For centuries, China has treated its cuisine with a reverence and delight that is only just starting to emerge with Western “foodie” culture. No one understands this better than Fuchsia Dunlop, who has spent her career learning about the fantastic diversity in Chinese food, and who is one of Tyler’s favorite writers on any subject.
She joined Tyler over dinner at one of his favorite restaurants in DC to talk about all aspects of how to truly enjoy Chinese food, including where to visit, how to order, the few key ingredients to keep in your pantry, her favorite regional dishes, what Chinese chefs think about Western food, and why you should really learn to love sea cucumbers.
For this conversation, Tyler was also joined by Ezra Klein, past CWT guest and editor-in-chief of Vox.com, chef and super-taster Mark Miller, journalist Megan McArdle, and Eva Summer, a graduate student from Shandong province. Their comments can be found in the Q&A near the end of the chat.
TYLER COWEN: If I think of how to present Fuchsia, there are two passages that spring immediately to mind. One is from her 1999 notebook entry, and I quote, “In the last three days I have eaten snails, frogs, snakes, sparrow gizzard, duck tongues, fish heads, duck hearts, tripe.
“Also, half a duck, most of a carp, duck’s blood, at least five eggs, smoked bacon, and stewed aromatic beef.” Of course, we had Fuchsia do the ordering for our lunch, as you might expect.
COWEN: One of my readers wrote to me, they summed up who she is. Again, I quote, “What a fantastic and exciting guest. I agree wholeheartedly that Fuchsia Dunlop is an absolute iconoclast, and that her achievements in examining and teaching Chinese cookery cannot possibly be overstated.
“I can say with all sincerity that my life has been absolutely enriched by her work. Her books are simply perfect models for others to follow.” Fuchsia, welcome. Everyone else, welcome as well.
FUCHSIA DUNLOP: [laughs] Thank you.
On food tours
COWEN: Now, I’ll just start in on the questions while our guests eat, and they will later on become the questioners themselves. Let me start with this idea of a food tour.
Food tours are more and more popular today. People will go to Mexico, to France, Italy, even Thailand, but the China food tour is not always so popular with Americans or Westerners.
If you were to try to sell someone on a version of a 12-day China food tour, what would your case for that sound like?
DUNLOP: China has the world’s preeminent cuisine, absolutely unparalleled in its diversity and its sophistication. You can find practically everything you could possibly desire in terms of food in China.
From exquisite banquet cookery, exciting street food, bold spicy flavors, honest farmhouse cooking, delicate soups, just everything, apart perhaps from cheese, although they do actually have a couple of kinds of cheese [laughs] in Yunnan province.
Also, because China is such a food-orientated culture, and it has been since the beginnings of history, that if you want to understand China, almost more than anywhere else, food is a really good window into the culture, into the way people live, into history, everything.
COWEN: Twelve days, give us a quick itinerary. Where should you go?
DUNLOP: You could look at the greatest hits, say, the four great cuisines you perhaps want to cover. You might go to Beijing to taste some imperial food, Shandong cooking, the wonderful wheat foods of the north. Pastas, dumplings, breads, this is the wheat-eating part of China.
COWEN: Three cities, name them.
DUNLOP: Three cities?
COWEN: Twelve days, I’m not going to give you 14. What are they?
DUNLOP: [laughs] Three cities. Beijing, Chengdu, and Hangzhou.
COWEN: Now let’s think through this idea of a food tour a little more analytically. Let’s say you’ve talked me into this food tour, which actually you’ve done indirectly through your books.
You’ve sent me to Shanghai. Your latest book, Land of Fish and Rice, in fact focuses on Shanghai and the surrounding region, which is quite diverse.
Here am I, Tyler Cowen, I’m in Shanghai. I don’t know Chinese and let’s say I don’t have Chinese friends. And I’m simply lost. How do I figure out where to actually eat in Shanghai? What do I do? What’s the heuristic?
DUNLOP: You could look for recommendations of authentic restaurants, articles by people who perhaps live in Shanghai or who understand the food.
COWEN: Say I’m just on the street. I’m walking. I don’t have my iPad. I’m away from WiFi. There’s Shanghai, there’s me confronting the alien. How do I think about finding what’s good?
DUNLOP: Use your nose, use your eyes. If you’re interested in street food, you’ll find lots of little stalls and shops where they’re cooking in full view. Use your judgment and see what looks exciting.
It’s very difficult in a cosmopolitan city like Shanghai, to perhaps know exactly what is local Shanghainese, what is from other parts of China because it’s always been a melting pot of different Chinese regional cuisines.
Also, if you want to taste the more refined cooking, then just going around the streets is not really going to help. You do need to do a little bit of research and have a few dishes, perhaps have the names on your phone in Chinese. That would help.
COWEN: Three dishes one absolutely has to try are what?
DUNLOP: In Shanghai?
COWEN: In Shanghai. The city, not the region.
DUNLOP: I think you should have hong shao rou, red braised pork. Real home cooking. Delicious combination of soy sauce, rice wine, and sugar, and one of the favorite dishes.
I would recommend some Shanghainese wontons in soup stuffed with shepherd’s purse, which is a wild variety of the brassicas, and pork, just to show you the lighter, gentler side of Shanghainese cooking.
Then, perhaps, if we’re talking Shanghai, you might one to have one of these dishes that says something about Shanghai as being a mixing pot of different cultures. There’s a very nice crab meat and potato and tomato soup served in some of my favorite Shanghainese restaurants. Which seems a little bit of a fusion with some European influences, the way they use potato and tomato in that soup with local seafood.
COWEN: As you know, the Michelin Guide recently has covered Shanghai, given some restaurants three, two, one star. There’s cheap places you can go. Conceptually, do they understand the food of Shanghai? To the extent they don’t, what are they missing?
DUNLOP: If you look at the restaurants they’ve selected, there’s a bit of a Cantonese bias. They do have some Shanghainese restaurants, but one thing that’s very conspicuous, there are some notable, some of the best Shanghainese local restaurants, which are missing from that list, in my opinion.
The reason is, I think, the methodology of Western food inspectors, which is they tend to go as individuals or small groups. Of course in many Chinese restaurants where you eat family style, to make the most of the restaurant, you have to eat as we’re doing now with a large group and a table full of dishes.
These restaurants that I was surprised not to see on the list, you have to book a private room with a group. If you do, you’ll be able to taste some of the most wonderful renditions of Shanghainese food, and food from the broader region, with a contemporary spirit but a real reverence for traditional technique. You can’t do that really if you just go with one or two people.
On elite bias towards Cantonese food
COWEN: Let me ask you a bit about this Cantonese bias. I’ve even heard Chinese people say, “The food of Shanghai, it’s maybe a little too sweet, or some parts of it are too simple.” There’s a bit of a bias from some, not all, against the food of Shanghai.
That the food in Canton is more glorious, has more vegetables, uses refined seafood in a more complex way, is delicate, harder to pull off, and therefore at a higher point of Chinese cuisine. Do you agree? Yes, no? What is that missing, if you don’t agree?
DUNLOP: I think Cantonese is a superb and fantastic cuisine, but its particular status in China is a product of historical circumstances. The Cantonese south of China, Hong Kong, the special economic zones, were the first places to get rich after the reform and opening up, particularly, and so Cantonese became the prestige cuisine.
When I was a student in Chengdu in the 1990s, if you wanted to go out for an expensive, fancy meal, you went to a Cantonese restaurant and ate expensive seafood.
It still has that cachet and aura of sophistication. With Shanghainese food, Shanghai is, in Chinese gastronomic terms, a modern upstart city. It’s better known for its street food and home cooking.
