Fuchsia Dunlop, the British writer and cook who has been travelling around China for more than two decades, has spent a lot of that time sharing her finds and discoveries. With her cookbook, Land of Fish and Rice (read more about it here), bringing the cuisine of China’s Jiangnan region into your home kitchen (read about it here), we chatted to her about her favourite kitchen tools and top tips for cooking Chinese at home.
What is your go-to Chinese dish to cook at home?
I eat a lot of noodles – with the spring onion noodles in Land of Fish and Rice you can make the spring onion oil in advance and keep it in a pot, and whip up the most heavenly lunch in just a couple of minutes. The other thing would just be some simple stir-fried greens.
Get Fuchsia's recipe for Shanghai noodles with dried shrimps and spring onion oil here.
What’s your top kitchen tip for Chinese cooking?
Season your wok before stir-frying anything that will stick to it, particularly meat or poultry. All that means is having a clean wok, putting a little oil in there and swirling it around, and heating it really hot – smoking hot – and then pouring off that oil and using fresh oil for cooking. If you do that, the first oil just sort of seals the surface, and then your chicken won’t stick when you add it. There is nothing more irritating when you’re stir-frying!
It’s also worth paying attention to cutting – if you cut food evenly it cooks evenly, so it’s not just about aesthetics.
Other than a wok, is there any piece of cooking equipment that’s worth investing in?
It’s very useful to have a bamboo steamer. Of course, you can also steam in a wok, but if you have a metal wok lid then water can condense on the lid and fall into your plate of food, and that doesn’t happen with bamboo. Steaming is just as Chinese a method as stir-frying – in some it’s ways more ancient and more typical – and it’s a very good way of preserving the nutritional value of food.
In terms of ingredients, is there anything you wish you could find outside of China that you can’t get back home?
Oh, I think lots of things! When you go to China there are just so many fresh ingredients, but I suppose top of my list would be fresh bamboo shoots. I know you can get some (in Australia) from Queensland, but we can’t in London. They are so delicious when they are fresh. I’m very thankful that there are lots of things available now that I couldn’t get before, but in a way, it’s nice that you still have to go somewhere to taste something – that we’re not all totally globalised!
You mention in your book that we have a different approach to vegetarianism in the West. How does it differ in China?
In the West, typical vegetarianism is an ideological and total vegetarianism. In China, you do get total vegetarianism in Chinese Buddhist monastery cooking, though many Chinese people tend to eat a lot of vegetarian food and tofu, with a little bit of meat to season it. People are often a bit more flexible – they might generally not eat meat but have a bit of chicken soup if they’re ill, or have some meat with their families. Western vegetarians have a problem sometimes when travelling in China, they will ask for vegetarian food and find there’s a little bit of pork in it because they don’t understand it’s an absolute.
There are quite a few mock meat recipes in your book. It’s often seen as a curious practice – why do you want to shape tofu to look like an intestine if you don’t eat meat?
This tradition of going to great lengths to make food resemble fish and meat came out of the need for Buddhist feasts that had to feel like special occasions, but not use meat. You have a lot of Buddhist monasteries that were dependant on the patronage of rich people; they would entertain them at the temple, and if you have a special meal in China it’s all meat and fish. So you have this amazing tradition in China of really artful fakery, not just making generic pork out of soya, but actually making a version of a typical dish – making Dongpo pork out of winter melon, or one that’s in my book, making the ultimate autumn delicacy of crab meat out of mashed potatoes and carrot that looks and even tastes a little bit like it. Normally Buddhist monks don’t eat this elaborate stuff, but now you can go and have a full classic meal with all the traditional dishes, but instead made from tofu and broad beans and other vegetarian ingredients.
What sparked your interest in cooking?
My mum is a great cook, a very adventurous cook. I grew up in Oxford, and my mother taught English as a foreign language. We had all these foreign students staying with us and cooking, so I had this very international diet, which at the time was quite unusual in England. And I’ve loved cooking for as long as I can remember. When I went to China it was just because I was interested in China, but as soon as I got there, the old love of cooking and food kicked in, and so I started learning, and that was it really.
What was it that made you fall so completely in love with China and its food?
From the first trip I was just totally intrigued; it was very different and very fascinating – and at that time, in the early ’90s, people in the West weren’t very interested in China at all. People didn’t go to China much on holiday and there weren’t very many tourists there so it was tremendously exciting, and it felt rather undiscovered. So that’s what got me hooked at first. I chose to study at Sichuan University partly because of the food, and when I got there, Chengdu was this enchanting old city with all these tea houses and the most fantastic food everywhere – it was unbelievable really. This was nothing like the Chinese takeaways we’d had occasionally when I was a child!
What’s the next regional Chinese we’ve yet to discover, but should?
So many really! There are the incredible noodle and pasta and bread traditions of the north of China, and then Yunnan is another region with incredible food, where the fringes melt into the South-East Asian tradition. Even with the cuisines, we think we know, like Sichuan, there’s a lot more there. I just cannot believe how extraordinary Chinese food culture is. I’m not in any sense bored with it, every time I go back I’m completely amazed again, I keep discovering whole new regions and whole new cuisines and dishes.
Read our chat with Fuchsia' about her new book here.
For more Chinese recipes, move on over to our recipe collection here.
A speciality of the old canal town of Wuxi, these chunky pork ribs are clothed in a gorgeous, aromatic gravy with a bit of the sweetness for which the local cooking is renowned. According to local lore, the recipe originated in the Nanchan Buddhist Temple. The gist of the story is that during the Southern Song dynasty, a visiting monk called Jigong gave the owner of a local cooked-meat shop some invaluable tips on the art of stewing meat (somewhat curiously, since Chinese Buddhist monks are normally vegetarians). Jigong cooked his meat slowly, overnight, in one of the temple’s incense burners, making all the young monks ‘drool with greed’, and the shop owner adopted his method. This is one of several Jiangnan legends about meat-eating Buddhist monks; I’m not sure if this means that a little meat-eating was tolerated in monastic communities, that lay people just enjoy telling tales about the hypocrisy of clerics, or if it’s simply an illustration of the Chinese infatuation with pork, a meat so delicious that even committed vegetarians are not immune to its delights.
This Shanghainese appetiser is absurdly easy to make and wondrously satisfying. Steaming brings out a gentle, unfamiliar side to a vegetable that is more commonly fried, baked or grilled, and, simple as they are, the seasonings taste sublime. Use Mediterranean aubergines or, if you can find them, the slender purple Chinese variety. I was introduced to this recipe by my Shanghainese friend Jason Li.