Q&A: Fuchsia Dunlop on the politics of Chinese food

The writer and expert on China’s gastronomy discusses her scepticism about applying Western standards to Chinese food.

Fuchsia Dunlop
Fuchsia Dunlop, cook, writer and expert on the food of China [Photograph by Yuki Sugiura]

Fuchsia Dunlop is one of the world’s most beloved ambassadors of Chinese cuisine.

Having travelled around China for more than two decades, the English food writer and cook was the first Westerner to train at the Sichuan Higher Institute of Cuisine. Her five books on the country’s regional cuisines combine her love of food with her interest in travel and her engagement with politics, history and culture.

Among other awards, she is the winner of four James Beard awards for International Cookbook (2014) and for her food writing. Her latest book, Land of Fish and Rice: Recipes from the Culinary Heart of China (2016), explores the food culture of the Jiangnan region of which Shanghai is the capital. 

Dunlop spoke to Al Jazeera in Sri Lanka – where in January she attended the Fairway Galle Literary Festival – about the appetite of the wealthy for exotica, how China’s rapid growth has fuelled environmental concerns and what it means for how people eat today.

She also spoke about the traditional connection between food and politics, the culinary legacy of the Cultural Revolution, her scepticism about applying European standards to Chinese food and her fascination with the country’s rich and distinctive regional cuisines. 

Al Jazeera: Although it has not always been acknowledged as such by the West, China has one of the world’s greatest and most remarkable culinary cultures. How does this country’s deep appreciation of food find its way into politics and how has it shaped history?

Fuchsia Dunlop: China has perhaps the world’s greatest cuisine in terms of its sheer scale and diversity. It’s incredibly rich, both culturally and gastronomically. Food is very much at the heart of Chinese culture. Food offerings connect people with their gods and ancestors. In ancient times, a cooking pot (the ding) was a symbol of political power and cooking was often used as a metaphor for government: the art of seasoning a stew was likened to the balancing of competing interests in politics.

I think there are a couple of problems with applying Michelin methods to China and one of those is that restaurants are assessed by lone inspectors going out for a meal, and many of the finest Chinese serve their food family style.

by Fuchsia Dunlop, food writer and cook

Food and cooking has always been seen as a very serious matter in China and the foundation of good health and happiness. The first duty of the emperor was to ensure that his people were well-fed; social harmony and the stability of the state depended on it.

But it’s important to note that also, apart from the seriousness of food, it has also always been seen as a source of delight, of frivolity and playfulness, which is another reason why it’s so interesting.

Al Jazeera: Millions died under Chairman Mao in the famine between 1959 and 1960. In that context and beyond, what was the effect of the Cultural Revolution and Chairman Mao’s policies on China’s culinary landscape?

Dunlop: Food culture like everything else was shaken to the core by the Cultural Revolution. During that period, there was an assault on traditional culture and bourgeois values that cut across Chinese culture, including food. During that time, fancy restaurants were obliged to stop being elitist and start selling cheap and substantial food for the masses. Senior chefs were persecuted and restaurants given revolutionary names.

There was one point, during the revolutionary upheavals of the Great Leap Forward, when people were actually banned from cooking at home and made to eat dismal food in collective canteens. People were even forced to melt their cooking pots down in the drive to produce steel.

During the Cultural Revolution, private enterprise of any kind was banned and China’s street food sellers were seen as traders and forced to abandon their businesses. It was quite a bleak period, but funnily enough, now in China there are some Cultural Revolution-themed restaurants where you can go to eat the simple peasant cooking of that period as part of some weird nostalgia.

READ MORE: China’s Great Famine – A mission to expose the truth

Al Jazeera: Contemporary China is grappling with pollution and environmental degradation on a truly frightening scale. What has this meant for a cuisine that so prioritises health and the quality of its ingredients? What did it mean for you personally to come face to face with the pollution that was tainting the food you have celebrated for most of your career? 

Dunlop: Surveys have been done that show that food safety is one of the top concerns of the Chinese public and a very great worry. I think this is what inevitably happens when societies industrialise very rapidly and regulations don’t keep pace. There’s a fascinating book by Bee Wilson called Swindled, which talks about food scares and scams in the wake of Britain’s Industrial Revolution: clearly on a different scale from the problems of contemporary China, but perhaps a reminder that China is going through a historical phase and that things may get better.

The Chinese people I know do make adjustments to get safer food. They seek out green vegetables with insect bites in the leaves, hoping that this means they are not coated in pesticides. People who can afford it import baby milk and other “pure” foods from abroad. I also know people who will avoid certain foods because they are worried about pollution.

