There are certain prerequisites for a serious cookbook shelf. Certain names need to be there. Certain women’s names. If you’re Australian, it goes without saying that Stephanie Alexander and Charmaine Solomon must be among them.
Then, if you want to take your library on a global wander, add to that: Elizabeth David (for Italian and French), Alice Waters (particularly for Chez Panisse Fruit and Chez Panisse Vegetables), Claudia Roden (for her Middle Eastern and Jewish titles), Marcella Hazan (for her Essentials of Classic Italian Cooking), Paula Wolfert (Moroccan) and Madhur Jaffrey (for sub-continental explorations). You might also consider Julia Child (French), Dorie Greenspan (baking), Deborah Madison (vegetables) and Jane Grigson (English food). (Female food writers are responsible for a remarkable number of the definitive and often scholarly cooking titles of the past 50 years or so.)
And, in the past decade or so a new name has emerged to add to the list: Fuchsia Dunlop, who has become the pre-eminent western expert on Chinese food, a deft and lyrical interpreter of the mysteries of regional cuisines for both Western food lovers and members of the Chinese diaspora.
“(The Chinese) have an incredible culture and the skills but it’s often lost in translation,” says the London-based food writer, who has been in Australia for the Adelaide Writers’ Week. Dunlop first came to the attention of the food cognoscenti with her 2001 book, Sichuan Cookery. She followed that up with Revolutionary Chinese Cookbook: Recipes from Hunan Province (2006), an acclaimed memoir, Shark’s Fin & Sichuan Pepper (2008), and Every Grain of Rice: Simple Chinese Home Cooking (2012).
I first met Dunlop in Hong Kong over a yum cha lunch some years ago: as we sipped tea and I ate most of the dumplings, the slender Englishwoman filled pages of her notebook with elegant little line drawings of the food before us, annotated in Chinese script. With an English accent seemingly straight out of a Merchant Ivory film, and her first cookbook under her belt, she seemed to be serious girl-crush material.
Australian chef David Thompson fell under Dunlop’s spell when he met her at a cocktail party in London. “She’s at the centre of food scholars, she’s of the ilk of Claudia Roden,” says Thompson, himself a noted scholar of Thai food. “She reminds me of one of those 19th century ladies — one of those intrepid, spirited travellers who’s not afraid of anything. She reminds me of Gertrude Bell — the Sino version of Gertrude Bell. She’s prepared to explore almost anything, whether it be the most gruesome of dishes or the most difficult of bus trips to get what she wants.”
In the plucky Englishwoman whose favourite Saturday night snack when she lived in Chengdu was fried rabbit-heads, it’s not difficult to see the Oxford teenager who loved to cook.
“I had this fantasy of plucking pheasants so I persuaded my mother to buy a couple and then was slightly horrified,” recalls Dunlop. “I can remember the raw smell and filling the kitchen with feathers — and then not really wanting to eat it when I’d cooked it.”
Dunlop’s father worked in computers and her mother was a teacher and food was at the heart of everything. There were Japanese and Spanish au pairs and, later, Italian and Turkish lodgers, all of whom were jollied along to cook their cuisines in the family kitchen. Dunlop’s Austrian grandfather made curries he’d learnt during World War II in Burma and her “unofficial” godfather was Indian and contributed to the family’s South Asian repertoire.
“I have a very distinct memory of when I was 11 and my teacher asking me — ‘what do you want to do when you grow up?’ and I said I wanted to be a chef and he just laughed at me.”
Years later at Cambridge’s Magdalene College, Dunlop cooked French food on two gas burners when she wasn’t working on a dissertation about Shakespeare. She had little sense of what career path she would take — “I’ve just been motivated by wanting to do interesting things really” — and her first job was on the Asia-Pacific desk with the BBC’s Monitoring department in London.
As Dunlop sub-edited reports translated from media around the region, China started to seep into her consciousness and, in 1992, she made her first visit to the country. “I was charmed and enthralled by almost everything I saw,” she wrote in Shark’s Fin & Sichuan Pepper.
Back in London, she enrolled in evening classes in Mandarin and started to fiddle with Chinese recipes. A year later, she returned to China and made her first trip to Chengdu.
“I can still remember every detail of that delicious meal,” she recounted in Shark’s Fin of her first Sichuanese food experience. “The cold chicken tossed in a piquant dressing of soy sauce, chilli oil and Sichuan pepper; a whole carp, braised in chilli-bean paste laced with ginger, garlic, and spring onions; pig’s kidneys cut into frilly, dainty morsels and stir-fried, fast, with celery and pickled chillies. This was Chinese food as I had never known it before. It was a revelation.”
In 1994, Dunlop moved to Chengdu to start a year-long British Council scholarship to study Chinese policy on ethnic minorities. Her formal studies were neglected as she took to the city’s still rustic streets on a bicycle, filling journals with notes and sketches of the food she discovered, probing street vendors, noodle shop owners and “surly” taxi drivers about the food of their city.
