Sichuan cuisine: More than just spice

Fuchsia Dunlop, pictured in her chef whites at the Sichuan Institute of Higher Cuisine, was its first foreign student.

Story highlights

  • Fuchsia Dunlop was first foreigner to train as chef at Sichuan Institute of Higher Cuisine in China
  • Dunlop: Sichuanese cuisine is one of great Chinese cuisines, much more than "hot and spicy"
  • Dunlop: Chinese cuisine is very underrated, misunderstood in West
  • Dunlop recommends that people new to Sichuanese cuisine try yuxiang (fish fragrant) dishes
CNN: What sparked your interest in Sichuanese cuisine?
I got very interested in China through a job subediting news reports about the east Asian region, particularly China. So I started Mandarin evening classes and went on holiday to China and was fascinated.
I'd been in Sichuan in 1993 when coming back from a holiday to Tibet and had an amazing lunch with some dishes I never forgot. I had looked up a Sichuanese musician whom I'd met in my hometown of Oxford, and he and his wife took me out. It was at a very modest little restaurant, but we had a delicious meal and ended up on the riverbank drinking jasmine tea at a teahouse. At that moment, I thought, I want to come back and live here.
The next year, I applied for a British Council scholarship to study minorities, culture and history at Sichuan University. While in Sichuan, I started cooking in my spare time and investigating the food. It gradually just took over, and I realized that was the thing that I really wanted to study.
You were the first Westerner to train as a chef at the Sichuan Institute of Higher Cuisine. How did that come about?
Fuchsia Dunlop, Sichuanese cook and food writer
A German friend and I had heard about this famous cooking school, so we cycled over there one day and managed to persuade them to give us private classes for a month. We worked with a translator because our Chinese was not very good at that stage.
When I finished my studies at Sichuan University, I went back to the cooking school, asking if I could drop in occasionally and watch some demonstrations. Instead, they said, "We have a chef's training course beginning now, why don't you join in?"
It was a real curiosity that this Englishwoman was so interested in their food. I don't think it was strictly according to the rules at the time, because foreigners didn't do this kind of thing. So it was really the kindness of the teachers and the principal of this school. They just thought, "Well she's interested; let's let her have a go."
At the time in China, everything was changing. There had been all these things that had been closed to foreigners. It was just sheer luck that I was there at that moment.
What were the classes like?
Dunlop watches a cooking demonstration with her classmates.
Every morning, the teacher was at the blackboard explaining the process of the dishes of the day -- the ingredients, how to choose them and the cooking methods. Then we would all go into the demo room, where the teacher would demonstrate the dishes of the day. After lunch we would divide into groups of 10. Each group would pool the prep and then make the dish.
You've said that Sichuanese cuisine has its own specific vocabulary.
Chinese cuisine and Sichuanese cuisine are highly sophisticated. In French cooking, you have different words for different processes and different kinds of sauces. And Chinese cuisine is like that. For example, there are words for different kinds of frying that don't have English equivalents.
For example, liu is taking your ingredient, which usually has some starch paste on it, and pre-cooking it in oil or water. Then you make a sauce and mix the two together.
There's zha, which is to deep-fry.
Jian is what Westerners would call pan-frying in a flat pan, or frying without moving the ingredients around very much because you can also do it in a wok.
Chao means stir-frying. Chaoxiang is to fry fragrant, which is bringing out the fragrance of oil, ginger, or garlic.
Bian is another word similar to stir-fry. Ganbian, meaning dry bian, is frying without any oil and later adding oil and seasonings.
Qiang is frying Sichuan pepper and chili and then adding an ingredient to drive in the spice.
Those are the immediate ones.
Are there more frying techniques in Sichuanese cuisine than other types of Chinese cuisine?
No, but Sichuanese is supposed to be one of the four great Chinese cuisines. There's also Shandong cooking from the northeast, Yangzhou cooking from the east, and Cantonese cooking. In places that have very serious cultures of gastronomy, you get very systematic cooking.
How did your mainland Chinese classmates react to having a foreigner learning their local cuisine?
Some of them had never met a foreigner before. So they were quite shy and didn't really want to talk to me. I was a curiosity. It was mad, also because I was a woman -- there were only three women in a class of 50 -- and a university graduate. Cooking is normally something they think educated people wouldn't go into.
I had a couple of friends who were very nice to me and helped me write some of the Chinese characters I didn't know. But in my group of 10, I didn't have any particular friends. I had to make sure they let me in on things, because they didn't necessarily want to include me all the time.
How are you received now, given your professional success? Do you come across the attitude from Chinese people they know their cuisine best?