Personally, of course, it’s a worry, but I am always very aware that I am in China only some of the time and that my Chinese friends have to deal with this all the time. I try not to think about it too much, and really it does not affect my love for this amazing tradition, with its wonderful skills and very rich history.

Dunlop holds a class on traditional Chinese cooking in the southern Sri Lankan city of Galle [Image courtesy the Fairway Galle Literary Festival]
Dunlop holds a class on traditional Chinese cooking in the southern Sri Lankan city of Galle [Image courtesy the Fairway Galle Literary Festival]

Al Jazeera: What do you think lies behind the craving for exotic meats in China? What do you think has to change so that endangered animals and plants stop appearing on Chinese menus across the world?

Dunlop: Well, one point I want to make here is that eating endangered animals is very much a minority pursuit. Most people in China live on an everyday diet of grains, vegetables, tofu and meat, and fish. The vast majority will never taste shark’s fin, and they would certainly never be able to afford to eat exotic endangered creatures. It’s also regional. For instance, the Cantonese in China are famous for a predilection for eating weird and exotic creatures which is not shared by people in other parts of China. I would say it’s part of a food culture that prizes novelty, romance and adventure: but this is more likely to involve clever cooking methods and unusual parts of creatures (such as ducks’ tongues) as exotic creatures. 

In the past, eating unusual creatures would not have been so much of a problem, but with environmental degradation, globalisation and the sudden boom in wealth in some parts of China, it has become a crisis, and the Chinese appetite for exotica is responsible for an awful lot of the global trade in endangered species. It’s a minority of people who do this, though: you have to be very rich and you have to be prepared to break the law, because there are now tighter regulations in place. But it’s a pretty appalling situation.

I just hope that, as people become more aware of the environmental damage, that these foods will lose their appeal. There is a suggestion that younger people are less infatuated with things like shark’s fin, and among the urban intelligentsia, there’s a growing interest in organic ingredients and in eating healthy vegetarian food. In December, the Chinese government announced a ban on the ivory trade, which I hope is a sign of growing official concern for the fate of endangered species.

An image from  Land of Fish and Rice: Recipes from the Culinary Heart of China (2016), published by Bloomsbury [Photograph by Yuki Sugiura]
An image from Land of Fish and Rice: Recipes from the Culinary Heart of China (2016), published by Bloomsbury [Photograph by Yuki Sugiura]

Al Jazeera: In September of 2016, the Michelin food guide launched its first edition in mainland China but you have expressed some concerns about the criteria by which such judgements would be made. Could you elaborate on those? 

Dunlop: I think there are a couple of problems with applying Michelin methods to China and one of those is that restaurants are assessed by lone inspectors going out for a meal, and many of the finest Chinese serve their food family style. Even if you went several times on your own, you wouldn’t have the experience of enjoying a whole meal with many exciting, delicious and contrasting dishes. One thing I noticed in the Hong Kong guide, and the recent Shanghai listings, is that there is a bias toward restaurants where you can order a tasting menu for one person.

Also, there are some aspects of Chinese gastronomy that are very particular and a little inaccessible at first to people who are not acquainted with the tradition, such as the textural foods. In China, there are a whole lot of ingredients that are prized especially for their texture and which often have these slithery, bouncy, rubbery and slimy textures that westerners typically don’t like. I know from personal experience of eating in China that it can take years to really appreciate these things. And so, I am a bit sceptical that you can apply the same scheme of judgement to Chinese food as you would to European food. 

However, I think it’s great that the international gastronomic establishment is starting to show an interest in China because it really does belong up there with the finest cuisines: there are just some issues that need to be sorted out.

Al Jazeera: Would you tell us about your love of Jiangnan food? How does it compare to Sichuanese cooking, which you fell in love with early on? Why did it seem the right subject for your new book?

Dunlop: I fell in love with the Jiangnan region (the area inland from Shanghai, including Zhejiang and Jiangsu provinces) about 10 years ago when I started spending time there. It is one of the great culinary regions of China, often described as being the home of one of the “four great regional cuisines”, and for hundreds of years, it has been a centre of fine food, food writing and gastronomic culture. 

It’s different in many ways from Sichuanese cooking, which was my first love in China. Sichuanese food is very dramatic, it’s a rollercoaster ride. The food of the Jiangnan region is more gentle and harmonious. It is very concerned with balance and health, with eating seasonal and well-sourced food, and its flavours are very comforting and refreshing as well as delicious.

Source: Al Jazeera