchen

Were there tastes in Chinese cooking that you struggled to acquire?

Oh yeah. Particularly textural foods. In Sichuan, they love eating all these rubbery, slithery, gristly things, such as goose intestines, rabbits ears and tripe. As someone not used to them, I couldn’t see the point at first: I thought they had no taste, like eating rubber bands. But there’s a whole dimension of pleasure in eating things for their texture. They have a better vocabulary for describing textures than we do in the west. I found it baffling for a long time and only ate these things to be polite, as I always do, but at a certain point I realised I was enjoying them and ordering them. It took a few years [laughs].

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Is there anything you’re still working up an appreciation for?

Not really. Until recently, I didn’t really like pig’s stomach and intestine, because they have that xing wei, that slightly rank fishy taste that’s stronger in some foods than others. But in the last few years I’ve had some truly beautiful dishes and have been won over. The one thing I really find disgusting is milk, which is really strange because most English people drink it. Cheese, cream and butter are all fine, but I wouldn’t drink a glass of milk. I find the idea a bit nasty.

When you come back from a trip to China, do you find European cuisine pallid and limited in comparison?

Limited, yes. In China, the stereotype of western food is that it’s very simple and monotonous. I hear this time and time again. People can’t really believe that you’d just have a piece of meat on your plate with potatoes and vegetables. I’m always arguing against this stereotype because I think there are lots of wonderful things about so-called western food. In puddings and cakes, I think we have an edge because of dairy and chocolate and so on. But in the end, it’s very difficult to argue with a southern Chinese person when they have such variety, so many wonderful seasonal vegetables, and even a simple meal at home has so many things going on in it.

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When you go to China, do you bring along an empty suitcase to fill up with stuff to take home?

It often happens, yeah.

What do you take back?

Tea, cookery books and Sichuan pepper. Those are the essentials.

The mushrooms you’re using for the pork dish: where did they come from?

These are from Thailand. I went last October. It was my first trip to anywhere in Asia that wasn’t China. Which is insane. For years and years, I’ve just been going to China. I thought I’d explore further.

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Fuchsia gets a call from a TV producer, who wants her to talk about an annual dog-eating festival in China.

Everyone gets up in arms and then I get calls from all these TV shows wanting me to talk about it, and then I get hate mail sometimes. Not that I’m a particular advocate, but I try to be rational about it.

What’s your take on eating dog?

Well, I think you have to ask: Why is it not okay to eat dogs when it’s okay to eat pigs, which are also highly intelligent and friendly? It’s something Chinese people have been doing for thousands of years, and traditionally they had a different view of dogs. You’ve also got to remember it’s very marginal. You don’t go into most Chinese restaurants and see dog on the menu – it’s regional. That sort of thing. But I know that a lot people regard it as a total atrocity.

When I go to China, I bring back tea, cookery books and Sichuan pepper. Those are the essentials…

Do you get called often to talk about Chinese food?

Whenever there’s something controversial, like a debate about eating shark’s fin. I get asked to talk about gastronomy in general as well, but it’s the touchy issues that tend to make the news.

Tell me about your research and how you go about it.

I just spend time in kitchens and restaurants taking notes of everything. [Fuchsia pulls out a black notebook and flicks through it.] This is mostly recipes and descriptions, quite a lot of kitchen stuff. I’ve got a hundred-and-something of these.

On The Menu

Lunch with Fuchsia Dunlop
East London, June 2016

To eat:

Steamed chopped pork with salted fish »
Green pak choy with dried shrimps »
Stir-fried potato slivers with spring onion »

To drink:

Dragon Well tea from Longjing village in Hangzhou
Water

I see you write in both English and Mandarin.

Yeah, because a lot of words don’t have direct translations. For my latest book, I’ve been travelling in the Lower Yangtze region for about eight years and lots of different chefs have given me tips for each recipe. When I get home, I go through each one and test the recipe till it works.

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A lot of the kitchen objects you’ve shown us, such as the hand-made baskets and wooden steamers [see Things], are getting harder to find as the country modernises. Do you sometimes feel like you’re documenting a disappearing culture?

Yes, definitely. I didn’t realise I was doing that with my first book, Sichuan Cookery [2001]. The Chengdu I experienced then has gone, all those little noodle shops and duck roasters… I think people in China now realise they’ve been losing things.

But I guess they’ve been losing things throughout the 20th century.

Well yeah, there have been phases of accelerated disappearance: a terrible Japanese invasion, civil war and poverty in the first half of the 20th century. Then the nationalisation of restaurants and the cultural revolution wrecked high-end gastronomy for a long time. And now this whole new thing, which we’ve already been through here: the disappearance of artisanal crafts and rural traditions in an urbanising society. And so there are all these really ancient practices that are vanishing.

Fuchsia picks a curious-looking object from the shelf.

See if you can guess what that feathery thing is for…

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I bought it from a baker in Xinjiang. It’s for marking naan breads. It’s chicken feathers bound with cloth. All these things are disappearing, nobody’s making them anymore. But isn’t it amazing?

For more info, visit Fuchsia’s website. Land of Fish and Rice is out now on Bloomsbury.

Follow Fuchsia: Twitter | Instagram

Posted 29th July 2016

In Interviews

 

Interview: Killian Fox
Photographs: Laura McCluskey

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