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Fuchsia Dunlop's Cookbook Revolution

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By Malcolm Jolley

Fuchsia Dunlop is quietly rising to the top of the heap in the moderately esoteric world of the high brow cookbook. Yes, Raych and Giada sell a lot of units, but they'll never penetrate the hardcore gastro-geek set and any following among the cognoscenti will be relegated to novelty or an ironic, self-aware and contrarian gesture of oneness with the masses. Dunlop is another breed altogether. Like Paula Wolfert insinuating herself into a Turkish mud hut, Dunlop immerses herself into her subject, Chinese provincial cooking and leaves no iron bowl unturned. Her latest imprint, The Revolutionary Chinese Cookbook, is quickly becoming a kind of shibboleth that separates those who merely watch cooking from those who like to read about it. As I speak to her on the phone, from her home in London, I am struck not just by her friendliness but also by her slight pedagogical tone. This is a smart lady who, like all great teachers, cares deeply about her subject.

The first thing I want to know is how Dunlop became a Sinophile, much less a leading expert on Chinese cuisine. She explains it was her interest in travel that brought her to Sichuan after university. She went to study language, but also to simply get away and see the world. Once there, she fell in love with the food. Wasn't it kind of weird, I wondered. Yes, but Dunlop describes herself as "adventurous by English standards" when it comes to matters culinary. Some of it must have been strange, though, so I ask her what elements of Chinese food did she has a hard time with. She's quick to answer "rubbery things" and explains it took nearly two years for her to truly appreciate the textures of things like fermented bean curds or various offals "for their own sake".

The food in her book is not what you might expect. Don't let a trip to a big Western city's Chinatown fool you into thinking you've tasted it all. For one thing China is a very big country. "Chinatown won't prepare you," explains Fuchsia Dunlop, "it usually presents a limited repertoire (mostly Cantonese), full of sweet things and [the food] can even be a little junky." In situ, the cuisine of the Chinese provinces depends on fresh ingredients, as much as any other. The recipes in her book reflect this and she explains that she wanted to make sure a reader with access to basic oriental groceries could cook most of what she offers.

The ‘Revolution' in the books title most obviously refers to Hunan's status as the birthplace of Chairman Mao. The book is studded with Maoist imagery like little red books and social realist illustrations, making it one the most visually striking cookbooks of recent memory. It also presents a sweeping introduction to the province, its history and cuisine. Because of its connection to Mao, during the Cultural Revolution low Hunan cuisine was seen to be politically correct. Ironically, Dunlop explains to me, Hunan cuisine is coming back into fashion in the new Chinese metropolises since it is thought to be rustic. This is Chinese soul food, displacing the 1990s fashion for Cantonese, which implied the capitalist flash of Hong Kong.

I ask Dunlop why she chose Hunan as her subject and she matter-of-factly explains that it was next door to Sichuan, the subject of her previous book Sichuan Cookery. In the West we think of Sichuan as the spicy Chinese cooking, but in Sichuan they apparently think the same of the Hunanese. This piqued Dunlop's interest. She was shocked, she says, of the difference once she got there, and the book reflects the enormous variety of cooking styles within the single province. There is, for instance, an entire chapter on bean curd, in which she sees a parallel with the Western relationship with cheese.

When pressed on her favourite recipes from the book Dunlop offers "Red Braised Pork", or more accurately "Chairman Mao's Red Braised Pork", which was reputedly The Beloved Leader's favourite dish. I wonder if she had to adapt the recipes much for her Western readership and her denial is firm: "My policy is to research and report faithfully." Yeah, but there must be some things you left aside, I counter. She laughs: "Well, obviously there's no point in putting in a recipe for dog. Or the really, really rubbery things." Still, she insists she doesn't "try to innovate" and, since nearly every recipe comes with an explanation of when, where and with whom she first ate it, I believe her wholeheartedly.

We're wrapping up, but when I ask the obvious last question Dunlop won't tell me what she's up to next. I try again: one presumes another province and another book? Maybe. A day or two later I picked up the April issue of Gourmet and saw her by-line from the Western border region of Xinjiang where the Muslim and Chinese worlds meet on the old Silk Road. I can't wait.

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