Fuchsia Dunlop on the Story of Chinese Food (Ep. 199)

In her third appearance, Fuchsia, Tyler, and a group of special guests gather over a banquet meal at Mama Chang

In her third appearance on the show, Chinese food expert Fuchsia Dunlop joins Tyler and a group of special guests to celebrate the release of Invitation to a Banquet, her new book exploring the history, philosophy, and techniques of Chinese culinary culture. As with her previous appearance, this conversation was held over a banquet meal at Mama Chang and was hosted by Lydia Chang.

As they dined, the group discussed why the diversity in Chinese cuisine is still only just being appreciated in the West, how far back our understanding of it goes, how it’s represented in the Caribbean and Ireland, whether technique trumps quality of ingredients, why certain cuisines can spread internationally with higher fidelity, what we can learn from the different styles in Indian and Chinese cooking, why several dishes on the table featured Amish ingredients, the most likely mistake people will make when making a stir fry, what Lydia has learned managing an empire of Chinese restaurants, Fuchsia’s trick for getting unstuck while writing, and more.

Joining Tyler, Fuchsia, and Lydia around the table were Dan Wang, Rasheed Griffith, Fergus McCullough, and Sam Enright.

Special thanks to Chef Peter Chang, Lydia, and all the staff at Mama Chang for the wonderful meal.

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Recorded November 9th, 2023

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TYLER COWEN: Hello, everyone, and welcome back to Conversations with Tyler. Today, we’re sitting in Mama Chang restaurant in Fairfax, Virginia, one of my favorite restaurants of all time, anywhere. We are here with Fuchsia Dunlop. Now, Fuchsia is the only individual we have done three Conversations with Tyler with, and that should tell you everything.

Fuchsia, quite simply, writes the best books. I don’t mean the best books on Chinese food; I mean the best books. There is a new one, Invitation to a Banquet: The Story of Chinese Food, which is just out. Fuchsia, welcome. We’re delighted to have you here.

FUCHSIA DUNLOP: Thank you, Tyler. Great to be back.

COWEN: Let’s just start with very quick introductions of everyone at the table, going around this way. Lydia.

LYDIA CHANG: Hi everyone, I’m Lydia. I am the business owner. This is my family business. Welcome, everyone, to Mama Chang.

FERGUS MCCULLOUGH: Hi, my name’s Fergus. I work on The Fitzwilliam, an online publication of Irish ideas.

SAM ENRIGHT: I’m Sam. I’m an economics undergrad, and I work on Fitzwilliam with Fergus.

RASHEED GRIFFITH: I’m Rasheed, and I help Tyler at Mercatus with Emergent Ventures.

DAN WANG: I’m Dan Wang. I’ve spent the last six years in China, and now I’m at the Yale Law School as a visiting scholar.

On real and store-bought soy sauce

COWEN: Very simple question to start for Fuchsia. How is real soy sauce better than what we might buy in the store?


DUNLOP: Well, I guess naturally fermented, artisanal soy sauce has a tang to it and a richness which would be much more impressive than your average mass-manufactured soy sauce, if you’re lucky enough to get some.

COWEN: How many different soy sauces do you either make or own?

DUNLOP: Oh, I don’t make them, but I don’t have that many, actually. A select few. There are other decisions to make when cooking, apart from choosing between 50 soy sauces.

COWEN: Where in China has the best soy sauce and your favorite, in your opinion?

DUNLOP: Well, Fujian is supposed to be best for artisanal soy sauce. There’s an amazing, really traditional soy sauce factory in Hujiang, in southern Sichuan, and it’s this magical place on the banks of the river with all these clay pots — tanza— with straw hats covering them when it rains, laid out with traditional buildings. They do traditional, old-fashioned, no-modern-innovation soy sauce, and a combination of the flavor and the place is just exceptional.

On writing different books

COWEN: Many of your books — they’re cookbooks, they’re history books, they’re also a kind of cultural studies set of books. Your latest book — again, Invitation to a Banquet — is primarily a history. It’s not a recipes book. After having gone through so much history of Chinese food, what updates have you made, or what have you changed your mind about? What do you now see differently?

DUNLOP: Well, I suppose that the striking thing about Chinese culinary history is that there are these extraordinary continuities, going back thousands of years in some cases. Steaming, for example, since the Neolithic age, or making fermented soybean products going back more than 2,000 years.

But there has also always been so multicultural and so innovative. The Han dynasty, about 2,000 years ago, was a period when lots of new ingredients and technology, critically, for milling flour from wheat, which brought noodles and so on to China that came in. Researching this book — it was a real reminder of how receptive Chinese food has been to other influences, and how it’s a composite of many different places and ideas.

COWEN: We’re here in 2023. You’ve been to China recently. You went all over; perhaps you had a few meals. During pandemic times, it was hard to get there. Over those years, what has changed? Or what has struck you as different?

DUNLOP: Well, going back, the first thing that was really striking — there were many fewer foreigners. When I was there in the ’90s, there weren’t many foreigners at all, and I felt very conspicuous. Then there’s been a period with loads of expats and visitors and tourists. In the wake of the pandemic, again, I was feeling like I was the only foreigner around. Food-wise, one thing that I found hilarious and surprising was having take-outs delivered to a hotel room by robots. That’s never happened to me here. So, technological advances.

Then also, everyone I met was talking about Yu Zhi Cai 预制菜, semi-prepared dishes. It’s been a real trend in China that restaurants are having central kitchens that are supplying dishes that are either fully made and just need reheating or partially made to be finished in a restaurant. It seems to be a really hot topic of conversation, and of course, all these concerns about the erosion of culinary skills if chefs are not learning to cook from scratch, but are just finishing dishes.

COWEN: I have more questions, but now we turn to Lydia to tell us what just arrived.

CHANG: Right. Welcome to Mama Chang. Today, we’re having a banquet meal, so Invitation to a Banquet. We typically like to start our banquet meal with something cold, a cold platter. Today, we have a platter of four different kinds. We have the fava beans with goji berry, we have the braised shiitake mushroom, we have some tofu skin and mala beef jerky.

四喜拼盘 Cold Platter including 捞汁Amish香菇 Braised Amish Shiitakes, 桂花酒酿芸豆 White Fava Beans with Fermented Rice Wine, 芝麻牛肉粒 Mala Beef with Sesame, and 蓝蟹肉拌鲜腐皮 Tofu Skin with Crab Meat

On eating in groups

COWEN: Fuchsia, are Chinese eating habits individualizing? We’re here together as a group. We’re going to share a lot of dishes. It’s how it should be done. But as you know, birth rates are declining. More people in many countries spend more time alone. That makes it harder to have that kind of meal. How is that evolving in China?

DUNLOP: Well, I think it’s very noticeable that restaurants in cities — there are more restaurants with small tables designed for couples and smaller groups. You still have the round-table big gangs, but also alternatives.

COWEN: I have more questions, but let me now turn to Dan Wang to my left, who will ask a question or two.

WANG: Fuchsia, in your book, you quote Ferran Adria as saying. “Who is the most important culinary figure of the last 50 years? Well, surely it is Mao Zedong because the chairman sent all of China’s farmers and all of China’s chefs to work in factories, thus destroying the preeminence of Chinese cuisine.” Is he right? How much do we really understand what culinary culture was before the People’s Republic? And can we recover a lot of those traditions now?

DUNLOP: One of the reasons that I wrote this book is that it seems to me extraordinary that China has this exceptional cuisine which is so diverse and sophisticated and also which resonates with so many contemporary concerns. There are parallels in China going back to the 10th century of people making imitation meats from plant foods. You have this tremendously creative, transformational cuisine which echoes the avant-garde cooking of modernist chefs in the West. All this stuff, and yet China has been the terra incognita for many people in the food world.

I think it’s purely historical reasons. The Chinese food that most people in the West know stems from American Chinese food, which was created by immigrants from one particular region, the Cantonese South, who were working in very difficult circumstances. They were facing racial prejudice. They probably didn’t have access to all the ingredients that they were used to, and they were often cooking for people who have no acquaintance with Chinese food. So, you have this simplified, very appealing, fantastically popular and successful, but not really a good representation of this amazing culinary nation.

Then throughout the 20th century, war, revolution, Cultural Revolution, China was just not part of international culinary exchanges. Also, prestige food is often about money. Japan got rich first. Japanese food is very prestigious. People will spend loads of money on Japanese sushi, but not so much on Chinese food. I think that, yes, Ferran Adria is right that Chinese food doesn’t have the recognition, the acknowledgment, that it really should have. Yes. I think now it’s possible, really, [laughs] to have a fresh look.

WANG: Can we cook a 10th-century meal from Hangzhou today, or is that mostly lost to us?

DUNLOP: Well, the frustrating thing is that there’s an amazing source of — what is it? — 12th, 13th-century Hangzhou, describing all the food served in city restaurants. It is dizzying. There were all different kinds of restaurants: regional, Buddhist vegetarian restaurants, restaurants for students, and snack shops of different kinds. The author lists all these delicacies, but there are no recipes or descriptions. [laughs] There’s tantalizingly not very complete information, but you could . . .

I know a chef in Hangzhou, actually, who has created banquets of Song Dynasty food as far as possible from the texts. I think we have to partly use imagination, and there are some continuities in ingredients and techniques.

COWEN: Fuchsia, we’ll give you a moment to eat. I’ll ask you, Dan, a question. Much of the pandemic you spent in China, some of that in Yunnan. What did you learn about Yunnanese food during those months?

WANG: I wonder whether Yunnanese food can be considered a cuisine as such. I think it is mostly not a very convenient label. Yunnan is a very mountainous region that is historic Tibet in the north and is close to being culturally Thailand, Cambodia, and Myanmar in the south, where it borders.

How do we make sense of a cuisine that is basically Tibet in the north and Thailand in the south? I don’t really think that such a thing is possible. It is such a mountainous zone, perplexed with intricacies. I think this is mostly mountain food. It depends on where you go. I don’t think we can recognize it as a coherent cuisine as such.

Chinese food in other countries

COWEN: Question for Rasheed; we’ll get back to Fuchsia in a moment. You’re from Barbados. Chinese food is different in every country, every region. How is Chinese food different in the Caribbean?

GRIFFITH: Chinese food in Barbados is actually quite dull, unfortunately. However, in Panama, where I also live, Chinese food is probably as exuberant as you would find in some parts of China. There are parts of Panama — El Dorado area — where Chinese restaurants are packed. They are full, not only with local Chinese, but also other Panamanian races. It’s just a very big aspect of culture.