Generally speaking, people are incredibly welcoming because they're quite surprised by the seriousness with which I've studied it. So when they talk to me about food, I can talk at a professional culinary level about cooking techniques and the flavors of dishes, which is something they don't really expect. They've probably never met a foreigner who does this.
Quite often when I give talks, people are initially very skeptical and they think, "What on earth is this Englishwoman doing?" That's happened more abroad; for example, when I do events in Australia. Sometimes overseas Chinese people will come up to me afterward and say, "We couldn't imagine what on earth an Englishwoman would have to teach us about Chinese food, but actually we were impressed by your knowledge."
I also have really fantastic partnerships with Chinese chefs. There are amazingly talented Chinese chefs who have this very sophisticated culture, but they can't communicate it very well. It's difficult not only to translate it but to express it in a way that will make Westerners understand and appreciate it. So I do cooking shows with Chinese chefs in Europe and America, where they cook, and I translate and give the cultural context.
You've said that it's a "different thing to interpret Chinese cuisine for Westerners."
Of course there are disadvantages to being a foreigner, but there are advantages because you understand both sides. I know the kind of problems that Westerners have with grisly, slithery textures, for example, and I try to write about them in a way that would give people a new perspective and make them want to enjoy them.
For example, if you want a Westerner to appreciate fermented tofu, they might be revolted. If you try to get them to think about it like a blue cheese and imagine what it might be like for a Chinese person to see rotted cow's milk, then you get a new perspective.
Do you see yourself as a bridge between Chinese and Western foodies?
That's what I'm trying to do. I think Chinese cuisine is probably the most diverse and sophisticated in the world because there's so much to it. And it's very underrated and not very deeply understood in the West, so what I hope to do is to make some sort of contribution to open up this subject to people.
Is it possible to describe Chinese food in general terms?
You can come up with some generalizations, like the use of chopsticks; having grain foods, whether its rice, noodles, or breads served with cai side dishes; and the use of certain fermented seasonings like soy sauce.
A lot of Chinese people talk about Western food as one thing, and you sort of know what they mean. But that's obviously very limited, and it's the same talking about Chinese food. You can come up with some generalizations about how Chinese food is broadly different from American food. But then as soon as you look more's very diverse.
What about Sichuanese food? People often think of it as "hot and spicy." Does this describe the full extent of the cuisine?
It's much more subtle than that. If you're looking at China in general, one of the things that stand out about Sichuanese cuisine is that it uses a lot of Sichuan chilies and peppers. But if you're inside Sichuan, it's much more subtle and sophisticated.
A good Sichuanese meal is not all hot; it's balanced. There's a saying: Yicaiyige baicaibaiwei, meaning, "Each dish has its own style; a hundred dishes have a hundred different flavors."
A Sichuanese banquet should have constant stimulation and excitement. You have something hot and then something soothing, then you have a light soup, then something sweet...variety is the spice of life.
Recently, very fiery dishes, like the shuizhuyu (fish in a sea of sizzling chili oil) has become very fashionable, so people always associate it with Sichuanese cuisine. But that's just one aspect of it.
How does Chinese food figure into the London eating scene?
It used to be very underrated and was seen as being stuck in a rut. But now it's gotten more regional, and people are getting excited about it again. Until recently, it was all Cantonese. There were a few very good Cantonese places for dimsum and lots of very cheap takeaways, not serving good food and doing a lot of sweet and sour pork and lemon chicken for the Westerners. A lot of middle-of-the-road places doing not very interesting food for non-Chinese people.
How about Hakka San?
Hakka San was hugely influential because it was the first dramatically, glamorously designed restaurant -- high-end, very expensive, trendy and glamorous. And so that made Chinese food seem very cool and glamorous and persuaded people that they might pay more money for it.
Does it appeal to Chinese eaters?
No, Chinese people are more into just the food. Westerners are more into the décor.
What's your favorite Chinese dish to eat?
Yuxiangqiezi (fish fragrant eggplants). It's Sichuanese. It has so many layers: ginger, garlic, spring onions, pickled chili, sweet and sour. It's delicious and shows how Sichuanese food can take a very ordinary ingredient and make it sublime. Yuxiangqiezi and a bowl of rice, and I'm happy.
If someone wanted to dip their toes into Sichuanese cuisine, what would you suggest? People tend to think of Sichuanese food as hot and spicy and can feel intimidated.
Go for yuxiang (fish fragrant) dishes, which have the gentle heat of picked chilies and the sweet and sour. Everyone loves them, unless you don't like any heat at all. Don't start with the sea of oil and the chilies and pepper.