Slippery sea cucumber? Yum. Goose intestines? Yes. Milk? Disgusting
Fuchsia Dunlop, the first foreigner to train at the Sichuan Institute of Higher Cuisine, loves the simplicity of Chinese cooking – just don’t ask her to drink a glass of milk
Fuchsia Dunlop will be doing a three-hour demonstration as well as a talk about her books and her “essential flavours” at the Ballymaloe Litfest. Photograph: Jonathan Perugia
Fuchsia Dunlop’s light cleaver: ‘They’re a called a vegetable knife in Chinese. You can do everything with it’
Fuchsia Dunlop’s mould for making glutinous rice cakes: ‘The word for fish is the same as the word for plenty, so that’s why, for example, you always have a whole fish at a Chinese New Year’s dinner’
Fuchsia Dunlop’s stamp to make patterns on naan bread: ‘I bought it from a baker in Kashgar about 10 years ago. The modern ones are wooden things with nails in them but this is a traditional one made from chicken feathers with ribbons of cloth to separate them’
Put a slippery sea cucumber in front of food writer and cook Fuchsia Dunlop and she’ll attack it with gusto. Goose intestines, yum, pass the chopsticks. But don’t ask her to drink a glass of milk. “I think milk is really disgusting. I love butter and cheese and I quite like cream, but not milk.”
Somebody better warn the folks at Ballymaloe, where Dunlop is heading on her first visit to Ireland next week, and where the raw milk produced by the farm’s Jersey cows is proudly offered on tap.
Dunlop is a world-renowned expert on Chinese food – she was the first foreigner to train at the Sichuan Institute of Higher Cuisine – and regularly leads gastronomy tours there. “I never push people to try things. The great thing about the Chinese way of eating is that you order a lot of dishes and you share them.”
At next week’s Kerrygold Ballymaloe Literary Festival of Food & Wine, Dunlop will be doing a three-hour demonstration as well as a talk about her books and her “essential flavours”. But she won’t be passing round any goose intestines.
The order of work for her demonstration at Ballymaloe is smacked cucumbers, sea bream in fish-fragrant sauce, blanched choy sum in sizzling oil, gong bao chicken, vegetarian mapo tofu, and Shanghai noodles with dried shrimp and spring onion oil.
“Gong bao chicken and mapo tofu, they’re classic Sichuan dishes with nice stories behind them, but they’re also really good examples of cooking techniques, and there’s a lot to say about them. With Gong bao chicken, for example, the way in which the ingredients are cut tells you a lot about the Chinese art of cutting, and the attention to texture, and it’s a particular kind of stir fry,” she says.
At home in the multicultural melting pot of Dalston, east London, where she has lived for 15 years, Dunlop eats Chinese food a lot, but not exclusively, and has little difficulty getting hold of authentic ingredients. “Compared to when I came back from Sichuan it’s amazing, and literally month by month more and more things are becoming available.
“Last week, in Chinatown, I found stem lettuce, a vegetable I adore and which you could not get here before.”
Chinese cooking is simple, she says, and you don’t need a vast amount of ingredients or equipment to get started. “You need to do one good shop in a Chinese supermarket and get the basics – and then you can do a lot. Buy soy sauce, light and dark, Chinese rice vinegar, shaoxing rice wine, sesame oil, fermented black beans, chilli and sichuan pepper. Garlic and ginger most people will already have.
“One of the things I find absolutely wonderful about Chinese cooking is its simplicity, and you really don’t need a lot of equipment. The one gadget that I really value is a rice cooker, because generally with Chinese food you are fiddling about at the last minute stir frying, and if you don’t have to think about the rice, that’s great.”
She’s brought three things from her kitchen to show me. The first is a beautifully balanced cleaver that is both smaller and lighter than any I’ve seen. “That’s the thing, people always think that cleavers are like a butcher’s instrument but these are much thinner and lighter – they’re a called a vegetable knife in Chinese. You can do everything with it, from slicing a single clove of garlic, or you could debone a duck with it.
She has also brought along a pretty mould for making glutinous rice cakes, from the Cantonese south. It’s in the shape of a fish. “The word for fish is the same as the word for plenty, so that’s why, for example, you always have a whole fish at a Chinese New Year’s dinner,” she says.
Her third show and tell is, she says, “very precious”. I fail completely when she asks me to guess what it is, and it turns out to be a gadget used to make patterns on naan bread dough. “I bought it from a baker in Kashgar about 10 years ago. The modern ones are wooden things with nails in them but this is a traditional one made from chicken feathers with ribbons of cloth to separate them.”
Dunlop, educated at Cambridge, began her exploration of Chinese language and culture while working as a subeditor at the BBC and subsequently studied at the School of Oriental and African Studies in London, as well spending a year at university in Chengdu. She speaks, reads and writes Chinese, and has written three cookery books and a memoir exploring Chinese food and culture.
She is working on her next cookery book, “a wait and see” volume; she doesn’t like talking about books while they are in progress, she says.
She’s been researching Chinese food in a scholarly and rigorous way for 20 years, and has 100 notebooks filled with recipes, information and observations from her travels. “There’s a queue of books I’d like to write and I’ve already got material for the next couple.”
As we part at the railway station in Dalston, she’s heading across to the street market, to buy ingredients for a recipe-testing session her mother Carolyn is coming to help out with. She credits Carolyn with igniting her interest in food.
“I remember as a very small child watching my mother tasting something new and guessing what was in it, like the herbs and spices, and thinking I want to be able to do that too.
“She used to teach English as a foreign language, so we had lots of foreign students all over the place, coming and cooking and leaving recipes behind, so I had a very international diet, and we were always allowed to participate and make a mess.”