To me, also, Chinese food in Panama has a much more authentic flavor than even most parts of Europe, if they have Chinese food. That’s, I think, quite surprising, almost like a hidden secret in Central America.

COWEN: Do you have a question for Fuchsia?

GRIFFITH: Yes. Recently, given the often surprising boom of Sichuan food — globally even — there’s been a movement by some elements of the government, for example, to publish these Sichuan requirements. I’m curious how that has impacted some of the culinary styles in Sichuan.

DUNLOP: As you said, there’s been a bid to standardize and categorize classic dishes. The local government, also in Chongqing — they’ve produced publications which say this is mapo tofu, and this is the ingredients, like having an appellation contrôlée for wine or something.

It’s an interesting and noble endeavor, but people cook in a much more free, ad hoc, creative way. There are many different ways to actually make mapo tofu, maybe some key characteristics, but you don’t have every chef measuring, to the gram, the amount of minced beef or the amount of Sichuan pepper. So I would say they’re not having that much influence.

Also, because Sichuanese cuisine — one of the great things about it is that it’s so dynamic. People in Sichuan love eating, and they’re creative, and they’re always doing things like making Sichuanese dishes with okra, which was not around when I was a student there in the ’90s. There’s always this tension between — we all feel nostalgic and we love tradition, and there’s something worthwhile about trying to document classics and traditions. But at the same time, you have to recognize that a cuisine is a very vital, living form of culture, which is recreated in every kitchen every day, so the difference between practice and theory is quite deep.

COWEN: Do you have observations on what we’re eating so far?

DUNLOP: Well, it’s certainly delicious, and it’s lovely to have some vegetable dishes. That’s one of the things that Chinese food in the West, with the concentration on shrimp and chicken and beef and fried foods, and so on. But actually, the glory of Chinese cooking is that there are so many vegetables. It’s healthy and balanced and refreshing.

So you might have a rich, intense dish like this mala beef, numbing and hot beef — very delicious, rich, and meaty. Also, we’ve got this lovely tofu skin with a very light dressing, and a bit of crab meat, and some very refreshing shiitake mushrooms. This is gorgeous, these white beans with Luzhou, fermented glutinous rice wine. These are all quite unusual to have in an American Chinese restaurant, I would say.

COWEN: For a typical quality Chinese meal — let’s say in the United States or maybe London — what percent of the credit should go to the chefs? And what percent of the credit should go to the people who bought the ingredients? How do you think about that?

DUNLOP: [laughs] You’re quoting Yuan Mei, the great 18th-century Chinese gourmet. Well, that’s another thing that’s really interesting, because I think Chinese food in the West is not associated with premium ingredients.

If you go to a fancy Spanish restaurant, they’ll be trumpeting their Iberico ham, so on and so on. If you go to a new Californian restaurant, they’ll be talking about which farm they got the produce from. But Chinese restaurants generally don’t say much about the ingredients, and that’s just because they’ve been stuck in this bracket where people don’t go to Chinese restaurants for fine ingredients, which is completely mad.

In this book, there’s a whole chapter about this, really, that the Chinese practically invented the concept of terroir, the obsession with seasons, with provenance, exactly which land your vegetables are produced on, and so on. In traditional Chinese cookery, certainly, a vitally important part of it is sourcing seasonal, fresh, quality ingredients, so it would be nice to recognize this, and this is clearly happening here. We’ve got all these Amish farm ingredients, right?

CHANG: Yes. I would say it comes maybe in both ways. We appreciate and we use a lot of local ingredients, from the Maryland crab that paired with our tofu skin. We also go out of our way trying to look for seasonal, really good-quality white beans. We are about to have some Amish pork dumplings. We try to source the best ingredients, whatever we can find, and use them to make quality dishes.

DUNLOP: My feeling is that if Chinese cuisine in the future, in contemporary times, manages to unite the exceptional culinary skills of Chinese chefs with the old obsession with ingredients, they’re just going to blow everyone else away.

GRIFFITH: Fuchsia, you mentioned the terroir concept. For example, there’s a very high-end tea, for example, and they focus a lot on the terroir aspect. I’m wondering, how much of that is a quality difference? Or is it really a big chunk of marketing itself?

DUNLOP: It’s like wine, isn’t it? It’s exactly the same. I think that, to an extent, probably the soil and the weather in a particular place will influence an ingredient. But clearly, there’s also a cultural and imaginative aspect. There’s a lot of fakery as well, so people pretending that they’re supplying Longjing tea from the Longjing hills around Hangzhou when it’s not actually that, but probably people who drink it still feel that it’s finer because of the label.

COWEN: Sam, do you have a question for Fuchsia?

ENRIGHT: Yes. I went to India for the first time over the summer, and the food was wonderful, but it struck me that Indian food had transferred with relatively high fidelity to very high-end Indian restaurants in Glasgow or Birmingham, and so on. Nothing in their cuisine was shocking to me in a way that I suspect it would be traveling around different areas of China. You mentioned Chinese food in the West being so Cantonese, but is there more to it than that, or more factors that determine which cuisines translate with higher fidelity?

DUNLOP: Yes. The first thing is that China is absolutely vast, and it has a very stunning diversity of different terrains and climates with all the implications for produce, so there are so many ingredients from different places. You’re only ever going to see small snapshots of this great richness of Chinese cuisine abroad, even though, now, we’re beginning to see Sichuanese food and different regional cuisines. There is so much more. I’ve been researching this for about 30 years, and I’m still discovering entire new styles and local traditions practically every time I go to China.

In terms of fidelity, Chinese food, I said in the book, is a victim of its own success. It’s all about timing. Chinese is one of the earliest immigrant cuisines at a time when Western palates were probably more conservative, and it was more difficult to try and faithfully reproduce Chinese food abroad, and it got stuck. Public perceptions of Chinese food have got stuck there.

But now things are changing, and there are so many immigrants, students, visitors from other parts of China living in cities like this and all over the place, who want to eat proper Chinese food. They want to eat the food they eat at home, whether it’s from their hometowns or it’s trendy cuisines like Sichuanese. It’s now possible for Chinese restaurants in the West — they don’t have to tailor to Western tastes. They can just start off doing food for Chinese clientele, so then it’s more faithful.

I think one should also say — your Yunnan cuisine, for example. The marvelous thing about Yunnan cuisine is all this local produce. There are so many ingredients that you simply can’t find anywhere else in China, let alone abroad. You can’t really reproduce many aspects of Yunnan cuisine, wouldn’t you say?

WANG: Yes, that’s right. If I can ask a follow-up question on this comparison between India and China. Maybe this is half a question also for Tyler. Why do we associate Indian cuisine so much more with long simmers, whereas Chinese cuisine — of course, it is a little bit of everything, as Fuchsia knows so well, but it is often a little bit more associated with quick fries. What is the factor endowment here of these two very big countries, very big civilizations having somewhat divergent paths, as we imagine, with culinary traditions?

DUNLOP: That’s a really interesting question. It’s hard to answer because I don’t really know anything about Indian food. I did have a really interesting conversation with an Indian who came on my tour to Yunnan earlier this year because I was speculating that one of the reasons that Chinese food is so diverse is that the Chinese are really open-minded, with very few taboos. Apart from Muslims eating halal food and some Buddhists not eating meat, there’s a great adventurous open-mindedness to eating.

Whereas in India, you have lots of taboos and religious and ritual restrictions. That’s one reason that you would think it would be a constraint on the creativity of Indian food. But this Indian I was talking to, who’s a food specialist — he reckoned that the restrictions actually forced people to be more creative. He was arguing that Indian food had all the conditions for diversity that Chinese does.

In terms of cooking methods, it’s hard to say. Again, I don’t know about Indian food, but the thing about China is that there’s been this intense thoughtfulness about food, really, for a very long time. You see it in descriptions of food from 2,000 years ago and more.

In the Song Dynasty, this incredible restaurant industry in places like Hangzhou, and innovation and creativity. I suppose that when you are thoroughly interested in food like the Chinese and thinking about it creatively all the time, you end up having a whole plethora of different cooking methods. That’s one of the striking things about Chinese cuisine, that you have slow-cooked stews and simmered things and steamed things and also stir-frying. That might explain why several different methods have achieved prominence.

COWEN: Before I comment on that, Lydia, on the new dish, please tell us.

CHANG: Oh. Apparently, it’s an empty plate now.


CHANG: We have a vegetarian spring roll. Spring roll is something that we love to have as a holiday special. We have it over spring, the Lunar New Year. Actually, you wrap things together. Sometimes you add shrimp, pork, and for this one, we use vegetarian. That’s a really amazing vegetarian dish.

三丝香菇脆卷 Shiitake Spring Roll

On different Chinese dishes

COWEN: On your India-China question — this is pure speculation, but my sense has been that China was wealthier earlier for a longer period of time, and on average stayed wealthier. So it had more in the way of meats, and you had people eating in large groups. So, the idea that you would chop up the meat, divide the meat, feed it to people, and then flash stir-fry the meat in some way.

India, it’s more likely you’re cooking vegetables. You’re on various spice trails to a greater degree. The Indian spices work very well being simmered for a long period of time. You’re less concerned with, how am I going to cook this meat because Hindus are not eating beef, and it seems that pigs are much harder to raise in India than in China. That would be my guess, but do you have a take?

WANG: I have no take.

DUNLOP: Another idea that I was thinking of . . . Again, I don’t know about India, but China very early on — like in the Song Dynasty from about 12th century — had a really lively and developed and diverse restaurant scene with restaurants at different levels. So eating out was a real thing. There were restaurants with menus where you would order your dishes, not just fixed menus and so on. In those conditions, you do want dishes that can be made quickly to order. Maybe that would encourage the development of fast cooking methods as well as home cooking and slow — the pot on the stove in the home kitchen.

CHANG: What about yi tand di san xian 一烫抵三鲜? The hot food would beat three times over the flavors. Chinese people love to eat quick, hot food.

COWEN: Due to urbanization in China, right?

DUNLOP: Actually, another thing is the emphasis on texture. I don’t really know about the history of this, but one of the really distinctive things about Chinese gastronomy is that the Chinese totally appreciate and understand texture to a degree that is unheard of anywhere else, really. That’s why they enjoy eating so many slithery, rubbery, and also often tasteless foods that have interesting textures.