But it is the best-known part of an ancient region, which really has what you can argue is the Chinese classical cuisine, the food of the Jiangnan lower-Yangtze region. This region is known historically for its extraordinary knife work, delicate flavors, extreme reverence for ingredients.
Eating the right foods from the right places in the right seasons. All the values that we associate with Cantonese food, and also with modern Chez Panisse, this modern foodie movement. They’re all there historically in China. Perhaps for historical reasons, it’s been under-appreciated in the last century or so.
On the modernization of Chinese food
COWEN: I think you would agree, Shanghai is one of the wealthier, more modern parts of China. As you see China developing, you see traditional markets to some extent, in some parts of China fading away.
Supply chains become longer. Large companies play a bigger role. The refrigerator plays a new role in the food supply chain, so things can sit around for longer.
Do you wonder that a lot of Chinese food will become bad in the way that American food has become bad? And if that happens, will it come to Shanghai first or are you more optimistic than that?
DUNLOP: You can see all these things happening, and it is very sad. For example, restaurants that I knew — this is in Chengdu — where they made all their dumplings from scratch, like maybe 15, 20 different kinds every day, now will buy some of them ready prepared.
Supermarkets stock easy-seasoning packets to make mapo tofu. [laughs] This kind of thing. Then in the cities there’s a huge loss of cooking skills. Young professionals often rely on their parents to cook for the children at home. They, the middle generation, are not learning traditional cookery. They’re not learning how to pickle and cure.
There’s all this being lost. People, they lead more hectic lives and they are increasingly eating ready-prepared food. You can see that China is going down the same sad path as the rest of us in some ways.
But the thing that gives me hope is that in China food is understood so deeply as the foundation of health and happiness. It has been a culture that is so obsessed with food.
They have this wonderful resource that I hope people will — and some people are now getting to the point of looking at Chinese food as a cultural artifact and something valuable to be preserved.
But the thing that gives me hope is that in China food is understood so deeply as the foundation of health and happiness. It has been a culture that is so obsessed with food.
On why you should learn to love offal
COWEN: Let me now see if you can talk me out of one of my biases. When I eat food in China there’s nothing I’ve ever been served that I found disgusting, ever, which is saying something. At the same time, it’s rare that I will prefer to eat organs, or offal, or the various stranger items you might be served.
If I look around the world, those items seem to be what economists would call an inferior good. That is, in virtually all societies, when incomes go up, at some point people stop eating those things.
My background is Irish. In Ireland, in the early 20th century, it was very common to eat a lot of organs and offal. Today, it’s hardly to be found. It’s revived somewhat, but as part of a regular diet, it’s dwindled.
Are offal and organs actually just inferior goods and when people earn higher incomes, they don’t want it anymore, and they’re worse? Or are they parts of the Chinese culinary picture as good as anything else and they will persist even with rising income?
DUNLOP: I think it’s complicated. In peasant farming societies, you have the nose-to-tail eating. You kill the pig and you eat every part of it, for economic reasons as much as anything. Also, in China, the thing that really sets it apart is this preoccupation with the delights of gastronomy and the pursuit of the exotic.
In particular, the appreciation of texture. A lot of offal foods have very interesting textures. Like these fire-exploded kidney flowers. They have that kind of slightly brisk crispness with the tenderness of a kidney that has been cut in this beautiful, ornate, crisscross pattern and then stir-fried very fast. It’s a textural pleasure.
There are other things. In Sichuan, people love eating goose intestines, which any Westerner would throw away. If you’re a Western person it’s pointless. They’re tasteless. Why would you eat a goose intestine? From a Chinese textural point of view, they’re slippery, crisp, snappy. They have a delightful kou gan or mouthfeel.
The other thing is that some bits of what Westerners would consider to be old, awful, and rubbish, it’s a very different concept in China. For example, a duck’s tongue. From a Western point of view, there’s no meat on it. It’s a small, fiddly thing that’s all bone and cartilage. “What’s the point?” As my father would say, it has a high grapple factor for very little reward.
DUNLOP: In China, one of the ways of looking at this is that you’ve got a whole duck. The meat is very commonplace. Each duck has one tongue. It has very particular textures. If you’ve got the duck tongue, you’ve got the prize. You’ve got the best bit. The small, precious morsel.
In the past, before refrigeration, if you could afford to have a whole plateful of duck tongues, the number of ducks it represented, or a plateful of boned goose feet, a goose was a huge luxury. If you have 12 goose feet from 6 geese on your plate, you have got the command —
DUNLOP: Of all these ingredients. The appreciation of these delicacies exists — not only the poor farmers but at the highest tables as well.
COWEN: Let’s say I want to learn how to enjoy sea cucumber, which believe it or not, I am not currently able to do, but I’m not against the idea. I would like to learn this. What is your actual advice for me? Other than try it. I’ve tried it, I still don’t enjoy it. I don’t hate it. What do I do next?
DUNLOP: What you have to do is firstly, go to a good place so you feel good. It’s nice surroundings. You have to put it into your mouth and set aside all your mental prejudices, and just try to experience it in a sensory way.
Try to feel it. Try to feel that slightly slithery, gelatinous quality, that little crispness in the bite. It’s like what I like to think of is edible oxymoron, this softness and crispness. Chinese love these sensory contradictions.
Try to feel it. Try to feel that slightly slithery, gelatinous quality, that little crispness in the bite. It’s like what I like to think of is edible oxymoron, this softness and crispness. Chinese love these sensory contradictions.
What you have to do is just try to experience it and think about it. Also think, in China where people really understand gastronomy, they really appreciate these things.
Also, think to yourself, “If I can get my head around this. If I can start appreciating these textural foods, the pleasures of texture, then a door will open onto this other whole aspect of Chinese gastronomy, which is exciting.” It’ll broaden your pleasure in Chinese food.
What strikes me about those cookbooks is how conceptually you frame everything you present. Coming at it as a social scientist, to me what you write makes perfect sense in a way that Mark Miller’s cookbooks do, but a lot of cookbooks don’t. They seem too particularistic to me.
If you were to tell us, cookbooks in China written by Chinese in Chinese, what are they like compared to Western cookbooks? At a conceptual level, at an organizational level, what’s the main difference?
DUNLOP: There’s less of a practice of using a cookbook to explore a region, or there has been until recently. This thing of weaving together stories and cultural information with recipes.
It’s beginning to happen the last few years, particularly since A Bite of China, this smash-hit food TV series, which has captured people’s imaginations and led to a boom in food publishing.
Until recently, Chinese cookbooks were more functional. Less rigorous in recipe testing, so difficult to follow if you didn’t already have some idea about what you were trying to do. Advice saying, “A suitable amount of this seasoning.”
DUNLOP: I think those are the main differences.
On the success of Sichuan in the West
COWEN: Let’s switch to Sichuan province, which is one of my two favorites, along with Hunan province.
Why is it that so much of the good Chinese food that comes to the West, to Barshu in London, which you have worked for, for this restaurant here, so many of these successes in exporting Chinese food are Sichuan successes. Why is that? What is it about that cuisine?
DUNLOP: Firstly, it’s thrillingly exciting and dramatic. All that red color, festive, exciting flavors. More importantly, because Sichuanese food, beyond the spicy stereotype, is about the artful mixing of flavors. It’s about fu he wei — complex, layered flavors.
In Sichuan, Sichuanese people would sum up the cuisine as saying yi cai yi ge, bai cai bai wei, which means “each dish has its own style; a hundred dishes have a hundred different flavors.” The heart and soul of Sichuanese cooking lies in flavor combinations.
For example, this is an example of a ma la dish, numbing and hot. Dried chilies and Sichuan pepper. You can take that flavor combination and that’s the essence of the dish. It doesn’t really matter if the ingredient is, as it is here, chicken, or frog, or fish. You’re preserving the spirit of that dish.
