Dunlop’s new book, Invitation to a banquet, is not a cookbook at all. Instead, it’s a meandering, often philosophical exploration of what Chinese food culture really is is — and what it turns into – told through the story of 30 specific dishes. In one chapter, on wild catfish cheek soup, she writes about the dozens of different food textures that the Chinese both admire and have very specific words for. In another, she writes about a dish made by stewing the cottony, seemingly inedible core of a pomelo until it becomes ethereally delicious—a creation so ingenious that it overturns the popular notion that the Chinese are ready to feast something vaguely edible as an ingredient entirely on its head.
“No other cuisine,” Dunlop wrote of Chinese food, “has had such an extraordinary influence or been so loved, embraced and localized in so many countries.” At the same time, few other cuisines have been so shockingly misunderstood, especially in the West.
On the eve of the book’s US release – and ahead of her book tours in San Francisco on November 13 and 14 – I spoke with Dunlop about new trends in American Chinese food, what the Chinese in China think of her books, and the uniquely British phenomenon of convenience stores. fish and chips that have been converted into Chinese restaurants.
The following interview has been edited for length and clarity.
Luke Tsai: You’re probably best known for your cookbooks, but this new book, Invitation to a banquet, it’s not that much—it’s more about the history and cultural context behind Chinese food. What inspired this project?
Fuchsia Dunlop: Well, I’ve been eating and thinking about Chinese food for about 30 years now, and there’s always been more I’ve wanted to say about it than you can reasonably do in the endnotes or introduction of a cookbook. The thing that concerned me more and more is this strange unfairness in the way Chinese food is viewed internationally, which is that it’s incredibly popular globally and has been in many places for 100 years. But at the same time, people don’t really give it credit for the sophisticated, extremely diverse and wide-ranging cuisine that it is. Chinese food is stuck in a kind of easy neighborhood or takeaway brackets. And few people in the West have the chance to try really high-level Chinese food – these technically advanced, complex dishes that are beyond recognition.
Another of the stereotypes I really wanted to address in the book is the old thing about the Chinese eating everything, which has always been seen in a really negative light in the West – this idea that it’s a poor country that’s a bit desperate, so they will eat anything. It’s true that the Chinese eat an extraordinary range of foods and are far more adventurous than the typical Westerner. But I find it inspiring and joyful. And also at a time when we all need to think more creatively about how we eat for environmental reasons, I think there is so much to learn from this radically creative Chinese approach to making delicacies out of everything and not wasting anything.
One of the parts of the book that I found really interesting was the differences between British Chinese food and American Chinese food – the fact that Chinese food didn’t catch on in the UK until after the 1950s, for example. What would you say are the main differences today?
We have some parallels like chow mein and chop suey. In the UK we have sweet and sour pork balls with red sauce and also chips in curry sauce because that was another thing – that Chinese restaurants often took over fish and chip shops. We don’t have General Tso’s chicken, but we do have crispy duck with pancakes everywhere.
Now in America you have entire suburbs with huge populations of Chinese from all over China. There is nowhere in the UK like the San Gabriel Valley or New York’s Chinatown. The amount of production and scale is much greater than ours and you have a greater variety of regional restaurants. We have a lot of Szechuan and a bit of Hunan in the UK, but you have so many Jiangnan or Shanghai restaurants that we don’t really have.
You just have larger centers of Chinese in the US and having more native Chinese among the immigrant population makes the food much more “authentic” in the sense that it’s closer to what people actually eat in China.
What do you think about Chinese cuisine in the Bay Area, especially in regards to some of the new movements we’re seeing in more “trendy” second- or third-generation Chinese-American cuisine—the food offered by chefs like Brandon Jew (on To Mr. Jiu) who is hosting one of your book events in San Francisco?
Not only in the Bay Area, but in America in general, I think it’s really interesting that there are a lot of second- and third-generation Chinese who are doing interesting things that involve mixing different cultural influences and working with their heritage, but aren’t completely tied to it, which is really fun.
Another thing I tried to bring out in the book is that Chinese food is so diverse and dynamic. In China itself, food has always responded to new cultures and new influences. The best example is Sichuan food itself: they have been eating chili peppers for only a few hundred years. They combined chili with the ancient Chinese spice, Szechuan pepper, and created mala. And now you really can’t imagine Szechuan food without it.
I’ve been traveling around for three decades now. Every time I go to China there is some new craze, some new ingredient. Most of us have an attachment and reverence for tradition. But I think that can co-exist with creativity – with breaking tradition.
You seem to realize your responsibility as someone who introduces many people—even people of Chinese descent—to Chinese cuisine. Do you think your role is mainly to translate Chinese food culture to foreigners? Or have Chinese readers also become part of your audience?