There are certain textures — for example, one of my old favorite Sichuanese dishes, called bao yao hua, fire-exploded kidney flowers. That’s made with pork kidneys, which are cut into little frilly pieces and stir-fried very fast. You actually have to cook them fast to keep them nen 嫩 and a little bit crisp. I think, perhaps, when people have this obsession with texture, there are certain ingredients that require fast cooking. Also, vegetables — you don’t have everything very soft, but you have this briskness, liveliness, crispness in the bite.

GRIFFITH: What’s your speculation on why this kougan 口感 is such a big feature of the Chinese food?

DUNLOP: Okay, speculation again. I think the thing about China — there was this ancient philosopher, Gaozi, who said shi se xing ye 食色性也, food and sex are human nature. There’s this unabashed pleasure in the physicality of eating.

English people traditionally are a bit buttoned up, and it’s impolite to make noises when you eat, and it’s not very proper to show too much exuberant delight in food. But in China, you see this absolute joy in eating — in ancient poetry, in the way people eat today.

I think part of that is feeling uninhibited about it as something physical. When you eat in China, you can make little noises. You can put something like a duck’s tongue that’s grapplous and a bit bony and complicated to your lips, and you can enjoy the game with your teeth and tongue, and that’s all perfectly acceptable and enjoyed. Perhaps when you don’t mind a little noise and you are not shy of the physicality, then you can have things that are slithery and crunchy and require a bit of engagement when you eat them.

WANG: Really makes you wonder about the English approach to sex.


DUNLOP: Yes. Let’s pause swiftly on this.

COWEN: Lydia, please tell us about the new dish.

CHANG: Oh, we are having a ginseng soup with what looks like tofu, but it’s actually chicken.

新鲜洋参炖Amish人鸡汤 Ginseng Amish Chicken Soup

COWEN: The vegetarian version of it that Sam has — what can you tell us?

CHANG: Oh, unfortunately, Sam, we don’t have a vegetarian version. It looks like tofu, it’s actually not.


DUNLOP: This is a classic Sichuan banquet dish, which goes back at least a hundred years. It’s written about in a very famous text, early 20th century. It’s just a reminder that Sichuan food is not all spicy. Like any other Chinese cuisine, it’s about balance. If you have very intensely flavored and hot dishes and oily dishes, you always have refreshing things like this lovely broth.

COWEN: This is Amish chicken. How and why is that different and better?

CHANG: Let’s just say that the environment has a lot to do with how things are raised. When dad first met the Amish community, he felt a strong tie to the way they live. It reminded him a lot of the time he was raised as a boy in the village in China in the ’60s. My grandmother was a farmer. She used to be the one that’s earning all the credits and contributed that to the village government. In return, they don’t really have a lot to eat on the table. The humble life of the Amish community reminded him a lot of nostalgia.

COWEN: Sam, do you have another question?

ENRIGHT: I was going to say, Tyler recently told me that the third-best chicken he ever had was an Amish chicken. It pleased me a lot because it implies you have an encyclopedic ranking of every chicken.


ENRIGHT: To continue on the train of extremely speculative things, there’s this famous or perhaps infamous observation about whether areas of China engaged in mostly wheat-based or mostly rice-based agriculture has effects, centuries later, on various social outcomes, SAT scores, et cetera.

Thinking about Ireland, where I’m from, even just beyond the famine, it seems like there are many ways in which the presence of the potato and the dominance of it affects culture and land holdings and so on. How do you think about the role of the staple crop in creating the culture or cuisine of a certain place?

DUNLOP: Hmm, well . . .

COWEN: An easy question, and you thought I asked hard ones.


DUNLOP: China was a whole civilization that grew around the staple grain, which was originally millet. And all the rituals of the ancient Chinese state were about offering food to gods and ancestors, so wheat and alcohol, also millet and alcohol and so on, and roasted meats. What’s interesting about that is that millet went on being the sacred grain right up until the end of the Chinese imperial period in about 1911, but it had actually disappeared from people’s daily diets.

People in North China went on to eat wheat and noodles and breads, but millet remained the staple grain. I guess there’s a gulf between what people are actually eating and ideas about ritual and so on.

COWEN: What remains of Manchu cooking in Chinese food today?

DUNLOP: There’s a bit in the book about this idea. One of the distinctive things about Chinese cooking, going back about 2,000 years, is the habit of cutting food into small pieces and eating it with chopsticks. And yet there are some dishes which are presented whole like a Cantonese ceremonial suckling pig or Peking duck. Of course, they’re cut up before they’re served because you don’t have knives at the Chinese dinner table.

The Manchus were rugged northern nomads who liked eating huge chunks of sheep meat, which they would cut apart with their own personal knives. This was something that was still part of high-level society in the Qing Dynasty when China was ruled by Manchus. You can see these little eating sets that people slung onto their belts or tucked into their boots, where you have a pair of chopsticks and a knife so that people could eat both Chinese and Manchu food.

The whole roast meats, particularly in northern cuisine, may have been a legacy of this Manchu predilection for meat. There’s a scholar, Isaac Yue, who I cited in the book, who looked at an 18th-century Chinese banquet menu. There were whole servings of what were clearly Chinese dishes with food cut up very fine and served in soups and stews, and then these whole services of real charred and roasted and boiled meats which were Manchu.

Then also, actually in Beijing cuisine, there is some legacy of the Manchus in dairy foods. Like other nomads, they ate dairy foods. You have very fascinating something in Beijing imperial cuisine called nai lao奶酪, which is like a steamed custardy dessert made from milk. Also, another very interesting dish, nai lao gan 奶酪干. When it’s cooked at a very low heat, it turns to fudge, a bit like dulce de leche but solid. So, there are traces of Manchu food in Chinese cooking, particularly in the north.

COWEN: Lydia, what is new on the table, please?

CHANG: It’s our homemade pork dumpling, and we use Amish pork. Now maybe you can tell me what the difference is. [laughs]

黑毛猪秋葵锅贴 Pan-fried Amish Iberico dumpling

COWEN: Fuchsia, why doesn’t pork, in particular, have a higher status in China? The Chinese eat so much of it. It’s maybe the best pork in the world, the best pork dishes, but it’s not the highest-status food or close to it.

DUNLOP: Because it’s popular and ubiquitous. Pork is the celebratory food for anyone, traditionally. In China, if you want to get to the really highest echelons of gastronomy, you need rare, exotic, particular, and sought-after foods. Things like deer tendons — these are imperial delicacies. Camel’s hump. Hashima, the ovarian fat of the snow frog — all these unusual delicacies, and bird’s nests were fabulously expensive. These things are more prestigious in China because they’re scarce and expensive and extreme luxuries.

COWEN: Does bear’s paw actually taste good?

DUNLOP: You better ask someone else.

COWEN: Because you’ve never had it.

DUNLOP: Yes, you don’t have bear’s paw really served these days. It appears in cookbooks right until the 1980s, even of state banquets, but it’s now something . . . But you have lots of bears in America, don’t you?

COWEN: We do, but I don’t think you’re allowed to eat bear’s paw. I’m not sure.

DUNLOP: Can’t you eat —

CHANG: I’ve never tried it.

COWEN: It seems awkward to eat at the very least, right?

DUNLOP: If you’re Chinese, that’s no problem because people in China eat camel’s feet and pig’s feet, and they cook them to make the most of these gristly and gelatinous textures. The fact that it’s highly grapplous and not appealing to a Western palate is no problem at all.

COWEN: Fergus, do you have questions?

MCCULLOUGH: Yes. As we alluded to earlier, there’s this regional divide in China where in the north, wheat is primarily grown rather than rice, which is obviously much the same as Europe. What is the explanatory factor that means that in China, people tend to make noodles rather than bread, and obviously bread in Europe rather than noodles? Are there factors, or a single factor, that explains that?

DUNLOP: There’s a very interesting book on the cultural history of chopsticks by Edward Q. Wang, who looks a bit at this. It seems that the Chinese, very early on, apart from eating food that was cut into small pieces, they really liked eating food that was plucked out of hot liquid. The classic ancient Chinese dish, long before stir fries and the more famous modern Chinese dishes, was the gēng, which was a soupy stew made from lots of ingredients that were cut into small pieces floating around together in liquid. Of course, this evolved with the use of chopsticks, which are very suited for eating that kind of dish.

It seems like some early forms of pasta appear to have been bits of dough dropped into hot liquid, and that would have fitted into a way of eating that was already becoming a bit distinctively Chinese, you could say. I think that’s still the case. Wouldn’t you say, Lydia, that Chinese people really like liquids in their food, more than Westerners?

In England, we say meat and two veg is a basic, standard meal. In Chinese it’s Si Shen Tang, four dishes and a soup. When I was living in Sichuan, you never had a meal without soup. It might be really, really basic, but it’s just going to be a light broth to cleanse the palate and refresh you after the other dishes. Perhaps, in modern China, Westerners much prefer chow mein, stir-fried noodles. Chinese is all soupy noodles, and fried noodles are much, much less common, really. Perhaps this is why.

Also, just in China, until very recently, and still in most cases, Chinese people don’t have ovens at home. They do not roast or bake, so everything was done on a stovetop, a design that really hasn’t changed much for 2,000 years. You can still see, in farmhouses in China, these stoves with two openings for woks or steamers, and that’s how you cook. Bread in China traditionally is usually steamed and sometimes cooked on a griddle, maybe with a lid, like shaobing. The absence of ovens as a common kitchen equipment, and the love of pot liquid.

On Chinese food in London

COWEN: Now, you live in London. If I’m looking for good Chinese food in London, conceptually, how should I go about it? Should I run to Chinatown? Should I go to the outer boroughs? Or what’s the right schema, apart from any particular place you might recommend?

DUNLOP: I would look at where Chinese students are eating, partly, so then you’ll get the more recent trends in China.

COWEN: How do I find that out? If I just ask ChatGPT, will it tell me where the Chinese students are eating?

DUNLOP: No, you need someone who reads Chinese to go on social media and find what is being talked about. That would help.

CHANG: Maybe the app Xiaohongshu is going to help.

DUNLOP: Xiaohongshu.

CHANG: It’s popular among the students.

GRIFFITH: Fuchsia, how much cumin is too much for a Dongbei barbecue?

DUNLOP: Oh, that’s a matter of taste. I’ve no idea. Have you been assaulted by excessive amounts of cumin?