Also, because Sichuanese cooking is so much about flavor, if you have a few base seasonings, like the Sichuan chili bean paste, or doubanjiang chili Sichuan pepper, you can take them abroad and you can make a very effective and pretty authentic version of Sichuanese food with your basic canon of seasonings.
Some cuisines are more difficult like that if you have very specific local ingredients. Also, because Sichuanese with the bold and exciting flavors, you can do a reasonable approximation of Sichuanese cooking without the most consummate cooking skills and it can still be fun and exciting. Something like Cantonese, for example, is more difficult to do well.
On Sichuan peppercorns (i.e. the good stuff)
COWEN: Now, I’d like to have you teach us all a lesson about Sichuan peppercorns. Before I came here, I brought from my home my inferior Virginia suburban peppercorns, bought at a local Chinese market. You brought, from Sichuan province, your own version of Sichuan peppercorns.
DUNLOP: The good stuff.
COWEN: The good stuff.
COWEN: If you could try the two for us. You’re all welcome at the table to try along.
DUNLOP: Can you pass that around and everyone have a sniff of the one you brought?
COWEN: These are what you call the inferior peppercorns.
DUNLOP: Then keep the lid on between. Take the lid off, and put your nose in that box and have a good sniff. Don’t taste it until instructed. [laughs]
MEGAN MCARDLE: Should we take a few?
COWEN: Yours are better.
DUNLOP: What I would suggest you do — let’s wait until everyone’s got some. [laughs]
MARK MILLER: Takes me a while.
COWEN: How would you describe that difference and what accounts for it?
DUNLOP: The first thing is as soon as you open that pot you get this overwhelming, gorgeous, slightly citrusy fragrance, which is very distinctive, right? That tells you it’s very fresh and lovely Sichuan pepper.
Then if you take one of the ones I brought and put it in your mouth. What I would suggest is chew it very juicily at the front of your mouth about three times and then take it out, because it’s a delayed reaction.
DUNLOP: Yeah? Your tongue is beginning to sing, and dance, and tingle?
DUNLOP: That is what they call in Chinese ma. It means tingling sensation, the same word for pins and needles, and anesthesia. If the Sichuan pepper is not that great you don’t get the tingle. You get some aroma, but this is simply overwhelming.
That’s why I said just put one in your mouth and take it out after a few seconds because if you put a handful in and you keep chewing it, it will be overwhelming. [laughs]
COWEN: In terms of the history of my Sichuan peppercorns and the history of yours, these at least pretend they’re from China. Correct? Is it that they’re from the wrong place, or they’ve been sitting around too long, or you know the best source? What’s the underlying difference behind the difference?
DUNLOP: In Sichuan they would say that the best Sichuan pepper comes from a particular region, Hanyuan, in the west of Sichuan. There’s a real, as I said, a concern with provenance of things. I think there are different varieties, which will be more fruity and less fruity.
The other thing is, I think most of the Sichuan pepper that is exported has been exported and handled by Cantonese people. In parts of China apart from Sichuan, Sichuan pepper is used differently.
It’s used in spice combinations. It’s used to take away the fishiness of meat and poultry ingredients. That’s a Chinese culinary concept. But it’s not used for this tingling ma sensation.
Unless you’re Sichuanese, you’re not going to be seeking out the really zingy Sichuan pepper. That’s the problem, really, that you would need Sichuanese exporters taking command —
DUNLOP: And making sure we all get the tingly Sichuan pepper.
On what unifies the fantastic diversity in Chinese cooking
COWEN: Let me ask you a deep philosophical question here, just for some background. Someone once asked you, “What are your favorite parts of Chinese food?” You gave a long answer, too long for me to repeat. And a lot of it I can’t pronounce anyway.
You listed seven or eight different regions that all seemed quite different. These Sichuan peppercorns and ma la is not in general done in Shanghai, as you well know. What is the underlying unity that makes all of this Chinese food — because you instinctively believe in that concept — but what is that unity, given the fantastic diversity?
DUNLOP: There are some things you can pull out. The use of chopsticks and its implications for the form of food, which is that you have food that’s generally cut into small pieces or it’s tender enough to pull apart with chopsticks.
That’s one thing that Western observers through the centuries have remarked on about Chinese food, is having these — for the early Western observers it was rather disturbing.
You’d have a dish with everything cut fine and you didn’t know what it was. Maybe it was something really outlandish. The art of cutting and the cutting of food into small pieces, the eating of shared dishes with a staple grain — rice in the south, wheat in the north — that’s the structure of a meal.
You can also pull out some very important seasonings, soy sauce, and other fermented soy pastes. The use of vinegar and soy sauce in combination. Ginger, scallion, and garlic in various combinations. You can look at seasonings.
Also, cooking methods, and I know stir frying is the most famous. Relatively recent, historically. Steaming, also, is a really important core Chinese cooking method, so looking at a combination of techniques.
When you talk about Chinese cuisine, you always have to take it with a pinch of salt and remember, as I always do, that Chinese people talk about something called xi can, “Western food,” and make outrageous generalizations about it too.
DUNLOP: Of course, from a Chinese point of view it makes sense to talk about Western food as being different from Chinese, but from a Western point of view you see all the distinctions.
On how Chinese chefs react to haute cuisine
COWEN: In one of your books you tell a story of taking some number of very renowned Sichuan chefs and you bring them in the United States to a restaurant called The French Laundry, one of the best and most famous American restaurants. Cooking at a very high level. How did they react to that?
DUNLOP: Oh, total culture shock. You see, I was delighted. I was so excited. I’d taken these wonderful chefs, all of them extremely accomplished practitioners of Sichuanese cuisine, and here I was. I got a table at the best restaurant, held to be the best restaurant in North America, with some of the finest the West had to offer.
There were all kinds of things that they found very difficult. The first was our reservation was at 9:30. Chinese people like to eat at 6:00 or 6:30, so they were already in a bit of a bad mood by the time we started.
COWEN: As I would be.
DUNLOP: Then it was a four-hour tasting menu. Chinese meals, even very good ones, tend to be rather fast by this standard. For them, it was a long, tedious, late-night thing to sit and have dish after dish of complicated food.
They weren’t used to eating dairy products, so anything creamy, not particularly nice. They were really disturbed. One of them actually refused to eat the most beautiful lamb, because it was a little pink and bloody in the middle. Of course, in China traditionally only barbarians eat raw meat and you just don’t eat raw meat.
DUNLOP: They thought the olives tasted like Chinese medicine.
DUNLOP: In China a meal should always leave you feeling very refreshed and relaxed, and that’s why you finish in many regions with a light, refreshing palate-cleansing soup or with fresh fruit.
At the French Laundry, we ended, like at many classic Western tasting menus, with a whole sequence of very heavy, sweet dishes, which was not very comfortable for them.
COWEN: Also known as dessert. [laughs]
DUNLOP: As dessert. The most interesting thing was Yu Bo, one of the chefs who’s now very famous — one of the best chefs I’ve ever met in China, the most accomplished — he was sitting in front of this beautiful plate of food. He said, “Fuchsia, this is all very interesting, but I really cannot say whether it’s good or bad.”
On how to get the best of Chinese food in America
COWEN: Now let’s go from the sublime to the ridiculous. I’m not sure how much time you’ve spent in the United States. Probably a lot of it is in places like New York, Los Angeles, where you can find quite good, but not perfect, Chinese food.
This place here, Panda Gourmet, is very good. Two-thirds of the items on the table are excellent. The others are all at least good. The cold noodles, my favorite.
