This story is part of our June 2020 cover story, a series of articles profiling internationals who have made – or are making – an impact in China. To read more fascinating profiles from this series, click here.
Fuchsia Dunlop’s love affair with China began with a backpacking trip around the country in 1992. She returned home to England smitten with the culture and, like many others who become fascinated with the country, decided to dive deeper by enrolling in evening Chinese lessons. Fast forward 28 years and Dunlop is known in the West as one of the most knowledgeable and authoritative figures on Sichuan cuisine.
Dunlop is a critically acclaimed chef and food writer who specializes in Chinese cuisine, specifically from the province of Sichuan. The passion that was sparked in 1992 has fueled a career spanning decades and resulted in multiple award-winning books.
Fuchsia Dunlop at the James Beard Foundation Awards
Her story starts in Oxford, England. If you told a 20-something-year-old Dunlop she’d be a writer, she claims she wouldn’t have believed it. However, she had always held a keen interest in food and cooking.
She describes her “very unusual gastronomic upbringing for a girl growing up in England in the 1970s” to That’s. Her mother was an English teacher, who often invited foreign students to live in her home or come over for dinner – and thus Dunlop’s palate was introduced to a myriad of cuisines, including Japanese, Turkish, Spanish, Italian, Lebanese, Iranian and Sudanese. She also enjoyed joining in the action in the kitchen, lending a helping hand with food preparation, cooking and tasting.
Recipes from her mother’s foreign friends were incorporated into her own cooking, and she credits this early exposure to international cuisines as a vital experience in her evolution as a chef. Dunlop acknowledges that her mother was “the most important influence” on her palate.
Dunlop’s notebook of recipes
Following her first trip to Chengdu, Dunlop returned to China in 1994 after winning a British Council scholarship to study at Sichuan University. She decided on Sichuan for two reasons: it was and remains a region rich in cultural history, as it borders Tibet and other minority areas, and it is home to a delicious cuisine.
Although she was originally enrolled to study ethnic minorities, she found herself swept up in daily gastronomic discoveries. Dunlop remarks that in Chengdu, “I quickly realized that I was more interested in learning about the local food than anything else – and that was the beginning of my food-writing career.”
She was invited to become the first foreign student at the Sichuan Institute of Higher Cuisine. During that period of her life, Dunlop lived in China for a year and a half before returning to England. Nevertheless, she’s been coming and going between her home in the UK and China ever since.
Dunlop cooking in a farmer’s home in Hunan province
Dunlop’s initial goal with writing was to promote understanding and appreciation of Chinese food among English-speaking foreigners. During the late ’80s and ’90s, regional Chinese cuisine had not become as widespread as it is today. Sure, Cantonese and ‘Szechuan’ cuisine had begun to infiltrate Western consciousness, but as we all know, China is a vast country comprised of countless cuisines.
Her first cookbook, Sichuan Cookery was released in 2001 and established her as “the English-writing authority on Sichuanese cuisine,” as summed up by Susan Jung from South China Morning Post.
Although her intended audience were English-speaking foreigners, many Chinese people, whether born in China or overseas, have gravitated towards her books. Where Sichuan Cookery stands out is in its ability to break down elements of Chinese cooking that even Chinese cooks or diners take for granted. Just last year, almost 20 years after Sichuan Cookery’s release, Dunlop published an updated cookbook titled The Food of Sichuan, packed with 70 new recipes from the region.
“Mapo tofu, fish-fragrant aubergines, choy sum in oyster sauce, white rice. Almost vegetarian and totally delicious.”
During the coronavirus pandemic, Dunlop has been under lockdown in London. She spends most of her time at home reading, writing and cooking, but hasn’t been able to do any public events, such as the Melbourne Food Festival or the British Library Food Season.
However, she has still found a way to connect to audiences through social media, answering any questions they might have. While some might be baking bread or whipping up Dalgona coffee, Dunlop was touched to see how many people are cooking from her books at home during the lockdown. She has been surprised, yet at the same time delighted, to see “Quite a lot of people in India now seem to be cooking from my Sichuan cookbook!”
To read more fascinating profiles from this series, click here.
[Images provided by Fuchsia Dunlop]