GRIFFITH: To me, it varies so much because sometimes the cumin is just cumin flamed, essentially, and then sometimes it’s not at all. I ask people, “How do you determine it?” They say, “Well, guess, taste.” But I feel it’s something more than just I decide today to put more cumin than not. It’s very unstandard in that sense.

DUNLOP: Hmm, I have no idea, I’m afraid.

GRIFFITH: A follow-up question. A very standard Caribbean dish is jerk chicken, and a very strong component of that is soy sauce. People don’t always consider it as a Chinese influence, but of course it is. I’m curious, is there any other areas of standard dishes across the world where it has a very strong Chinese influence that people don’t really realize it?

DUNLOP: Hmm, that’s hard to say. I suppose all soy products is the influence of China because China domesticated the soybean very early on, and soy foods have been incredibly important. Also, they came to Japan from China — making tofu and soy sauce.

COWEN: Wouldn’t Mexican mole be an example, those original pepper recipes from the 17th century? What came on the galleon from the Philippines, a lot of Chinese-influenced ingredients.

DUNLOP: Oh, really?

COWEN: I have been told, speculatively.


DUNLOP: I’m trying to think of examples. I’m really not sure.

COWEN: If a reader is using your recipes, and they make a mistake, what’s the most likely mistake for them to make?

DUNLOP: Not paying attention to cutting things evenly with stir-fried food, maybe.

COWEN: How does that influence the final taste? Or what goes wrong then?

DUNLOP: If you are stir-frying something that’s cut into slivers or slices, the whole point of stir-frying is meant to be very fast. The reason that it’s effective is that if the food is cut finely and evenly, then everything will be perfectly done at the same moment. If the cutting is clunky and uneven, then some pieces of food will be overcooked while others are still raw. I think that’s maybe something that people don’t necessarily realize, that it’s not just aesthetically important, it’s also technically important in Chinese food.

COWEN: Why might an older Chinese chef be reluctant to stir-fry, himself or herself?

DUNLOP: This is something that several people have told me, that stir-frying is perhaps the most difficult of all cooking methods in any cuisine because it’s so fast. There’s no room for maneuver. There’s no margin for error. If you have food that’s finely cut and that is sensitive to heat, like stir-fried scallops, for example, if you overcook them, it’s a complete disaster. You have to cook very quickly, and you have to add your seasonings absolutely correctly because you can’t start by making a holiday sauce when you can have a taste and then add a bit more lemon juice or whatever. You have to just have this instinct.

It’s like wushu, it’s like martial arts. You have to be on top of your game. It’s incredible seeing, when you see a really accomplished chef with a professional cooker stir-frying, it is so fast and is so instinctive. There’s no measured thought. They’re just doing it correctly. It’s a kind of miracle when it turns out right.

I’ve found that sometimes, when chefs have been explaining even their own personal classic dishes to me, their preferred method is to stand by the wok and get a younger apprentice to cook. People have said that’s because the elder chefs have a more management role. They’re not cooking every day. Like a martial artist or a dancer, they don’t have that fluidity and sharp instinct that you have when you’re doing it constantly.

COWEN: You may eat your dumpling. I have a question for Dan. Dan, you’re a Canadian citizen. You’ve also spent plenty of time in China. How was Chinese food different in the United States versus Canada?

WANG: Depends on where you go. Where I grew up in Ottawa, there wasn’t a terribly great amount of Chinese cuisine. I think there was a little bit more of the Cantonese influence. Something like 11 percent of Canadians live abroad. I believe that is the highest ratio in the world. That is because in the ’90s, the Canadian government just offered extraordinary numbers of visas to Hong Kongers to basically escape Hong Kong before their return to the mainland. That has a very big Cantonese influence.

Now, I haven’t really tested this, but people would say that Vancouver, at some points, had the best Chinese food in the world because of just the amount of influx there. But I haven’t really tasted enough in Vancouver to say.

COWEN: I’ve only been there three times. My sense was they had first-rate Cantonese food. Not quite as good as Hong Kong, but clearly the best in this hemisphere. In the other areas, at least at the time, they were much weaker.

WANG: Right.

COWEN: Fergus and/or Sam, do you have comments on Chinese food in Ireland, Northern Ireland, Scotland, or anywhere else you’ve been?

ENRIGHT: I suppose Chinese food in Ireland is similarly not very developed, like in Barbados. If there’s any non-generic Chinese restaurant in Ireland, it’s probably Sichuan. I’m interested, how did Sichuan become — maybe this is a non-accurate description — the prestige cuisine? If a first regional Chinese restaurant opens in a city, it’s most likely to be that one. How did that happen?

DUNLOP: I think that Sichuanese food travels really well. There are some cuisines, like the food of the Jiangnan region or Yunnan — we already said, there are so many really unique local ingredients that you can’t get elsewhere. When you think about Yunnan food, you think about these extraordinary ingredients. But Sichuan food — the heart and soul of Sichuanese cooking is in the artful combination of flavors. Not just mala, numbing and hot, but also yúxiāng, which is a bit of sweet and sour, pickled chili, ginger, garlic, spring onion. All these wonderful combinations of flavors.

I think that because the identity of Sichuanese food is in the flavors, you can apply a Sichuanese yúxiāng fish-fragrant sauce to the kind of fish that you can get, say, in England. It doesn’t have to be a local carp. It’ll still feel like Sichuanese cooking because the flavorings and the techniques are there. The Sichuanese cook just needs a small battery of key ingredients: Sichuan pepper, dried chilies, pickled chilies, doubanjiang — pickled chili paste — soy sauce, vinegar. Then you can cook whatever’s to hand. I think, for that reason, it’s quite accessible and transportable as a concept and a practice.

COWEN: Lydia, could you speak to the new dish, please?

CHANG: Absolutely. We have a seafood stew with crispy rice. This is one of the typical dishes that you think, oh, you have a rice crispy on the top and cook everything so fast. But I would probably call this one of the gong fu cai 功夫菜 because we homemade the fish balls, and that process on its own is probably eight to ten hours. You see some jumbo shrimp in there, scallops, and they’re all cooked at different times for it to be at perfect condition.

锅巴海鲜烩 Seafood Curry with Crispy Rice

COWEN: What region is that from?

CHANG: This is something my dad holds very dear to his heart. The fish balls we eat back at home in Hubei. I would call this a Hubei type.

COWEN: How do you think about, not just any single dish, but how you put this meal together, a combination of dishes? What would you tell us?

CHANG: I have to say, if you go to any Chinese restaurant, it probably takes a mastermind to put a banquet menu like this, either someone that’s really knowledgeable in the ingredients, in the methods that things are prepared. You get a good balance of something mild, something with soup, something crispy, different poultry. It’s really like putting puzzles together.

Chinese people eat pretty picky. Any end of the meal, I’m sure the guests will have something to say. “Oh, I didn’t like this and that paired together.” So. it really takes a lot of skill to put a banquet menu on the table. Today’s meal, Chef Peter, my dad, actually put everything.

COWEN: Great. Fergus, comment or question?

MCCULLOUGH: Yes. Going back to the exotic-ingredients aspect, I think we mentioned deer tendons earlier. In the West at least, deer, typically wild — it’s quite difficult to domesticate and farm them. What does the economy of accessing those ingredients in China look like? Presumably, some are intensively farmed, if possible, but presumably, others are very difficult to get your hands on.

DUNLOP: They’re quite unusual. Some of them are imported as well, and some of them are wild. Then, of course, one of the problems that China has is also with an illegal trade in wildlife, but that’s under the table. That’s not in the open, so you are unlikely to find these things on sale in markets. Most people would never eat any wild food because it’s expensive and scarce.

When I was saying about things like the deer tendons — that’s a grand old imperial delicacy and not something common at all. Then some ingredients are imported. Bird’s nest is farmed. A lot of it is farmed in Malaysia.

COWEN: When I go to China, sometimes I’m disappointed when I see so many hot pot restaurants. They’re typically pretty good, but they’re a bit all the same. Maybe I’ll go eat there once during a trip, but after that, it’s just a plague. What’s your view on this? Why is this happening?

DUNLOP: I totally agree with you. I call it the hotpotization of the Chinese restaurant scene. Hot pot is great fun. It’s really convivial, lively, inexpensive. It can be a very inexpensive way to eat and to share food with your friends, but in terms of cooking technique, it’s definitely low-skilled. That, of course, makes it hugely appealing for restaurateurs.

You know how difficult it is to get good chefs, wok chefs especially. It’s a nightmare because it’s so difficult to do. With hot pot, you just need a good soup base — you can even buy it in. Then you just need staff to slice up bits of food, and your customers cook it themselves. I think it’s partly that hot pot is very popular and partly for economic reasons, that it’s actually just a lot easier from the point of view of the restaurateur.

Yes, it’s poor, particularly with Sichuan. Sichuan has such amazingly diverse and exciting food, and hot pot is a poor reflection of all that.

CHANG: May I add? I think hot pot restaurants are like the McDonald’s in China.


It’s considered as a fast-food restaurant, really.

DUNLOP: Yes. Well, a lot of them are, but you also have incredibly high-end ones with seafood and —

CHANG: Abalone.

DUNLOP: Yes, so you find them at all levels of the market, but it is a bit of a plague. Nice in moderation. By the way, I have to say, the technique of this dish is fantastic and —

COWEN: Explain, please.

DUNLOP: Well, you’ve got an assembly of all different ingredients, and as you said, they’re cooked separately. These fish balls have a lovely, light, delicate texture, but they’re not completely flaccid. There’s a bit of liveliness to them — a bit of scallop in mine — sort of juiciness. The prawn is beautifully silky and also a bit crisp, and you have the vegetables that are crisp and not overcooked. That shows you that they’ve all been cooked separately to the peak, then combined together, and then you have the lovely contrast between the crisp crunch of the guoba, the rice crust, and the liquid.

There’s a lot that has gone into that, technically.

CHANG: That’s right.

COWEN: The new dish —

CHANG: Sounds like you already had a bite. [laughs]

COWEN: — please explain the difference between chicken of this sort, on the bone and not on the bone.

CHANG: This is not chicken. We’re having scallops today, so we elevated it. Yes, you are right. Typically, we would serve this as La Zi Ji, red chili pepper chicken, and some people would like to call it the treasure chicken because you have to find the chicken among a pile of red peppers. To elevate it today, we’re eating wild scallops that has a good heat to it.