Say you’re in middle America somewhere. There’s a restaurant that calls itself Chinese but it’s cooking only for Americans. Most or all of what’s there would be unrecognizable to actual Chinese people, and Eva has told me a story along these lines.
You’re to go into that restaurant and try to get the best meal possible. What do you do? What should we do? We’re stuck. You’re not in New York.
DUNLOP: Do you speak Chinese?
DUNLOP: Then you are a bit stuck. You need to communicate that you do not want to eat General Tso’s chicken and beef with broccoli and those dishes. That you really want to eat the food that they’re going to have for dinner tonight themselves.
You should bear in mind that, for example, in China — when I take people eating in China — I order in fluent Mandarin, well-informed ordering of a meal. I’m often told, “Oh, no, no, no, no. You mustn’t order that. Your guests won’t eat it.”
DUNLOP: And I have to really insist quite forcefully that yes, we do want to eat the tripe or whatever it is. You do face this barrier. It’s not that they don’t want to give you — they’re not trying to keep them. It’s just that they’re worried that you might not like them.
Many Chinese waiters and restaurateurs that I know in London have had the experience of Westerners ordering food and then complaining that there are bones in it or that it’s fatty meat, all of which are good things in China, and then complaining and making a scene.
I think people are just — it’s easier. They often have language issues, so they want to give you something they know you’ll like.
COWEN: Tips for shopping for Chinese ingredients. In the West, let’s say this is either London or the United States. If I ask myself, “What are the core ingredients I would pick?” I’d pick four things. Ginger in storable form, a Sichuan sauce, green onions, and Sichuan peppercorns. Just my personal preference, but those are my four.
You’re allowed four things as advice — not for yourself because you’re cooking at a much higher level — but to recommend to people such as ourselves for cooking, eating, enjoying Chinese food. What are your four or five picks that you can get in the West?
DUNLOP: I would get a Chinese brown rice vinegar, probably jinjiang vinegar. A really good soy sauce, which means traditionally fermented, and that would be a light soy sauce if it’s a question of light or dark.
I would get a pure toasted sesame oil. I would get some Sichuanese fermented chili and fava bean paste, doubanjiang. I’m assuming that ginger, garlic, and scallions, they would have anyway.
COWEN: I was assuming soy sauce one would have. Those would be added to your list.
DUNLOP: Yeah. Maybe Sichuan pepper as well.
COWEN: With those items and a number of others, one can cook most of what’s in your cookbooks, correct?
DUNLOP: Yeah. You just need to make one trip to Chinatown, stock up on a few basics, and then you’re really away.
On things under- and overrated
COWEN: Now, in all of the Conversations with Tyler, in the middle we have a section known as Underrated versus Overrated. I name something and you tell me whether you think it’s underrated or overrated. You’re free to pass in any case if you so feel like it. Bee larvae, to eat.
DUNLOP: Because they are delicate and delicious. They have a lovely, crisp, light texture and a very subtle, savory flavor. Also, it’s just a lovely idea, eating insects. Eating, it’s almost like, fairy tale food.
COWEN: Can you farm it yourself or not so easily?
DUNLOP: I haven’t tried.
COWEN: Haven’t tried. Milk, underrated or overrated.
DUNLOP: That’s the one thing I don’t like.
DUNLOP: I love cheese and butter, but I don’t ever drink milk.
COWEN: You just don’t think it tastes good?
DUNLOP: I haven’t tasted it for years. [laughs]
COWEN: I know there’s a long list here, but the most underrated Chinese regional cuisine if you had to pick? Not the best, the most underrated.
DUNLOP: The cuisine of the region that I’ve written about, Jiangnan. You can argue it’s the classical Chinese cuisine, but people in the West don’t really know anything about it.
COWEN: Tell us just a little more how it’s not only Shanghai. Expand on that just a bit.
DUNLOP: Shanghai is a modern, upstart city. This region has been prosperous and culturally, vitally important for hundreds and hundreds of years. You’ve got great cultural centers like Hangzhou, Shaoxing, which have been written about by poets. Emperors fell in love with them over the centuries.
It’s been a center of Chinese culture and also gastronomic culture. It just has incredible, thoughtful cooking, writing about food, beautiful ingredients. That’s both fresh ingredients and cured things like Shaoxing wine, Jinhua ham, one of the great hams of the world.
COWEN: Here’s a question one of my readers wrote in to me. He or she asked, “What about the luxury ingredients in Chinese cuisine? Meaning shark’s fin, bird’s nest, cordyceps.” (It’s a kind of fungus.) The person’s view was they’re all overrated. That when you try them, at least with a Western palate, they don’t seem that amazing.
I’ve had that reaction to shark’s fin myself. Maybe I’ve never had it at the right place. But what I’ve enjoyed most in Chinese food has never been the luxury ingredients. It’s been, say, home cooking in Sichuan province, or Yunnan, or maybe Shanghai. The luxury ingredients in Chinese cuisine, underrated or overrated?
COWEN: You agree with that reader?
DUNLOP: Yes. I mean, from a Western point of view, of course, they’re overrated because something like shark’s fin is tasteless anyway. You have to appreciate texture. You also have to appreciate the history and cultural context to enjoy these things.
But as the great 18th-century gourmet and food writer, Yuan Mei, wrote, there are many common foods which, if cooked properly, like tofu, are far more satisfying than a really expensive bowl of sea cucumber.
COWEN: OK. We were talking about books before the session started and what you’d read recently. You mentioned a book by Ben Judah called, This is London, which you, at least, implied was underrated. What’s special about that book?
DUNLOP: It’s a sort of contemporary version of George Orwell’s Down and Out in Paris and London. This young British journalist decided to look at the lives of recent immigrants to London.
He did things like sleeping rough with Romanian vagrants at Hyde Park corner. He pretended to be an, I think, Eastern European builder and shared beds and dosshouses with people working there.
He talked to extremely rich Arabs who’d come to London for the summer. He just produces this vivid, unflinching, sometimes moving, sometimes shocking portrait of the city that I live in and that many Londoners don’t really know exist. It’s just an absolutely, shatteringly, interesting read.
COWEN: Here’s a question one of your readers wrote to me by email. Maybe it’s a bit intangible, but I’ve had the same wonder.
Given how much you love China, love Chinese food, work on projects that require your immersion in the food culture of China, just being away from China for as long as you sometimes are, how do you manage that intellectually, emotionally, otherwise, that sense of otherness?
I mean, do you have that antsiness when you’re in London or Topeka, Kansas, and it’s like, “My goodness. I need to be in China now”? How is that?
DUNLOP: I would say that the two sides of my life are much more closely related. I do go to China very frequently now. I cook a lot of Chinese at home. My Chinese friends sometimes say that my London home is more Chinese than theirs because it’s so full of things from China. [laughs]
Also, when I first came back from studying in China, I never heard Mandarin in Britain. It was too expensive to call friends in China. This was just before email.
Now, I’m constantly chatting with chefs on social media. I can ask them questions about a dish that I’m making. My Chinese friends sometimes come here. Chinatown in London and Chinatowns generally have more and more Chinese food and Chinese restaurants.
I would say there’s much greater integration of China in the West, and my personal Chinese life in my Western Chinese life, which I also like very much.
I’m constantly chatting with chefs on social media. I can ask them questions about a dish that I’m making. My Chinese friends sometimes come here. Chinatown in London and Chinatowns generally have more and more Chinese food and Chinese restaurants.
I would say there’s much greater integration of China in the West, and my personal Chinese life in my Western Chinese life, which I also like very much.
COWEN: You’ve written favorably about the 18th-century Chinese novel, Dream of the Red Chamber. Most Americans haven’t read that. Tell us why it’s important.