But her exploration of Sichuanese food might have been considerably hampered had she arrived in Chengdu even a year or two later. The city’s mayor, Li Chuncheng, was nicknamed “Demolition Li” and, as the developers moved in, the sources of Dunlop’s education started to vanish; the wet markets, the squatting women selling spices, the vendors carrying baskets slung from bamboo poles, the women cooking on charcoal braziers in the backstreets of districts full of wooden houses, all made way for gleaming new buildings and wide, car-clogged roads.
“My culinary researches began as an attempt to document a living city; later, it became clear to me that, in many ways, I was writing an epitaph,” says Dunlop, who in 1995 spent three months studying at the Sichuan Institute of Higher Cuisine, the first foreigner ever to have been admitted to the school.
“There were all these traditional processes being done in the city — there were people drying vegetables, making preserves, making bacon and sausages. You used to quite often find someone with a steamer on the back of their bicycle with ye’er ba, the leaf wrap dumplings, or making danhong gao, these little pancakes with sweet or savoury stuffings in little copper pans, and douhua, the flower bean curd. Now one has to go into the countryside or smaller places to see people making dofu (tofu).”
But in the new China, urban renewal and its displacement of communities is just one factor of many to have made a mark on the food culture. The effects of the one-child policy, exposure to the west, massive waves of internal migration, increased standards of living, industrialisation and pollution have become increasingly pronounced in the years since Dunlop’s first visit.
She worries about the loss of skills and traditions. “You get families with a single child and they want the child to do well educationally and they just make them swot all the time so they’re not really learning to cook,” says Dunlop. Young people, she adds, are eating more western food and fewer traditional dishes using ingredients such as organ meat and fish heads that have what she describes as a “grapple factor”.
Even Sichuan food, China’s trendiest provincial cuisine, is under attack — in its own territory. On Chengdu menus, different provincial cuisines compete for diners’ attention. “You’ll find them serving some Zhejiang dishes, some Hunan dishes,” says Dunlop. Flashy foreign items such as foie gras and sashimi are also appearing at high-end restaurants alongside Chinese dishes, while emboldened chefs are experimenting with unfamiliar new products to create “some clumsy fusion food”.
Underlying everything is a crisis in confidence in the safety of Chinese food products thanks to the series of food scares — from adulterated frozen dumplings to melamine-tainted dairy products. Up to 10% of Chinese farmland is dangerously contaminated with fertilisers, heavy metals and solid waste, she wrote in Shark’s Fin.
But Dunlop still finds some room to be optimistic about the future of China’s food culture and preservation of its food traditions. She cites the emergence of restaurateurs such as Yu Bo, who seeks out artisanal products for his Chengdu restaurant, Yu’s Family Kitchen, where banquets often run to 30 or more intricate courses, and Dai Jianjun, the owner of Hangzhou’s Dragon Well Manor as a cause for hope.
“Dragon Well is an amazing place. They actually commission farmers to grow things organically according to the old Chinese agricultural calendar and they also commission people to make things like fermented glutinous rice,” says Dunlop. “They’re striving to serve food which is seasonal, totally trustworthy, no pollution and so on. This is just one place ... it’s a posh restaurant with a lot of in-the-know people eating there but … I like to be optimistic about it, because I’m sure it’s just a matter of time.”
Blanched choy sum with sizzling oil (You lin cai xin)
The same method can be used with many kinds of vegetable, including spinach, lettuce, pak choy, broccoli, Chinese broccoli and purple-sprouting broccoli. Just adjust the blanching time according to your ingredients
300g choy sum, washed and trimmed
2 spring onions, cut into fine slivers
10g piece of ginger, peeled and cut into fine slivers
a small strip of red chilli or red pepper for colour, cut into fine slivers (optional)
4 tbsp cooking oil
2 tbsp light soy sauce diluted with 2 tbsp hot water from the kettle
Bring a panful of water to the boil. Add a teaspoon of salt and one tablespoon of the oil to the water, tip in the choy sum and blanch for a minute or so until it has just lost its rawness (the stems should still be a little crisp). Drain and shake dry in a colander.
Pile the choy sum neatly on a serving dish and pile the spring onion, ginger and chilli or pepper slivers (if using) on top.
Heat the remaining oil over a high flame. When the oil is hot, ladle it carefully over the spring onions, ginger and chilli. It should sizzle dramatically. (To make sure the oil is hot enough, try ladling a few drops on first, to check for the sizzle. As soon as you get a vigorous sizzle, pour over the rest of the oil.) Pour over the diluted soy sauce mixture, and serve.
From Every Grain of Rice: Simple Chinese Home Cooking (Bloomsbury Publishing, 2012, $55)