辣子野生鲜贝 Red Chili Pepper Scallops

DUNLOP: It’s rather lovely. Do you see the garnish? These very deftly, intricately cut cucumbers. That’s something that you hardly see these days. It’s real classic old-school Chinese cooking, but it’s labor-intensive. Did your father do it himself or one of his chefs?

CHANG: He did it himself, and let me say, about 40 years ago, he was actually in a national competition to compete on the knife-cutting skill.

DUNLOP: Really? Because apart from the practical aspects of cutting — you have to cut to even chopsticks, the technical ones — evenness for stir-frying. There’s also the aesthetic aspect, and there’s this whole other thing — like the French sugar arts — or completely frivolous artistry with vegetable cutting.

COWEN: Dan, do you have a view on hot pot?

WANG: I think it’s terrible. What else is there to say?


WANG: I think that a hot pot is a great social activity, but it is never really my first choice to eat. But on the point about chains, one of the things I’ve observed over the last few years is that there has been a pretty growing scale of chain restaurants featuring basically slow casual cuisine — I’m thinking about Shibei Noodles, I’m thinking about the sauerkraut fish restaurant — that is achieving remarkable consistency across all of these different restaurants, which is a pretty difficult thing to do, I understand.

I wonder, do you see that these restaurants can be something like Din Tai Fung, to become major exports at some point? Or do you think that they can’t quite figure out the international market?

DUNLOP: Well, I don’t see why not. I think they’d be very popular if they could export. I think that this technical innovation in Chinese food is something that’s going to be more and more, like we mentioned, the pre-prepared dishes, which is something that is not necessarily a good thing.

Also, I met a very high-level chef in Beijing who was showing me a Robo-WOK, an electric wok that was trying to automate the process of stir-frying, which I’m sure is at the early stages. Yes, I think if they can achieve the consistency and standardization, which they are doing in China, then yes.

One thing about Shibei, particularly — this is a noodle restaurant that specializes in northwestern country cooking, in particular oat pasta, which is a specialty of Shanxi province.

When Shibei opened the first branches in Beijing, they had all these people at tables outside. It’s a bit hard to describe, but they have a big lump of oat pasta in their hand with a little bit going between their fingers, and they rub it onto the board, and they get a tongue of pasta on the board. They whip it up into a tube, and they stick it in a steamer. You end up with all these tubes of pasta together in a steamer like a honeycomb, and then you steam them.

I have to say that when I’ve been recently, they don’t have those people anymore. I don’t know whether they’re dropping the real artisanal, high-skilled aspects so that they can standardize and expand it. But that’s a bit of a shame because it was lovely when it started that they were showcasing one of the amazing handcrafting noodle arts of Shanxi.

COWEN: Either Fuchsia or Dan, do you have an opinion on how good the Michelin Guide is for China? I guess Shanghai, in particular, might be where you would use it.

WANG: I guess I would have never tried to look at the Michelin Guide anywhere.

COWEN: That’s endogenous, right?

WANG: Yes. In China, I guess I would look a little bit more just at the apps and look at the photos. Is Michelin Guide useful for you?

DUNLOP: Well, I think they do identify some of the very best restaurants in Shanghai, in Chengdu, and it’s helpful for people who don’t know Chinese to have some kind of guide. But the downside is that the classic Michelin methodology is to send a single inspector to a restaurant to have a meal. That means that eating like this, which is more typical of many very excellent Chinese restaurants, is a little impractical. I did interview someone from Michelin recently, and they said that, on occasion, they do allow inspectors to go out in groups.

Certainly, with the early Michelin Guide to Shanghai, for example, they did pick lots of excellent restaurants, but they missed some that were equally good but that did not have tasting menus suitable for individual diners. I’m guessing that may be partly why places where you have to book a private room and have a big dinner. So, I would say that’s one issue with it. But they have got better, also, at recognizing even small noodle shops in Chengdu. I think they’re trying to be closer to the pulse of what people actually want to eat.

The downside is that a lot of Chinese chefs I know are a little bit preoccupied with Michelin. It’s a problem in the West too, but when people start aiming at Michelin stars, then it has certain implications for Chinese cuisine, like pushing people towards individual plating rather than this style, which there’s nothing wrong with, but it is lovely eating like this, too. I hope that it doesn’t distort the way that Chinese chefs are actually cooking and presenting their food.

COWEN: How are social media changing Chinese food? In the US, people Instagram their food — I would say far too often — so there’s an incentive to create Instagrammable dishes. What’s going on in China?

DUNLOP: Totally in China. Everyone’s on their phones like maniacs, like people everywhere else. Yes, and certainly very visually exciting. That’s one problem, actually, with Sichuanese food, that I think it’s the real drama dishes, like this La Zi chicken normally, which are great, but they’re just one facet of a very diverse cuisine. Again, I think maybe they encourage restaurants not just in China, but everywhere. It’s the same pressures of social media.

COWEN: Podcasts.


CHANG: It brings people in, but when they’re in the restaurant, I guess, it’s the whole menu that dictates if we can keep them. A lot of the time, restaurants suffer with, “Oh, we have a lot of one-time diners.” But they can’t because of Instagram. The food is Instagrammable but actually doesn’t taste amazing, so what is the reason for them to come back? That goes beyond social media.

COWEN: What is the new dish?

羊肉炖老家鱼圆 Homemade Fish Ball and Lamb Stew

CHANG: Oh, it looks like we have a. . . In Chinese, umami has half fish and half lamb. This is a dish with full umami, with our fish ball and lamb stew.

DUNLOP: I love it.

WANG: I heard about that as a Shanghai dish, and when I first heard about lamb and fish stew, I did not quite believe it as a real soup.

COWEN: Have you been converted?

WANG: I have been converted. I think it’s awesome.

CHANG: Maybe you should go first?

WANG: Okay, yes, please.

DUNLOP: Also, again, we were talking about the importance of soup. This is a proper Chinese meal — with a soup.

CHANG: Absolutely. It’s not just one soup. It’s courses of soups.

DUNLOP: Right, and a nice soupy dish.

COWEN: Where in China have you not eaten the food?

DUNLOP: I have never been to Jiangxi province, and also, one place I really want to go is Heilongjiang in the Dongbei, northeast, because there it’s bordering Russia. And that’s going to be a whole other, lots of local ingredients and traditions and a bit of Russian influence.

GRIFFITH: There’s a very good restaurant in Dunhua right on the border of North Korea that has a very, very strong North Korean-Chinese cuisine combination. It’s the only place you can go to get that particular food.

DUNLOP: That’s, again, the diversity of Chinese cuisine, that you don’t only have the branches of classical Chinese gastronomy. But also you said in Yunnan, you have food that is Vietnamese, Thai, Laotian, and then in the northeast, Korean, Russian. It’s very extraordinary. Mongolian.

COWEN: In Shenyang, I quite like the food. Spicier than I was expecting it to be. Wonderful dumplings, maybe the best dumplings I’ve had in China.

DUNLOP: Oh, there are plenty of Shenyang dumpling restaurants there and other places, too.

ENRIGHT: Since Korea was mentioned, my Korean friend has a theory that a lot or perhaps most of the global variation in cuisine can just be explained by temperature in different countries. In particular, in western and northern Europe, it’s too cold to cook outdoors. If you’re cooking indoors, and you don’t want to poison yourself from the fumes of the smoke, you have to rely a lot more on covered pots and cooking vessels that create less smoky, flavorful dishes.

How do you think about the geography or temperature of a place as a variable?

DUNLOP: I was trying to think. Chinese wok cooking does create a lot of smoke, but in lots of Chinese modern apartments, they would have a kitchen that’s almost like a balcony, where you can open all the windows so you don’t actually influence the place where people are sitting and eating, but it’s adjacent. I suppose in the Dongbei north, you have lots of hearty stews and soups. Maybe to an extent . . . Very interesting question.

WANG: The Sichuanese say they need to eat a lot of spicy foods because it’s such a humid and hot environment. I’ve never understood that. Why is that helping with the humid environment?

DUNLOP: Because it makes you sweat. Because it’s humid, you have this unhealthy dampness in your body, so you have to have ginger, chilies, peppercorns to make you sweat, and that drives out the unhealthy humidity and restores a lovely equilibrium. The funny thing about that that is a little inconsistent is that the Cantonese South is also pretty humid, it seems to me, and yet chilies are not advised there for eating. [laughs]

CHANG: Plus, sweet water is, tiánshui.

DUNLOP: Oh, yes, that’s true. Yes, you do other things for that. This is a lovely texture, too, with the slithery, crisp, woody mushrooms as well.

WANG: You’ve noted very well, Fuchsia, that Chinese cuisine has a bit of an elitist bias. These eight great, great cuisines are very much concentrated in more rich, coastal provinces. I wonder, can you just turn towards what a people’s history of Chinese cuisine could look like? How do we actually incorporate these folk traditions a little bit better into our conception of Chinese food so it is not so Cantonese and Jiangnan-focused?

DUNLOP: The first thing to say is, the eight great cuisines is a very recent scheme. People talk about it as if it is something really old, but as I’ve said in my book, I think it only goes back to about 1980 or something. There are many different ways of trying to express the regional diversity of Chinese food, all of them totally inadequate because it’s such a food-intricate culture.

I think already, as you said, Jiangnan, which is the food of the eastern region around Shanghai, very elitist. Fine Cantonese food is very elitist, but Szechuanese already has a reputation for being a party folk cuisine, so it is represented. The eight great cuisines incorporate Anhui, which is not regarded as a very great culinary region now. I think the categorization of that scheme is actually quite irrelevant. If people took a fresh look at it, they would include . . .

Also in the eight great cuisines, Hunan cuisine is one of them, but they’re talking about elitist Hunan food and not the wonderful spicy home cooking. I think in terms of what people actually want to eat, it’s not elitist. The cuisines that are most popular now — Szechuan, what else? Hunan.

WANG: The spicy ones are more popular right now.

DUNLOP: Spicy ones, yes. Guizhou is also, and that’s not elitist cuisine. I think that the people writing about food are no longer the Confucian gentleman scholars. [laughs]

COWEN: Why has Hunan food fallen behind in the West? You used to have so many restaurants that claimed to be Szechuan and Hunan. They weren’t really either one, but nominally, there was some connection. Now, many more people want real Chinese food. There’s plenty of more or less broadly authentic Szechuan places, but I don’t see broadly authentic Hunan places. What happened?