DUNLOP: It’s like a whole world into Chinese culture of the Qing Dynasty. It’s the story of two grand families and their rising and falling fortunes over a number of years. It’s got amazing characters. It’s like a soap opera of Chinese characters. You will learn about Chinese rituals, about Chinese food, about cultural preoccupations.
It’s just totally captivating. The English translation I read it in, the Penguin version, is five volumes. It’s about this big. It just took over my life for five months because I just wanted to see what happened to these people.
COWEN: The plot is hard to follow. There’s many characters. The names are not familiar to a Western audience. What’s the way to make it easy enough to read so that one actually can read it?
DUNLOP: Firstly, read the Penguin translation, which is the title The Story of the Stone by David Hawkes and John Minford, which is absolutely inspired and lively. It really does bring it to life. You do need a little bit of patience with the Chinese names.
But in this book — both of them because they did some volumes each — they translate some of the names. Like there’s a serving girl who is called Aroma. That’s the translation. Whereas some of them are known, like Lin Daiyu, by the Chinese name which is a bit harder to remember.
You might find it heavy going at first if you’re not really into China, but once you’ve got into it, it’s so human, and moving, and gripping, and just culturally fascinating that you’ll want to finish it.
COWEN: As you probably know, in Japan, there are some of the finest French and Italian restaurants in the world. Mark could attest to that. What’s the best Western cuisine you can find inside of China?
DUNLOP: I’m not the best person to ask because I’m always eating Chinese food in China, really.
COWEN: How about the best other Asian cuisine inside of China? Do you have any sense of that?
DUNLOP: No, not really. I really do, quite seriously, try mainly to eat local when I’m in China.
COWEN: To go back to where we started before we moved to the questions. This idea of the food tour. You’re given 12 days to organize the food tour, to begin with. Now, let’s say a person has three weeks or four weeks, and they want to do even more in China. They get to learn some basics.
What’s the further advice you would give them for how to make this experience of a lifetime? How do you do a food tour in China when you have a little more time and resources?
DUNLOP: The first thing I would say is go to a market, see what produce people are using. The markets are getting harder to find in the big cities, but seek one out. The chances are you’ll see not only the very interesting produce, but you’ll also find snack stalls around the market, which will also be interesting.
Another piece of advice is to go to very popular, flourishing restaurants with lots of people in them, obviously, and look at what other people are eating. Chinese menus are often not translated. Even if they are translated, the translation is often very poor.
Some menus now have pictures, but I think it’s a really good thing to go and look at what other people are eating and then ask. Chinese people are generally very understanding and will usually be quite welcoming about this sort of thing.
Try to order a variety of dishes. One great mistake you can make is just order all dishes which are deep-fried or red-braised. You always want to have some lighter dishes that might seem less exciting, like simple stir-fried vegetables or a refreshing broth, but that’s part of the whole experience of the meal.
Q&A with Ezra Klein, Megan McArdle, Mark Miller, and Eva Summer
EZRA KLEIN: Thank you for being here and for ordering this meal. What is the cuisine outside of Asia that, in its architecture and its structure, is most similar to Chinese cuisine?
DUNLOP: Outside Asia?
KLEIN: Outside Asia.
DUNLOP: I would say that if you’re talking about farmhouse cooking, and the cooking actually, particularly at this region, I see a lot of affinities with Italian cooking.
For example, one of the principles of the cooking of the Jiangnan region, xian xian he yi, unity of fresh and salted. The use of small amounts of cured pork and intensely flavored ingredients to bring life to vegetables and more gently flavored ingredients.
Also, with Italian cooking, you get some very interesting pastas with Chinese as well, so that’s one. I wouldn’t say that Italian cooking is anything like a match for Chinese in the complexity and diversity. Italy’s a tiny country by comparison, but there are some parallels that I see there.
MEGAN MCARDLE: I’ve read your books, and yet I find I’m kind of afraid to cook from them. My mom’s a caterer, and I grew up cooking a lot of really good American, and French, and so forth food.
When you skip cuisines that far, you feel like you go in, and even though you’re doing everything it says in the recipe, you realize how much little skill is required just to make a recipe come out right.
It’s stuff that you don’t even know you’re doing [laughs] because you know how it should be, you know how this thing works. What do people, who are starting out with a completely new cuisine, and for both Chinese and Western cooks going each way, how do you bridge that?
DUNLOP: Firstly, I totally understand where you’re coming from. I can remember before I went to China, cooking from a Chinese cookbook and already a keen cook in other traditions, but thinking, “I just don’t know the grammar of this cuisine. I’m just following step by step and I don’t know what it means or where it’s going.”
I do understand that. Of course, it helps to have tasted some of the food. Try to recreate recipes that you have maybe tasted as a starting point.
MCARDLE: I have cooked from your cookbooks, by the way.
MCARDLE: I always worry that I’m not doing it right in some way.
DUNLOP: Oh, really? The book before this one, Every Grain of Rice, was specifically designed to address this. Which is to introduce basic techniques and concepts, and fairly straightforward recipes which can be the building blocks for a sort of understanding what’s going on in Chinese cooking.
I would start with the basics, trying to understand simple stir-fries, the art of mixing flavors for a cold dish, a little bit of cutting. Just take it step by step. Also, you have to make one leap which, in terms of Chinese cooking, we’ve already discussed.
You have to go with a list of things, preferably in Chinese, too. Go to a Chinese supermarket, stock up on a few basics. Then, you’re not going to have to do that every time you make a recipe.
MCARDLE: I had everything on your list except the fava bean paste, which I will now buy.
MARK MILLER: I’m Mark Miller and a good friend of Fuchsia’s. In your books, you use a lot of the language that gets reinterpreted into texture or flavor.
I’ve been studying basically how we actually learn perceptional taste. Part of it is by memory of tasting something on the street. Part of it is the structure of how we approach perception and how we frame it.
Don’t you think that the example of your chef who couldn’t taste the food at The French Laundry, what he didn’t have was the framing of how to approach that perception?
My question is, one, within Chinese perceptional framing, why can’t they move over to, for instance, a meal at The French Laundry? Why can’t, when they say, “nature,” just appreciate like a roast squab, a roast chicken with nothing done. None of the fishiness or the wildness taken out, but just accept it as natural and then roasted?
DUNLOP: Well. I don’t think that their experience at The French Laundry is any different from a Western. You could get a very accomplished Western eater who’s eaten at many fine restaurants, but who will not get sea cucumber. The texture of sea cucumber is totally alien.
MILLER: But I only eat sea cucumber in Spain where —
MILLER: They actually do a better job because they don’t have that slimy part. They’ve actually perceptively changed it. They’re called espadrilles in the south of Spain.
DUNLOP: That’s the inner part, though, of the sea cucumber. Not the outer part.
COWEN: That’s sea cucumber? Oh I like those.
MILLER: Yeah, those are good.
KLEIN: And there is peace in the land.
MILLER: See? So there’s cultural framing, again. One culture doesn’t accept, it’s not the ingredient, but basically how we use our senses and frame that experience. One part is food that’s accepted to the body. The other part, “These things are very strange. I have no reference, and I really don’t like it.”
DUNLOP: I don’t think there’s anything remarkable about this. I think it’s just how people —
MILLER: No, it’s not. But the Chinese have this problem with accepting — you said you cooked a meal of Western food for your Chinese friends in your memoir. They said, “It’s so boring.” Yet, I think, roast chicken or roast squab, just by itself, is perfect. Roast game, roast beef.
DUNLOP: Yeah, but from a Chinese point of view, it is very boring.
MILLER: There are subtleties within aged beef, for instance, that they’re not getting. Like really good —
DUNLOP: Well, no. More cosmopolitan Chinese eaters who are now traveling are getting very interested in steak, actually, and aged beef.
