Sichuan cuisine is one of the most famous of China’s regional cuisines, but it’s difficult to get authentic Sichuan food outside of China unless you know how to make it yourself. For most Westerners, that’s a tall order if you don’t have a good Sichuan cookbook, which, if you do was likely written by Fuchsia Dunlop.
The first foreigner to study at the Sichuan Culinary Institute in Chengdu, Dunlop is the author of Sichuan Cookery, released in the US as Land of Plenty, one of the most thorough introductions to Sichuan cooking around and the subject of countless raves from book critics around the world. The London-based Dunlop has also published a Hunan cookbook and a book of memoirs of eating in China.
In addition to her writing, Dunlop is a consultant for the Bar Shu Group, which operates two of London’s most highly regarded Chinese restaurants. We spoke with Dunlop about her relationship with Sichuan cuisine:
What was it that attracted you to Sichuan food as opposed to other prominent Chinese cuisines?
Fuchsia Dunlop: It wasn’t a well-thought-out decision, as I hadn’t spent much time in China and didn’t know anything about its regional cuisines. But I visited Chengdu on holiday and fell in love with the city and its food almost immediately. That’s why I chose Sichuan University when I applied for my British Council scholarship. And when I got there the food was so amazing that I wanted to learn how to cook it.
During your time at the Sichuan Culinary Institute, what was more difficult: learning to cook authentic Sichuan food or learning the Sichuan dialect?
Fuchsia Dunlop: I suppose the dialect, and also learning the specialised written vocabulary of the Chinese kitchen, were the greatest challenges. Otherwise, the teaching was excellent and I enjoyed the cooking so much it didn’t seem hard.
What are the major challenges in introducing authentic Sichuan cuisine to London palates?
Fuchsia Dunlop: I don’t think there are any major barriers: I’ve always thought Londoners would love Sichuanese food, not only because it’s incredibly delicious, but also because the bold, spicy flavours of Thai and Indian cooking are so popular. And in my experience of cooking for friends and consulting for the Bar Shu restaurant in London, the flavours of Sichuan are completely accessible. The challenges lie mostly in getting hold of good seasonings, explaining new ingredients, and choosing your menus wisely – I wouldn’t offer stir-fried rabbit heads to Sichuan food novices, for example, and I’m always very gentle in introducing people to their first taste of Sichuan pepper!
Sichuan cuisine aside, which other regional cuisines in China do you consider to be among the best?
Fuchsia Dunlop: There is so much to choose from… I adore Cantonese dim sum, the delicate flavours of eastern China, northern noodles and dumplings, home cooking almost anywhere. But as an entire cuisine, I think Sichuan is still my favourite.
In more than 15 years of eating in China, are there any regional cuisines that you feel you still have a lot to learn about?
Fuchsia Dunlop: Frankly, I still feel like a beginner! I could spend the rest of my life researching Chinese regional cuisines and there would still be more to learn. China is so huge, and its culinary culture so diverse. That’s what makes it so interesting.
What would you consider to be a perfectly balanced Sichuan-style dinner?
Fuchsia Dunlop: It would have to fulfil the promise of bai cai bai wei, ‘a hundred dishes, a hundred different flavours’, which is to say that it would be deliciously varied, with many contrasting tastes, textures, aromas and colours. It would have to include fish-fragrant aubergines, of course – my all-time favourite dish – and a refreshing, light soup at the end.
In recent years you’ve showed increasing concern about the consumption of environmentally damaging dishes such as shark fin soup and endangered species – do you think Chinese eaters are becoming more conscious of the environmental impact of their eating choices?
Fuchsia Dunlop: In my experience people are more concerned with the health impact of eating polluted ingredients than with the effects of their diets on the planet and biodiversity. But I expect this to change as they become more aware of the issues. Some younger people already seem to be becoming more environmentally aware.
Fuchsia Dunlop image: Andi Sapey