DUNLOP: Not so many. I don’t know. What do you think?

WANG: My understanding was that Hunan food became quite popular after Nixon’s visit to China, and this was all Chairman Mao. Then everybody just started advertising their Chinese restaurants as Hunanese cuisine. I think that distorted our view, so maybe people have caught on.

Personally, I enjoy Hunan food a little bit less than Szechuan food. I find Hunan food a little bit too oily, and the flavors are a little bit too much, instead of more refined and tingling and teasing in a way that Szechuan often is.

COWEN: Lydia, do you have a view on this? Are you tempted to serve Hunan dishes?

CHANG: Yes. May I introduce you to what we’re having? This is a Sam special, but it’s not fair to serve it only to Sam. That’s why our table gets a separate platter. This is Chef Peter’s signature dish. It’s a dry-fried eggplant. He has done so many ingredients the dry-fried way. We call him a dry-fried master. He can do it with fish. He can do it with shrimp, with okra, with cauliflower, with shiitake mushroom.

 乾炸茄子 Dry-fried Eggplant

It’s the special batter that he coats anything with that makes it very crispy outside, but still juicy and tender inside, with a great balance of cilantro, Szechuan pepper. Sometimes he likes to add cumin. Other times it’s just a lot of flavors.

COWEN: If you think about the family empire, how many restaurants is it now?

CHANG: I stopped counting.


COWEN: You stopped counting, exactly. Obviously, the food is wonderful, but in terms of business principles, what has made the difference? What have you all done that has been the difference maker, viewing them as commercial enterprises?

CHANG: All right, I have to start with the things that we have tried, but not in a way that is financially successful. We keep trying to offer new concepts. We wanted to, in a way, offer modernized Chinese cuisine. People will call that more fusion or not really as authentic. This is something I really want to ask the people sitting at the dining table. When it comes to the traditions, the classics, the authenticity versus modern ambiance, what is the balance? What is your ratio when it comes to, if I’m going to pick a place for a meal, what do you guys look for?

COWEN: The floor is open.

GRIFFITH: I don’t think I’m a very usual diner, so I don’t care that much for ambiance. Usually, I like a very dull place. I love Filipino foods also, and because I usually vary the meal location, just go in. It’s like a family restaurant, so they cook everything very simple, homemade, done, and you go in. They don’t have time for the other aspects of it. But I know when you go to those kind of places, the only other people there are the Filipinos.

Similarly, because right now I live in Madrid, and oftentimes, the best Chinese restaurants I find — actually mostly Hunanese — are the very simple restaurants, and that’s usually where the most people from Hunan simply go and have food. But the ones that look very nice and very aesthetic typically cater to just the average consumer, and because of that, they don’t really tend to put that much effort on the food. But most people, I think, prefer a nice-looking restaurant.

WANG: I am against nice-looking restaurants —


WANG: — because it attracts too much Instagramming. We’re there for the food. We don’t want the photos.

ENRIGHT: One of the key tenets in the Tyler Cowen theory of how to select a restaurant is looking for spelling mistakes on the menu.


MCCULLOUGH: Similarly, I think some combination of Chinese clientele, not a particularly nice venue, and I guess also, when you’re in the restaurant, typically in the UK, if the service is not as warm and polite.

DUNLOP: You like to be treated mean.


MCCULLOUGH: Yes, that’s usually a very strong signal about the food being good, and I find that to be very true.

WANG: I don’t think you should take any of this advice.


CHANG: Exactly, so this is a constant debate. Well, Fuchsia, what do you look for? Do you look for a dining room full of at least 90 percent Chinese audience?

DUNLOP: Well, I think having a Chinese audience is a good sign, but I like everything. Sometimes I like to go to beautiful places with amazing service and beautiful china and elegant presentation, and sometimes I like to go and have street food. And that’s the joy of eating Chinese food — that you have something at every level.

I think also, this thing about classics versus innovation — all the classics are actually the product of innovation. Somebody was saying to me the other day, mapo tofu is only a hundred years old. It’s not an ancient dish. The Sichuanese didn’t have chilies until a couple hundred years ago. So, I think you can’t be too conservative, really.

COWEN: I like it when the diners are grumpy. When they’re too happy, I start to get suspicious. Why are they here? Are they here to have a good time? There’s something about food. You mentioned sex earlier. When you film people doing it, they don’t necessarily look happy.


CHANG: Wow. It’s true, I shouldn’t take any of this advice, but for Fuchsia, who is maybe closer to our day-to-day customer. It is absolutely true, when it comes to a business success, we look at what brings people back. Yes, you can have a very peacocky, showy dish that maybe lights up in flame or something, that people look at it and they’re like, “Wow, I want to see what they’re really like.” But once they are in the door, we think about what makes them stay. It really goes down to the ingredients and their personal feelings.

Some of you guys like to be treated in a mean way.


CHANG: Maybe that’s a strong association with how you are being treated, but I believe there is a lot of perception about Chinese cuisine we’re trying to make a change to. Again, I know that everyone at this table is a foodie and takes a lot of pride in standards and quality. We’re trying to expand that audience. We want anyone that doesn’t know much about Chinese cooking coming to a restaurant and feel good about being here. It’s not just them. It’s everyone they’re eating it with.

Yes, our dining room is a little loud, but we tend to offer them appetizers before the entree comes out, and we offer them a little matcha or ice cream at the end of the meal. In a way, make them feel comfortable and familiar with what they’re eating. Otherwise, we stay pretty true on the flavors.

We like to offer bold flavors, especially how Dad started his career in the US, really not afraid of using peppercorn. At the time, it was banned in the US. There’s no legal way of getting peppercorn or sources. I remember the restaurant owner would ask their family member in China to send it over from Fujian.

Yes, things have changed quite a lot in the past 20, 30 years, and now we’re looking at, oh, there are a lot of options. From a business perspective, what makes us different is that we get customer to come back for occasions, special celebration, or for their day-to-day carryout and delivery.

COWEN: Tell us about the new dish, and should one eat it with chopsticks?

CHANG: Everyone should eat with chopsticks.


CHANG: Yes, we have a pork belly dish that is, from the start, marinated and then coated with rice flour. After it’s steamed and cooked 80 percent, 90 percent, then we want to create a crispy texture. That’s when we start to put it in the wok, very quick, double-sided pan sear, and then add all the green jalapeño, the scallion, the red chili pepper, peppercorns.

铁板煎粉蒸肉 Pan-fried Grandma’s Steamed Pork Belly

COWEN: This is my favorite dish so far, this and the numbing beef. Fuchsia, would you comment on this?

DUNLOP: So, this thing, when you marinate the pork belly and you coat it in rice crumbs and you steam it, is a very classic Chinese country dish. It’s the first time I’ve had it fried like this, and it’s delicious. It’s like a new version of Hui Guo Rou, back in pot or twice-cooked pork.

CHANG: Yes, yes. If I can add, this is a dish that is very known in the household family. When you have something steamed at home, my mom or my grandma will steam it for the first time and serve it as a beautiful first-time dish. But for something to be consumed later in the day or the next day, people tend to get tired of eating the same thing over and over, so they get really smart. Why don’t we pan sear it, so it becomes a new dish?

DUNLOP: Mmm, going to have to try it.

On Chinese restaurants in the US

WANG: Lydia, are you seeing a difference between Chinese restaurants in the DC area and the LA area and the New York area? Is there a distinct difference with these things? Or they’re just Sichuan restaurants or something, and in each of these places, they’re consistent?

CHANG: I feel like restaurants or restaurant owners are very smart to see what the trend is. As you guys can probably see, Sichuan restaurant — if we’re talking about in the 2000s, there has not been many, and that’s probably how Dad got his reputation, being a master Sichuan chef, although he’s really a classicly trained Chinese chef, cooking all the regional cuisines.

I want to say, it really started in 2010-ish. This is when the new immigration from China started to emerge, and a lot of them went to LA, a lot of them went to New York, a lot of them came to DC. We’re starting to see na jia 那家“bistro na’s” in Orange County. We see zhe li, which is a very Jiangsu zhe jiang cai in New York, and I’m just naming a few. There’s actually a lot more regional cuisine, like I remember my friend, Chef Simone Tong, was making Yu Nan 云南 noodles by NYU, and it’s vastly popular.

COWEN: Sam, any comment on the eggplant?

ENRIGHT: It’s very good.


COWEN: Fergus, Rasheed, what’s been your favorite dish so far?

MCCULLOUGH: The eggplant has been very good, actually. I’ve also liked — the scallions have been excellent.

GRIFFITH: I think I’ll go with the pork.

COWEN: This one, my favorite, yes. Why?

GRIFFITH: I usually like a very subtle ma tingling sensation, usually that’s not overpowering, and also the combination with the fried is very, very good.

COWEN: If you had to pick a favorite so far, do you have a nomination?

DUNLOP: Well, for me, I love the pork, and I love that soup with the fish balls. But for me, the reason this is such a lovely meal is that it’s such a well-planned menu. This is the thing that I think foreigners have the most difficulty with Chinese food — is how to assemble a menu. You’ve really thought about different cooking methods, different ingredients, textures, some wet, some dry. That’s what makes it not only delicious, but also shu fu, comfortable, because we have something very sizzly and then a lovely light refreshing soup, so the pleasure of the meal is physical as well as just —

COWEN: How did you learn that, just by induction? You were served a lot of meals, and you ran the mental regressions?


COWEN: Or is there a way it can be taught to someone like you?

DUNLOP: Well, mainly I’ve learned through constant eating. I try to write about this, really, and the idea that a well-planned Chinese menu — it’s not just about delicious tastes. If you think about going out for a classic French meal, you think about having lots of rich food, pudding, cheese, and feeling quite heavy afterwards. With a well-planned Chinese meal, you can have dozens of dishes and still feel comfortable.

As a foreigner, once you start considering that the light and delicate dishes are just as important as the razzle-dazzle, exciting dishes, then you’re on the way to be able to plan a nice meal, right?

CHANG: I would say start with picking out your favorites and look at, oh, what am I missing from there, and that’s a good way to go.

COWEN: Your father taught you?

CHANG: I guess so. I am very influenced by both great chefs at home, Mom and Dad. Mom is a pastry chef, Dad is a wok chef, and they trained me to have a very picky palate.