MILLER: I’ll give you a good example. I’ve spent most of my time in Japan. We have a really developed rice culture in Japan. A Japanese person will pick up a bowl. They’ll smell it. It’s not fresh meaning that it’s milled more than a month ago. They can tell you where it’s from.
The chefs will talk about their mixtures of rice and sushi. In China, I have never, myself, personally, had seen that sort of connoisseurship about rice.
DUNLOP: Oh well I have about chilis, for example. Chefs I know in Sichuan who can go on for hours about the subtle distinctions of chilis. What you were saying, that lots of Chinese people — it’s absolutely hilarious. I’ve lost count of the number of Chinese friends who’ve said that “xi can hen jian dan, hen dan diao” which means, “Western food is very simple and very monotonous.”
The point is I can understand why. A roast chicken is a beautiful thing. Say you have a perfect roast chicken, but a roast chicken is even better —
DUNLOP: If you follow it with a light, refreshing broth and a stir-fried green. Then you have the contrast of the roasty skin, which is quite rich and heavy, and the flesh, and then this delicate stir-fried vegetable, and the refreshing soup.
Chinese food, it’s about the whole experience. That’s why you have a whole variety of flavors even in a relatively simple meal. It stimulates the palate. It also leaves you feeling very shufu.
Chinese people really understand the comfort of eating. You don’t go out and finish with seven courses of sugar, and butter, and cream. [laughs] You might have a great sensory experience, but it’s not going to leave you sleeping very well that night.
EVA SUMMER: Hi, I’m Eva from China, Shandong province. I know that you’re a fluent Chinese speaker. My first question for you, I want to ask you a question in Chinese: 中国菜有八大菜系，其中鲁菜是一个典型的代表，在你印象中，鲁菜最典型的一个菜是什么? [“There are eight great cuisines in China and Shandong cuisine is a very typical one in these eight. Which dish has impressed you most in Shandong cuisine and is the most representative one?”]
DUNLOP: [translating] It’s just that people often talk about, in terms of eight great cuisines in Chinese cuisines, one of which is the cuisine of Shandong province known as lu cai. Eva’s just asking me which dish I consider most representative of lu cai, of Shandong cooking.
One very representative dish and one which I adore is cong shao hai shen, which is sea cucumber.
KLEIN: Are you just trolling Mark and Tyler? Because that would be good.
DUNLOP: No, honestly.
MCARDLE: Or she is representing a sea cucumber firm.
KLEIN: Big sea cucumber.
DUNLOP: It’s sea cucumber braised in a dark sauce with jing cong, that kind of Chinese leek, which is a very big and very mild leek scallion vegetable. That’s a great classic.
In terms of Shandong cooking, it’s rather labor-intensive to prepare using a very expensive dried ingredient. Shandong cooking, lu cai, is associated with stately banquet cooking. You do have this gorgeous flavor, the fragrance of the leek onion, and then the lovely, slippery, crisp texture of the sea cucumber.
KLEIN: You’ve emphasized, in this discussion, the balance of the meals and the way that often gets overlooked. The way that American eaters will have a Chinese meal and think, “Oh, the bok choy is dull. I’m going to have more of the 700-chilied chicken.”
What are the other pieces of Chinese cuisine that Americans underrate their importance in the experience of the meal?
DUNLOP: Soup. Almost every Chinese meal includes soup. If you go out to a very casual restaurant on your own and have fried noodles or fried rice, like a one-dish meal, almost always it will be served with a bowl full of broth, maybe with just a couple of scallions or something.
The idea is if you have something fried it’s a bit drying, and it’s very comfortable to moisten the throat and refresh you with a soup. The way Westerners order Chinese food, often they wouldn’t have soup.
Almost every Chinese meal, whether at home or in a restaurant, you have soup. We don’t have a soup on the table here because there wasn’t room for it, so I didn’t want to order it.
KLEIN: An American eating problem.
DUNLOP: Also, with Chinese soups, the classic Chinese restaurant soups for Westerners are those thick, hot-and-sour soup or sweet corn and crab meat. That’s really not a tang — that’s one word for a broth-like soup. That’s a geng, which is a more substantial stew-soup.
I’m talking again about these broths, which, again, might be very, very simple. Like lovely, sour, umami pickled vegetable and tofu. Just that, and it’s like a refreshing drink.
MILLER: Do you think the Chinese will, because of their history of almost being repressed under the cultural revolution — culinarily, the cultures that seem to have been the most innovative in my generation were Spain, which emerged under Franco and became the most creative in Europe.
You have Nordic, which escaped this puritanism of the north which was always there in the Scandinavia. American, which was really repressed because they didn’t have confidence.
MILLER: Now American chefs are very confident and are very good internationally. Do you think that China will, after it goes through its flirting with this modernization and accepting Western brands whether it’s Starbucks or other, come out with a brand new authentic modern Chinese food? And the young chefs are going that way in China?
DUNLOP: I would say you can get very excellent contemporary Chinese food rooted in traditional techniques. The sad thing is that chefing has become rather fashionable in the West. Young people want to do it. It’s glamorous and exciting. That’s not the case in China. It’s still a low-status profession, although people love food.
Parents don’t really want their children to become chefs. I know outstanding chefs in China who, if they were in the West, would have queues of people from all over the world wanting to come and do stages in their kitchen, and they don’t have apprentices.
I always hear this complaint, “Young people in China, they’re not willing to chi ku, eat bitterness, to really apply themselves diligently to the craft of cookery.”
DUNLOP: There is a problem, this disjunct between people who are obsessed with eating, but not yet the idea that a young person might want to take over an artisanal soy sauce factory.
It may be coming because some people have this idea of going back to a simpler life, back to nature. There is a revival of interest in Chinese cuisine as culture.
MILLER: Neal’s Yard. When I went to London when I was a student in the ’70s, it was very hard to find a farmhouse regional British cheese. And then Neal’s Yard basically started the revolution, again, that sparked that.
In America, we now have over 10,000 beers made in the United States with 4,200 microbreweries, and I grew up with probably 30 or 40.
DUNLOP: That’s a really good thing. Actually, one of the inspirations for my most recent book was the Dragon Well Manor restaurant in Hangzhou. Which is an exceptional place where the owner, Dai Jianjun, otherwise known as A Dai, is trying to nourish the traditions of the region by supporting food artisans, peasant producers.
Trying to give people an honest living for producing what urbanites now consider to be premium, what we’d think of as organic, products. What I fervently hope is that more Chinese people will see what he’s doing is truly inspirational. As a wonderful example of how to nourish Chinese traditional culture. Make it economically viable and make it contemporarily relevant, too.
MILLER: Does he teach classes for Westerners?
MILLER: Oh. Because that would be good. I was just in Shanghai two weeks ago. I go into K11, and what do I see? It’s Chinese women taking classes on how to make birthday cakes for their kids. Then I see the kids’ school, which is all about Western cooking and I’m thinking — I looked at the whole directory for the next three months. There wasn’t one Chinese cooking class that was being taught there. [laughs]
DUNLOP: Also in Hangzhou — which you know, has been a center of gastronomy for 800 years — 800 years ago, they had a restaurant scene with regional restaurants, Buddhist vegetarian restaurants, restaurants specializing oyster dishes.
COWEN: Sea cucumber restaurants.
DUNLOP: In Hangzhou a few years ago, they opened the Hangzhou Cuisine Museum. A single city has a huge museum with fantastic reconstructions, like sushi models of all the classic dishes over 800 years, literally.
They also have a teaching element. They have a restaurant attached. They have activities and classes. That’s another example of big local investment in trying to promote local food culture to a new generation.
