Monday, October 08, 2012

Interview: Fuchsia Dunlop at Hong Kong Literary Festival

Fuchsia Dunlop
I was fortunate enough to get a last-minute press pass to one of the talks that Fuchsia Dunlop was giving at this year's Hong Kong International Literary Festival.

Entitled Hot and Sour, it was a Q&A session about Fuchsia's (mostly food) experiences in China, mostly related to her memoir, Shark's Fin and Sichuan Pepper (which, by the way, has been translated into Traditional Chinese, and perhaps soon into simplified for the Mainland Chinese market, a prospect that Fuchsia looked forward to with "trepidation").

Fuchsia Dunlop at "Hot and Sour", moderated by Chengdu native, Jennifer Zhu-Scott
After a bit of a wait (that's what you get for being last-minute) I caught Fuchsia for a zippy 10-minute interview in the all-emerald Centurion lounge of the Kee Club, and I shivered all the way through, because the aircon was worthy of a mortuary, and I was so nervous and thrilled to be meeting the only non-Chinese author I trust to talk about Chinese food. I have an enormous amount of respect for Fuchsia's efforts in understanding China, its culture and its food. If I could achieve a fraction of what she's done in "communicating" China to the West, I'd be very proud of myself!

Hope you enjoy reading this as much as I enjoyed recording it, and many thanks, Fuchsia, HK Lit Fest and CatchOn.

Me: Where do you see yourself in the relationship between China and the West, in terms of food? Are you bridging gaps, a researcher, or otherwise?

Fuchsia (FD): I suppose both a researcher and communicator. What I try to do is to inspire Westerners with the amazingness of Chinese cuisine and Chinese food culture, because I think China has the most diverse, the most sophisticated food culture in the world and it's very under-appreciated in the West, and the main problem has just been communication. So I try to do is inform myself as well as possible, and then communicate with enthusiasm.

Me: What are your views about Anglo-Chinese food, and Anglo-Chinese food that's been taken to another level, for example, there's a restaurant in California and now also in New York, called Mission Chinese Food.

FD: I don't think that one should be purist about things, I mean, all cuisines are fusion cuisines, really. Look at Sichuan cuisine and the chilli, which came from South America. It just makes no sense to think that any cuisine should be set in stone, because they never have been. It's very natural that when people move around the world, and have new influences, they cook different things. Having said that, I think you have to be careful about what you call something. If you take something like mapo doufu, at which point does it stop being mapo doufu? There is a point when it does become something else. So it is a matter of judgement. When you said "Anglo-Chinese" food, I thought you meant Chinese restaurant food [in the West].

Me: Yes, that too...

FD: Until very recently, it was based on just Cantonese cooking, and very limited. There are some very good dishes, and some delicious things, although they also have these awful set menus which Westerners were encouraged to order, and don't give a very good impression. I think the sad thing is that people thought that this was Chinese food, without realising that it was just a tiny little bit of it.

Me: What's your Chinese like? I find it really difficult, when researching Chinese food, to read ancient texts.

FD: I'm reading books about food that were collecting together bits, so I'm not reading the whole of the Book of Songs, so that's one thing. To a certain extent, it's just through practice. Most of the stuff is not the really tough, old, classical texts.

Me: So, you read the originals in Chinese? [As opposed to translations]

FD: Oh, you have to! There are so many terms in Chinese for which there are no direct equivalents, so you do not know what you're talking about unless you read the Chinese. In researching recipes, or the history of recipes, I have to read Chinese. It's gotten easier because I've done it so much. When I was starting with the Sichuan book, it was tough, I would struggle for hours with things, but now, when the subject is food, I have quite a good vocabulary.

Also, when I'm in China, I have to be in the kitchen taking notes in Chinese, because [often] with an ingredient or a method, there's no equivalent.

Me: Does it surprise you that people in Hong Kong, despite being so close to China, still have misconceptions about Sichuan food?

FD: No, I think one doesn't know about, one has generalisations, prejudices, that's just life. I think what's important is that you have to be aware of the limitations - we all have points of view, but be aware that they're not the absolute word on anything. There's always more to learn.

Me: I feel that very few young people in China aspire to be chefs, whereas in the West, we're seeing a lot more who are. Do you think that's the case?

FD: I think it's quite sad when I see some Chinese friends - who are very accomplished chefs and have children - don't want their children to be chefs. In many cases, they're not even learning how to cook, even in a domestic way, which is very sad. I think there are always going to be some people who are committed to the craft of cookery, who do it as a vocation, and we're beginning to see this in some parts of China, not many, but maybe there will be more as there are in the West now; educated people, who have the choice of doing other things [but] who went into food because they wanted to. Also, it's a tough life, and a lot of Chinese cooking is very labour-intensive, so it's not necessarily something people want to do.

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