DUNLOP: I think also it’s about not repetition. That’s the key thing. If you have a dish with one ingredient or one style, you just want to make sure the other ones are as contrasting as possible.

WANG: On the subject of Fuchsia’s writing, I think that your book is wonderfully well organized, to introduce the cuisine through 30 dishes and to use that to talk about knife work and diversity and everything else. I thought it worked really well.

Furthermore, what worked well was that you are just a fabulous writer in terms of making the physicality of eating very, very good. Can you speak a little bit about food writing? I think food really rewards good writing. Can you talk about how you learned that other craft that you’ve picked up so well?

DUNLOP: Well, thank you so much. I don’t know how. It’s just instinct. I suppose what I’ve been trying to do all this time is find ways of describing the intricacies of Chinese food to make it illuminating and delightful for people who didn’t grow up with it. Trying to find ways — things like texture, which is a quite difficult subject in the sense that many of our texture words in English are a bit disgusting: slimy, gristly. Trying to write playfully and engagingly so that people can both acknowledge these unfamiliar textures, but also see how they might be delicious.

I did a degree in English literature, so I read lots of good books, which is the best training for any writer. But I also try to have fun with it, to just be playful and have a laugh. Also, I love eating. Since I was a teenager, I’ve always kept a journal, and it’s always turned into epic descriptions of meals, so I’ve had a lot of practice.

COWEN: When you worked for BBC World Service, you learned how to write then? Or before?

DUNLOP: Well, I suppose I’ve always written. I had a certain training for how to think about language, and try to be very fair, and think how it will be understood in different cultures. I think more of it is just practice, just writing, having a notebook, writing your impressions. It’s a craft that you develop through use.

COWEN: What did your parents do?

DUNLOP: My mother taught English as a foreign language. She had a huge food influence on me. She’s a great cook, and we always had lots of foreign friends in our home, so I had a very unusual gastronomic upbringing. My father was in the first generation of IT people.

GRIFFITH: There’s a bit of anxiety I get when I go to a new Chinese restaurant because I feel like when you want the good food, you have to perform, you have to perform yourself. I say, “Laoban 老板. I’m here to actually consume the correct food.”

But people who can’t just turn on some chang sha 长沙 dialect — how would they actually get the good food from the restaurants?

DUNLOP: Well, without the language, I suppose that one of the best ways is to look at what other people are eating, but it is difficult. Even when I go to China and I order for a group in good Mandarin, knowledgeably, and I know the names of the dishes, it so often happens that the waiter — if I’m with foreigners — he’ll say, “Oh, they can’t possibly eat that.”

GRIFFITH: Exactly.

DUNLOP: There’s this assumption that foreigners won’t be able to handle certain foods. I’ve sometimes had to have an argument and just say, “Look, we will eat it.”

GRIFFITH: Same here.

DUNLOP: We have gotten around proving that we can eat sea cucumbers and stuff on many occasions. It’s quite understandable because I think a lot of foreigners have a habit of ordering something that they can’t handle, and then being rude and obnoxious and just complaining. They think that there’s a bone in the chicken, so that’s a problem. It’s not a problem; it’s meant to be like that. I think that Chinese waiting staff, particularly in the West but also in China, are a little wary of upsetting foreigners, and also, they just want people to have a nice time.

You have to battle against that stereotype if you really want to eat the good food. I think things are changing, but just looking at what other people are eating is incredibly useful. Then also showing your appreciation when you do eat something unusual because I should imagine that all the restaurants where I’ve been with groups of foreigners eating unusual things with gusto, that afterwards they thought, “Well, it is possible for foreigners to eat something.”

COWEN: What is it then that you can’t eat? Put aside the illegal, where you just say, “No, I’m not going to have that.”

DUNLOP: No, I will eat everything.

COWEN: You will eat everything.

DUNLOP: Well, I did in Yunnan, actually. There’s a very special dish in one particular region, which is raw pork, sort of tartar pork, chunky — shengpi 生皮, dali shengpi 大理生皮 — chunky. I ate that because local people rave about it all the time. I was aware that there were health issues with eating raw pork, but I really wanted to try it, so I had it with some local friends. It was really delicious, but I had this terrible panic afterwards, and I probably wouldn’t do that again.

I think it’s a really hard thing. I want to eat with people, and I want to be totally open-minded and nonjudgmental. I suppose the only things that will restrain me are possibly health concerns like that, and then also ethical issues.

I have a real dilemma with hairy crabs. This is one of the great delicacies of the Jiang Nan 江南 region. Oh, they’re so . . . and one of the best ways to eat them is they’re drunken crabs — sweet and they’re pickled in rice wine and seasonings. You just fly to heaven when you eat one. I’ve been eating these for years with great delight.

Then a couple of years ago or a few years ago, the Shanghai authorities, they banned raw drunken crabs. I started looking at why this was, and it turns out that they can carry parasites, freshwater raw creatures. Now, somebody offers me a raw hairy crab — what do I do? I’ve been fine so far. I don’t know, the lust for eating them is so great.

CHANG: You only live once.


COWEN: Why aren’t there more raw dishes in Chinese food overall?

DUNLOP: Well, historical prejudice. In ancient China, the Chinese defined themselves as people who cooked food, and barbarians beyond the borders of the empire ate raw food. There is a very ancient idea going back to The Book of Rites, Liji, one of the classic texts, that civilization began when people learned how to harness fire to cook their food. They left behind the era of drinking blood and eating feathers and having all the diseases from raw foods.

I remember when I took a Yunnanese friend out for dinner in London, and she was served a rare pigeon breast. Her initial reaction was anxiety: “Is this going to be a bit dangerous?” It’s a health concern coupled with an ancient tradition of eating cooked food.

WANG: I spent about three months in Dali last year, and I was offered a lot of raw pork, and I never took it.

DUNLOP: Right. Probably very sensible.


DUNLOP: It was very nice. It was a bit like a steak tartar.

COWEN: But you eat raw meat in the US?

WANG: I would eat raw beef, sure. Pork, I don’t know.

DUNLOP: Like in Germany — I don’t know if it’s a certain region — they have Mett, which is raw pork. When you eat this, there are all kinds of rules and regulations for the temperature which it’s kept at and how it’s served and so on. Whereas in Dali, it was very, very easy. The fact is that local people of this particular group eat it all the time. I was asking people if they had any problems, and most people said, “Oh, it’s fine, they check the pork.”

COWEN: When and where is China most effective as a street food country? And when isn’t it? I don’t eat much street food when I’m in China.

DUNLOP: Why not?

COWEN: But I might, say, in Malaysia. The restaurant food is so good, and I’ve never found the street food to be better, even though it can be very good. Whereas, let’s say, in Malaysia, I might find street food, on average, to be better than restaurant food. Is there anywhere in China where street food is the way to go?

DUNLOP: Well yes, in the north. I went to Kaifeng, the old Song Dynasty northern capital. This is some years ago, but they have the most incredible night market with all kinds of food. That was just amazing and delicious. I think the problem is that with China’s modernization, there’s been this big effort to clean up the streets, and they’ve seen street food as being old fashioned and something undesirable.

When I lived in Sichuan in the beginning, there were actually quite a lot of street traders doing really nice food, and it’s harder to find them. Actually, if you go to Chengdu, go to the Wenshu Monastery, and in the streets around there, there are people serving some traditional snacks, dan hong gao 蛋烘糕, these little pancakes stuffed with pork or sweet things. These are lovely. I would go there. There are certain areas where it’s tolerated and where you can have really lovely street food.

COWEN: Dan, do you have a view on this?

WANG: Basically, anywhere with a night market I think is reliably the places with great street food, especially these nice little barbecues and noodles. I echo Fuchsia here at that. Shanghai, I believe, used to have, actually, quite a nice street food life, and then they cleaned all of that up, and I think they maybe have been borderline successful in driving that out.

DUNLOP: Sometimes what they do is, they bring street food into an area, a bit like the Singaporean Hawker Center idea. The problem is that they’re not individual traders anymore. They’re just people working for someone else, and it’s not the really good street food.

COWEN: Lydia, what do we have here?

CHANG: I think we missed our seafood prawn with sticky rice. That’s a dish that everyone took one, and it’s now gone, [laughs] so that’s a very typical full-baked cuisine. We like to use pork as a filling, but for today’s variety, that switched to crab and seafood, coated with sticky rice, steamed and just finished up with a beautiful glaze.

珍珠虾蟹球 Seafood Pearl with Sticky Rice

Next, we have the famous squirrel fish. Today, I think they’re more daisy looking, [laughs] or sometimes…

炸溜珊瑚欧鲈 Mandarin Bronzino Fish

DUNLOP: Amazing knife work. Look at that.

COWEN: Yes, it is.

DUNLOP: They’re cut like that, and they’re not falling apart. They’re all staying in these lovely fronds.

CHANG: That’s right.

MCCULLOUGH: No episode of Conversations with Tyler would be complete without implication or understanding that everything comes back to economics. What can an economist learn from eating more Chinese food?

COWEN: You’re asking me?

MCCULLOUGH: Either, anybody.

DUNLOP: I have no idea.


COWEN: (A) Competition works. (B) Adam Smith said division of labor is limited by the extent of the market. So, as Chinese became the №1 group coming to the United States, we started getting a lot of regional cuisines. But also look for places that are not too easy to get to, not frequented by too many tourists, and have grumpy diners and abusive staff because there’s a selection effect.

If the place is in business at all and it’s full, that’s implying the food is very good. It’s being patronized often by elderly Chinese, who, in my view, are much fussier than a lot of younger Chinese. Younger Chinese in this country, by my standards, are too willing to go out to eat to enjoy themselves. I just think that’s wrong.

Those would be my starting points, but other answers are welcome.

WANG: Trade promotes globalization. Sichuan food is slightly easier to export, as Fuchsia said, given the chilies and the peppercorns. That’s why it’s really easy to have that standardized across the world.

GRIFFITH: When Fuchsia mentioned that the willingness for the government to try to standardize cuisine, did it really work? Because I see this ability of the individual to design the menu themselves. It’s a very big economic concept there.

MCCULLOUGH: Slightly different question for Fuchsia. I’m wondering — you write in your book about how the West — the Anglos here in particular — had this experience with Chinese food coming in the postwar period when, essentially, what you end up getting in a takeaway is not real, proper Chinese food. Do you have a sense of other regions, other continents of the world? Have they had a similar experience with Chinese food coming there? Or maybe some haven’t even had it yet?