MCARDLE: Chinese desserts. To a Westerner, they seem kind of meh.
MCARDLE: I can come up with multiple theories on that, like, Chinese people just don’t like desserts that much, which you’ve actually suggested. One is that pastry cooking is fundamentally a wheat activity. If you’re in the rice half, you don’t get as much of it.
Also, the US, if you look at the history of dessert as a major thing, it actually starts in the US because we’re closest to the sugar. Then that spreads. As sugar spreads into China, does dessert get better?
MCARDLE: Or is it that they don’t like what we like and I’m missing the magic of Chinese dessert?
DUNLOP: The first thing to point out is that Chinese don’t have dessert as a course. You finish with fruit, usually. Sweet dishes tend to be either incidental snacks between meals, or something you have with tea, or you might have a mingling of sweet and savory dishes.
You can have some sweet dishes with quite a lot of sugar in them. There are also some regions where they have a lot of sweet foods. Suzhou and Wuxi in the Jiangnan region, for example, or the Chaozhou region of the Cantonese South. There are a whole range of wonderful, sweet pastries. Rice-based in the south, wheat-based in the north.
For me, you know, as a great advocate of Chinese cooking, and I do have to admit that the desserts and sweet things is possibly one aspect in which Western cuisines might have the edge.
DUNLOP: I think that’s because of the use of dairy products. You get the wonderful, umami richness of butter, the textures of cream. Chocolate, of course, is not used traditionally in China. Those things, if you take them out of Western desserts, you’re not left with very much in a way.
In China, a lot of the desserts, also they’re less sweet. People have less of a sweet tooth apart from a few regions. You have things like sweet meats based on dried beans like mung beans or sweet potatoes.
And they’re actually very delicious. They don’t hit that extreme sweet spot that Westerners like for their dessert.
MCARDLE: Could I ask a follow-up? Dairy, obviously, I know if you’re lactose intolerant as many Asians are, drinking milk is probably never going to happen, I agree with you. I don’t drink milk either, and my family are dairy farmers.
MCARDLE: But all of this dairy in Western cuisine, and you see — I grew up in New York City, and even so, if I look at the range of exotic ingredients that were available even to me, shopping in what was then the best food city in the US, and what is available now, it’s just so much better.
I think that’s true all over the world. I still remember eating Mexican food in London in the ’90s, and that was a bad, bad, bad, experience.
MCARDLE: I have British friends who swear that now, it’s different.
COWEN: Don’t believe them.
MCARDLE: I don’t quite, but I am willing to believe it’s better. I have a German cookbook with a recipe for guacamole in it now.
KLEIN: You probably shouldn’t believe that recipe specifically.
MCARDLE: No, no, I have never tried the recipe. As more Chinese people come to the West on vacation, to study, etc. — I met a grad student in Wisconsin of all places, a Chinese grad student, who was like, “I love cheese. I can’t — I don’t know what I’m going to do when I go home.”
I was shocked because this is the only Chinese person I’ve ever heard say this. Does dairy have a future in China? Is there going be more of a spread for —
DUNLOP: Absolutely. I think lots of Chinese parents now feed their children milk because they think it’ll make them grow big and strong. All this thing about baby milk being imported in large quantities and so on. Yes, milk specifically, is a nourishing thing for children.
Cheese is still a bit of a niche thing. You can buy it at supermarkets and cosmopolitan cities like Shanghai. China has a very dynamic, open food culture and people are always into the next best thing. And chocolate, also.
When I was a student in China in the 1990s, I craved chocolate, and the Chinese chocolate was awful stuff. It wasn’t chocolate at all. Now, you can get chocolate of some kind all over China. I think anything could happen.
SUMMER: 扶霞，刚才你提到饮食文化，在中国人们也经常讲饮食文化、酒文化等很多种文化。在你的观点中，中国的饮食文化和中国文化之间是什么关系？[“Fuchsia, you just mentioned food culture. In China, people often talk about “food culture,” “wine culture,” etc. In your view, what’s the relationship between Chinese food culture and Chinese culture?”]
DUNLOP: [translating] In China and everywhere, where people often talk about food culture and wine culture. In China, what’s the relationship between — sorry, what was the last bit?
SUMMER: Food culture and the Chinese culture.
DUNLOP: I think food is and has always been really at the heart of Chinese culture. And there are two very important reasons for this.
One is the ritual importance. Food is not just, and it hasn’t always been, just a social thing. That cement that binds families and friends together. Food was the means by which you communicated with your ancestors and gods.
Many of the rituals of state were to do with agriculture and with food. It’s been a serious business. Also, because food has, since the beginning of Chinese history, been understood as the absolute foundation of good health, there’s no difference between food and medicine in China.
They say yao shi tong yuan, the food and medicine come from the same source. Every food has its tonic properties. If you’re unwell, the first thing you do is address your diet. Food is very important in that way.
Another argument that’s sometimes given is that often Chinese people haven’t really been able to express themselves individually and there have often been political constraints on freedom of expression through history. Food has been a source of immense joy and fun, and something free of all that.
DUNLOP: Food in China particularly, it’s a culture that expresses itself intellectually through food. The lyrical names of dishes, the stories associated with them. Talking about food and gastronomy as conversation in this culture.
In all these respects, food is culture in China.
KLEIN: It’s often observed, sometimes a little smugly —
KLEIN: That a lot of what goes as Chinese food in America is not recognizable to the folks in China.
Is there anything Americans have done with Chinese food, either in the American/Chinese space or in the more Momofuku fancy Chinese fusion space, that is in your view an actual genuine advance? Something that would be valuable or valid in China?
DUNLOP: In recent years, the growth of regional cuisines, regional restaurants like this one. Here, we’ve got some authentic Sichuanese dishes, some dishes from Shanxi in Northern China. The opening up of regional cuisines and regional street food is changing perceptions of Chinese food.
KLEIN: You would have this in China, though?
KLEIN: Have we done anything interesting here to go backwards? Is there anything interesting in say the Momofuku efforts that is actually Americans contributing in some way to — ?
DUNLOP: I would say at the level of individual dishes, very interesting dishes, but China has it all already.
DUNLOP: Amazing combinations. [laughs] China is so diverse. Apart from dairy and some sweet things and so on. If you like hamburgers, that’s the Xi’an rou jia mo. It’s a kind of Xi’an hamburger.
DUNLOP: That’s one thing. They’ve got it all already.
COWEN: [addressing Klein] I think that means no.
MCARDLE: What does General Tso’s chicken taste like to a Chinese person?
DUNLOP: Interestingly, I did a whole research thing about this. [laughs] It’s supposed to be Hunanese dish, right? But I was very mystified when I went to Hunan to research my Hunan cookbook to find that nobody had every heard of it, really.
It turned out — anyway, to cut a long story short — it was invented by a very famous Hunanese chef in Taiwan. It went from him to New York when he opened a restaurant there near the United Nations. At one point, this chef, Peng Chang-kuei, did go back to his hometown Changsha, in the capital of Hunan province, and he opened a restaurant there.
One of the dishes he served was General Tso’s chicken. I heard from people who remembered that restaurant, that the food there was too sweet.
DUNLOP: That’s a dish that, in some ways, it has some characteristics of Hunanese food. The suan la, sour and hot, use of vinegar and scorched chilies. But for American tastes, there’s a whole load of sugar, which they don’t really add to savory dishes much in Hunan.
MILLER: When I’ve eaten dishes in Taipei, earlier on, the food in Taipei was better than mainland China because they had access to better ingredients. It was an educated, elite class that left China and brought their culinary traditions with them.