DUNLOP: Oh, I think yes. I think that the Cantonese simplified model is in many places but with slight variations. Like in Sweden, they have something called Four Little Dishes, which is a standard menu of Chinese takeaway food. It seems to have been a blueprint that worked very well all over the place, with sweet tastes and fried foods with variations.

I have to say, I haven’t traveled to Peru, for example, where they have, by all accounts, very interesting local Chinese food. Also, Kolkata has some very interesting old Chinese dishes, and I have yet to go there.

COWEN: Both of those are very good, but they’re very different. They don’t feel to me like quite Chinese food. But I would recommend their chifas, which you even can get in Northern Virginia, though it’s much better in Peru.

DUNLOP: Oh, really?

COWEN: They’re rice dishes with Chinese elements in them, is the way I would think about them.

WANG: I spent some time in Barcelona this summer, and I found, first of all, Barcelona to be my favorite city for food in Europe, in part because I think it has a very great respect for Asian cuisine. This was the first European country I’ve seen where there were a lot of Spanish chefs making Chinese food, Spanish chefs making Japanese food, and I thought that was quite good.

Where is the best city in Europe for Chinese food? Is it London?

DUNLOP: I haven’t done a survey, so I have no idea, but —

COWEN: If somewhere were great, you would’ve been pulled to it, right?

DUNLOP: I hope so. I’m spoiled because I eat a lot in China, so I don’t feel the need to go and eat Chinese food everywhere else.

CHANG: I feel Singapore has really good Chinese food because of the Chinese population. Yes, London has great Chinese food, not just the Chinatown that has been there for maybe decades, but also the newer where I like to call it modern Chinese. We talk about Chef Wong, Andy Wong, really doing an excellent idea with elevated Chinese foods being a tasting menu.

DUNLOP: I think one problem — and this maybe comes back to economics again — but in England, for example, I think now the door has opened to massive public interest in regional Chinese food, and people are really open to trying now eating Sichuan, Xi’an food and so on.

But the real problem is that we have very stringent immigration rules. In order for a chef to come over and work in a restaurant in London, they have to have a certain level of English and a certain income, which is prohibitive for anyone but the big international hotels. I think it’s a shame that we don’t have more trained chefs coming in from China to bring different aspects of Chinese food.

GRIFFITH: I find that the Chinese food in Madrid is actually even better than Barcelona. You spend much time in Madrid, Dan?


GRIFFITH: Because even there, you get very obscure local cuisine from China in Madrid. Whereas in Barcelona, it’s not as . . . you can’t get the obscurities as much.

COWEN: This book, other books you’ve written — what’s the hardest thing for you about writing a book?

DUNLOP: Well, I found this a lot harder than writing a cookbook.


DUNLOP: Because a cookbook has a slightly obvious structure. Unless you are going to do something really radical, you have an introduction. You can go into basic techniques and ingredients. Then you have recipes, often grouped by ingredient, and each recipe has a headnote. By now, I’ve done a few cookbooks. It’s fairly straightforward.

With a narrative book, it can be anything you want. I start with a vague idea that I want to talk about some of the great themes of Chinese gastronomy and cuisine, and then it’s how to organize it. It’s a bit frightening because I felt that I was starting with much more of a blank page than with a cookbook.

On unusual work habits

COWEN: What’s your most unusual successful work habit?

DUNLOP: Getting on a train. [laughs]

COWEN: What do you do then? Through China? Or just you get on a British train and you write? Or you get on a British train and you cook? [laughs]

DUNLOP: If I have a writing block, and I’m frustrated, and I feel I can’t possibly do it, then I just give up. If I get moving and get on a train, then for some reason, my mind starts loosening up, and I have a breakthrough. Also, sitting in cafes, but just change of scene.

COWEN: So, moving and not moving are your two successful habits.

DUNLOP: No, getting away from being the solitary writer at your computer or at your desk, and that breaks the deadlock. I have to say, I wouldn’t put myself up as a model of effective and [laughs] efficient working.

CHANG: I want to say, you finished your book on time. I remember meeting you last year in London. You said you were writing this book, and you have a very strict deadline, and look at where we are.

DUNLOP: I did have the advantage of the global pandemic, which meant that I wasn’t racing around the world, that I had to stay home.

COWEN: Other than China, now that it’s quite easy to travel, where else do you want to go for food?

DUNLOP: Where do I want to go for food? I’d like to go back to Japan. People sometimes think I know about Asian food, and I really don’t because I’ve been so concentrated on China, and I went to Japan for the first time in 2018.

I have only dipped my little finger into that particular pie. I would love to go. It’s so interesting because, obviously, it relates to Chinese food, and you see some words and processes and things that have died out in China that are still in Japan, expressed differently. So it’s related but fascinatingly different for me.

COWEN: I was there a few weeks ago. I had one Chinese meal for breakfast. It was quite good. Just amazing sushi anywhere, without even looking for it.

WANG: Some people would say that Japan now has the best French cooking, some of the best Italian cooking. Now, I’m skeptical that they can have the best Chinese cooking, but what do you think?

COWEN: I don’t think they do. I’ve been to Michelin-starred Chinese restaurants in Tokyo. They’re very good. They deserve their stars, but I think, say, compared to Chengdu or somewhere, they’d only be middling quality among the good restaurants.

CHANG: Is it because there are no grumpy diners?


COWEN: They’re cooking for Michelin diners who do have good taste, but it’s a little rarefied, and at the visceral level, there’s just something a bit missing, I found.

DUNLOP: This is a very superficial impression because I wasn’t there for very long, but it seemed to me that Japan also has the old school Chinatown cooking and newer cooking.

COWEN: Yokohama in particular.

DUNLOP: Yes. One meal that I wrote about in this book — the stir fry chapter. I went to one small Chinese modern restaurant where the Chinese technique and the sensibility and aesthetics were very Chinese, and it was absolutely superb. That was just a little snapshot, but it was a very interesting Chinese food cooked in and served at a bar like a sushi counter, actually.

COWEN: Lydia, where do you think of going to for food? Obviously, there’s maybe other reasons to travel.


CHANG: Oh my god. Well, I’m dying to go to Peru for the food, but also for the nature thing, Machu Picchu.

I want to say I haven’t really explored much of Mexico. I feel like it’s so close to home where we live, but it’s underrated. I was only in Mexico City for the first time this August with my then nine-month-old daughter. We explored the city from pastries in the morning, great coffee shops, to . . . we haven’t really had a lot of opportunity to explore the street tacos, but the dining scene, the restaurants are truly amazing with bold flavors.


WANG: I would say Southeast Asia for me. I guess maybe more the street food that I find quite thrilling. I’ve had quite a lot of refined Chinese food. Now, it’s a street food for me. I have not spent time in Mexico at all, and I think that Mexico is hugely exciting.

COWEN: Rural Mexico in particular is one of my all-time favorites. For me, it’s on a par with China. I love Mexico City. It’s incredible, but just side-of-the-road dishes in small towns or on the edge of mid-size towns — for me, that’s the best food in Mexico. I will do that in life until I can’t do it anymore. I’ve been to Mexico over 30 times, and every meal is a wonder in the way that it is in China and can be in India, but not too many other places.

I love Japan, but Japan also has a lot of the worst food. Now, I don’t go there to eat it, but it can be disgusting, or the desserts are . . . I think Japan has very high variance of food. Even though all of it is well done by its standards, sometimes I think they are pursuing the wrong standards.

MCCULLOUGH: What explains that variation?

COWEN: They pursue perfection, and in a way achieve it. If you don’t agree with all matters of taste, pursuing perfection, in a sense, can be a negative. If you look at these Filipino desserts, which for me are too sweet, they’re too gooey, they’re too large, too many different things piled on top of each other, but they’re quite popular. There are people who love them. I don’t think they’re wrong to love them. Japan just takes every direction you can imagine and perfects it. That’s a little dangerous.

I won’t eat raw chicken in Japan, speaking of things that I don’t eat. To me, I don’t know that I’m afraid. I trust that it’s safe. I just think it would disgust me, and that’s irrational, but there I am. And what else I can get is so good.

Nominations from this side of the room?

MCCULLOUGH: I’ve only been to China once, so I think I’d love to go back. I was in Chongqing. I think for all the reasons you’ve just mentioned. There’s an endless amount of things to discover, and seems to mind there.

ENRIGHT: Well, I’ve never been to China, so that’s the obvious answer.


GRIFFITH: I think Ethiopia is still very underrated when it comes to food. Only been there for the first time this year, and it blew me away. I want to go back for sure and try a lot more Ethiopian dishes.

COWEN: What struck you in particular?

GRIFFITH: The spice combinations. That was the quick answer. Some of the combos are so odd, I can’t describe them properly. The closest thing it reminds me of is some Peruvian spices, for example, strange in itself, or Mexican spices. But that combination of spices needs a lot more exploration, I think.

COWEN: Lydia, what do we have here?

CHANG: We have a peach tree sap. Speaking of, Chinese is not huge on dessert. Sometimes after a full meal of banquet, we just eat some seasonal fruit. It’ll be a lot of specialty cutting, like cube shapes of watermelon or apples, pears, dragon fruits. But today, we’re having a little tree sap. This is also a modern Chinese dessert. Fuchsia can talk a lot more about it.

桃胶吉祥羮 Peach Tree Sap

DUNLOP: It’s funny because I never saw this ingredient — peach tree sap — until the last five years or something. Suddenly, it’s become incredibly trendy, and it’s often served in fairytale soups with things like silver ear mushrooms and lotus seeds, goji berries, and other of these lovely texture foods, right?

COWEN: And it is from the peach tree.


COWEN: How do you source it? Is there a peach tree sap business?

CHANG: From the market.


DUNLOP: You get it dried, and it looks like little pieces of knobbly amber, and you soak them, and then they swell up into this lovely jelly.

COWEN: We are at about the end of our podcast. I would just like to thank everyone for participating. Thank Lydia Chang, her father Peter, the entire staff at Mama Chang. They always treat me wonderfully. I just love them. I actually don’t want them to be surly to me. They’re super nice.

Fuchsia, of course, has done the book and made this all possible. Again, that’s Invitation to a Banquet: The Story of Chinese Food. Please do buy it, read it, and I would stress, buy all of her books. You cannot buy just one. Fuchsia, thank you very much.

DUNLOP: Thank you. Thank you all.

Photo Credit: Anna Bergkvist