They had access to the recipes, the technique, and so forth. Is Taipei, you think, a repository of some of the more difficult dishes of the older style? A lot of that was interrupted, it seems like.
DUNLOP: In China?
MILLER: Yeah. Also, Taipei is a little bit more concerned about provenance of ingredient.
DUNLOP: I would say that in the early days, so 1949, the defeated nationalists fled to Taiwan with, as you were saying, the chefs and their food traditions.
At that time, the nationalists all thought they would go back. They were all missing their home provinces. They wanted to eat the classic traditional food of the elites of these provinces.
The restaurants, by all accounts in the ’50s and ’60s, were very, very traditional and authentic. But what’s happened since then is that there’s been a lot of mixing up. The younger generation of chefs are Taiwan-born, so they might work for a bit in a Hunan restaurant, then go into a Jiangnan restaurant.
They’re all very mixed up. You go to a regional restaurant in Taiwan, and they’re either very old school and somehow not so good anymore, or they tend to be a bit more fusiony in Chinese terms. Also in Taiwan, you have this whole Japanese influence from the colonial occupation.
DUNLOP: And also a particular regional bias for the Fujianese history of a many of the Taiwanese people. I think 60 years on from that, I don’t — there are some like there’s a fantastic Suzhou bakery in this food street in Taiwan where they make really traditional Suzhou pastries.
But a lot of it is a mixed up version of Chinese. Not to say there’s not excellent — Taiwan’s a fantastic place to eat. In China, sometimes it is difficult to find the real old-school cooking.
That’s why what the Dragon Well Manor restaurant is doing is so important. It’s recruiting retired chefs to teach the younger generation the old skills.
KLEIN: What is the dish in your cookbooks that is a place you would tell beginners to start? What is a dish that they will be capable of making, and the results will hook them?
DUNLOP: I think gong bao chicken is a really good introduction to stir frying because it’s not complicated. It doesn’t have many stages. You can assemble all your ingredients in little bowls first, and then they just go one by one into the wok.
It’s a knockout flavor. Everyone likes chicken. There’s no bones in it. A bit of spice. Lovely layering of flavors. That’s one dish that I think people are surprised to find how straightforward it is and it’s addictively tasty.
SUMMER: As we all know you have been to China many times. What’s your next destination in China? What do you want to discover most?
DUNLOP: I just feel like the more I find out about Chinese food, the more there is to discover. I feel like I’ll be learning my whole life. I would love to do more work on the northern pasta arts.
I’m currently learning a lot about the food of Yunnan, which is one of the most biodiverse regions on Earth, and as you’d expect, has a rather extraordinary range of ingredients.
The thing about China is that its cuisines have been so relatively unexplored by the English-speaking world. There’s so much to discover and write about all over the country.
COWEN: Tell us what’s so unusual about Yunnan, because that to me was the big revelation. Every part of China I’ve been to, Yunnan surprised me the most. Dishes I’ve never even dreamt of and would not have thought of as Chinese.
You’d have some bread dipped in honey, or you’d have a donkey in a red sauce, almost in some ways like a curry sauce, or mushrooms in ways you had not imagined. What makes Yunnan special for you?
DUNLOP: It’s always been a marginal region with 20-something of China’s 56 ethnic minorities, so it’s extraordinarily diverse culturally. It borders Burma, Laos, and Vietnam.
If you go to the south and the southwest of Yunnan, you’re really getting into Southeast Asian flavors and cooking techniques and ingredients. Also you mentioned this incredible diversity of ingredients, insects, flowers, mushrooms.
COWEN: Bee larvae.
DUNLOP: Bee larvae, yes.
DUNLOP: You can’t really understand it in terms of the classical schools of Chinese cooking. It’s a bit more adventurous. Like the fact that there are a couple of notable forms of local cheese in Yunnan, which is just exceptional.
It’s that diversity in that sense of being on the edge of empire. It was a region that was sometimes part of China, and sometimes it was doing its own thing. You really feel that in the food.
COWEN: To close, four relatively quick questions. One from each of us. Eva, your quick question for Fuchsia.
SUMMER: Just you have said, you have introduced the gong bao chicken. What’s your most favorite Chinese dish?
DUNLOP: One of my first loves and my best loves is yu xiang qie zi, fish-fragrant eggplant. That, for me, it’s a really simple everyday Sichuanese dish, but it’s got knockout, incredible flavors.
It’s eggplant with a classic fish-fragrant combination of pickled chilis, ginger, garlic, scallion, a bit of sweet and sour. That’s, for me, an example of how you don’t have to be rich, you don’t have to be particularly accomplished in the kitchen to eat just fantastically well in China.
KLEIN: The opposite of that question. What is your favorite Western chain restaurant? And your favorite dish at it?
DUNLOP: It’s not exactly Western although the chain restaurant I eat at most often is the Royal China chain of dim sum restaurants in London.
KLEIN: This is not over. I’m not accepting this answer.
DUNLOP: OK. Chain restaurants? I don’t really eat at chain restaurants. [laughs]
KLEIN: There’s no part of you that loves a McFlurry, or — ?
MILLER: Pret? Do you go to Pret?
DUNLOP: Oh, yeah. I get sandwiches at Pret a Manger.
MILLER: Which one is your favorite there?
DUNLOP: I can’t really think.
DUNLOP: BLT sandwich at Pret.
KLEIN: All right.
MILLER: This beautiful picture in your new book of the hams, what did you call it?
DUNLOP: The Jinhua ham from Zhejiang province.
MILLER: Can you explain the taste of that? I love ham. Can you explain the difference? Which ham would it be closest to in my — would it be Spanish, Italian? How was it cured, and what’s the flavor like?
DUNLOP: It’s closest perhaps to Spanish hams.
MILLER: Like Jabugos?
DUNLOP: A lot of Chinese chefs in the West would use that, would use Spanish ham as a substitute because you can’t often import Chinese meats to Europe.
MILLER: So pretty intense.
DUNLOP: It’s very intense. It’s fairly dense, garnet-colored meat. It’s not eaten raw. It’s used as an umami flavoring in cooked dishes mostly.
MILLER: How was it aged?
DUNLOP: I’m not sure, actually. I think a whole range.
MILLER: Thank you.
MCARDLE: What is the last Western food that will become popular in China? What is the last Chinese food that will become popular in the West?
DUNLOP: The last Western food. Maybe a really ripe, heady, stinky brie.
DUNLOP: I have an experience of trying to feed it to people in China.
MCARDLE: I read that.
DUNLOP: The other way around, it would have to be something textural.
MILLER: [whispers] Sea cucumber?
MCARDLE: Sea cucumber is not allowed for this answer.
DUNLOP: I could mention one very extreme textural delicacy that I’ve only ever come across once in China. Probably most people in China wouldn’t eat it, but Sichuanese love their rubbery, crunchy, offal.
That is the upper palates of pigs, which they call tiantang, paradise. I found it at a late night street store covered in chili and Sichuan pepper oil. I don’t think that will be a big hit in New York or London anytime soon.
COWEN: Very last question goes to me to close. What is your favorite Chinese film and why?
DUNLOP:Eat Drink Man Woman, so Taiwanese. It’s a lovely story about food, but what’s extraordinary is the actual food you see in that film. Actually, by chance, I’ve come across the set of books that was clearly the source for that.
There was an amazing series of cookery books produced around 1980, I think, when they photographed the classical dishes of four great cuisines of China. They shot them beautifully in antique dishes.
This is, for me, the absolute pinnacle of classical Chinese cuisine. The people who researched the food for that film have done their homework. It is just ravishing, historically accurate Chinese food.
COWEN: I thank the panel and most of all, Fuchsia. Thank you very much for a wonderful time and for the ordering. Thank you.