Fuchsia Dunlop has come full circle. Having left Oxford to travel to China after university, she fell in love with the people, the food and the culture to such an extent that it became a lifelong passion.
But here we are, meeting in a Summertown cafe to discuss her upcoming appearance at the Oxford Literary Festival and her seventh book ‘Invitation To A Banquet‘.
After all, this is where her love of food began, her family home full of different nationalities and religions, all cooking and eating together.
“My mother was an English language teacher and often had her foreign students round for dinner. She was an amazing cook and we all mucked in and tried lots of different recipes. I found a photo recently and there were students from Lebanon, Sudan, Japan, Greece and Saudi Arabia sitting round our table, which me and my family thought was perfectly normal,” she remembers.
Which also helps explain Fuchsia’s wanderlust. “As a teen I always dreamed of going to Peru and India but I went to China instead and fell in love with it,” she says. “China is a treasure house of inspiration for anyone interested in food.
“I first went there on a backpacking trip and just found myself getting more and more interested. And yes I understand that it’s a bit unusual to go off to China and then enrol in a Chinese speaking cookery school where I was the only foreigner and one of only a couple of women. But I fell in love with the food there and had always enjoyed cooking, and it seemed very natural to me at the time. It was an adventure.”
‘China is a lot safer to travel around than a lot of places as a foreign woman because people really look out for you’
After her first two books, the award-winning Sichuan Cookery and Revolutionary Chinese Cookbook: recipes from Hunan Province, Fuchsia was by then a fully formed cookery writer.
Her memoir Shark’s Fin and Sichuan Pepper written “because by then I had accumulated a lot of rather unusual experiences while getting to know China,” only solidified that.
But what of the reality of travelling around such a vast country alone? “China is a lot safer to travel around than a lot of places as a foreign woman because people really look out for you.”
“Besides, I like travelling on my own from time to time. It’s still the best way to observe everything. In the 1990s foreigners were extremely conspicuous. I spent time in a friend’s home village in North China where people had never met a foreigner before so all eyes were on me all the time.
‘I spent time in a friend’s home village in North China where people had never met a foreigner before so all eyes were on me all the time’
“They saw me as a great source of information about the outside world, and that was quite intense, but things have changed since then. When I’m with chefs there is an instant comradarie. We talk a lot about about food. It’s easier than politics,” she laughs.
No homesickness then? “Not really because I’m mostly based in London! There have been moments where I’ve thought ‘it’s time to have a normal life and travel less’ but then I discover a new gastronomic dish or region in China and it’s exciting all over again. But I do miss cheese, melted cheese especially,” she grins.
“I did have a very lonely period in Hunan in the early 2000s when I was researching my Revolutionary Chinese Cookbook: I didn’t know a single person there and it was incredibly hard at first. But then I made some great friends and looking back it was really amazing.”
Instead she is keener to concentrate on the pluses – the extraordinarily hospitable natures of the Chinese people, their dedication to food, their artisan craft and of course the food she unearthed along the way.
“Chinese food is very much about sharing. I remember eating on my own in a restaurant and the table nearby asked me to join them so I could try all their food as well. It’s a very hospitable culture if you can overcome the language difficulties.
“Besides, I like travelling on my own from time to time. It’s still the best way to observe everything.”
“But more than that, I’m driven by a commitment to document things as they change and disappear, particularly food practices, and to broaden western understanding of Chinese food, Chinese culture and a world that we really don’t know very well,” she says.
“Because Chinese food has become a victim of its own success, especially here – what they serve at our local Cantonese is only a tiny part of it – so I’m trying to look at the whole of China – to bridge two cultures, not just China and the West but the old and the new.”
Not that Oxford is her home anymore, Fuchsia lives in London, but returns frequently to see her family and friends. She went to Oxford’s Bishop Kirk School where famous author Philip Pullman was her “amazing” English teacher, Oxford High and then Cambridge University where she studied English.
Enrolling in a Mandarin evening class “for fun”, she then decided to study in China for a year, where her lifelong passion for Chinese food began.
Once Fuchsia began to unpeel the many different culinary layers of China’s vast country, the more engrossed she became. “There is so much to explore that I feel like my journey there has only just begun. It’s inexhaustible really. But that is what my search has always been about – what is Chinese food, what makes it Chinese, and how should we eat it and appreciate it?”
Which is largely what her new book Invitation To A Banquet is about, divided into four sections: hearth, farm, kitchen and table, each of the 30 chapters concentrating on a different dish chosen “because they all say something profound about Chinese food.”
And the surprising development is that the Chinese are now buying her books in their droves. “I think it’s because I have a different angle. It sometimes takes an outsider to notice things that you take for granted in your everyday life – like the importance of texture in Chinese food, ” she says.
“And young Chinese people tell me they see my story as inspirational – about fulfilling a dream. They think it’s quite radical for a university graduate to want to spend her time in kitchens. They love the descriptions of Sichuan in the 90s when everything was still done in a very artisan and old fashioned way, without modern gadgets, because it’s so different and redeveloped now; for me it was a really precious experience in terms of understanding the evolution of Chinese food.”
“When I first went there, China was just beginning to open up, and now it’s getting more closed again, so I feel that it’s really important that we try to understand each other, given the international tensions,” she adds, “so I’m trying to look at China more broadly – to bridge two cultures, not just China and the West but the old and the new.”
Which is largely what her new book Invitation To A Banquet is about, divided into four sections: hearth, farm, kitchen and table, each of the 30 chapters within concentrating on a different dish chosen “because they all say something profound about Chinese food.”
And with her Oxford Literary Festival appearance on March 18, does she ever consider what she has achieved? “If you’d told me I’d still be here and bringing out my seventh book I wouldn’t have believed you. But China has such a compelling culinary culture which is still relatively unexplored in the English language. So to make a contribution to changing that is so unexpected.
Fuchsia Dunlop: Invitation to a Banquet: The Story of Chinese Food is at Oxford Literary Festival on Monday March 18 at 2pm at Oxford Martin School: https://oxfordliteraryfestival.org/literature-events/2024/march-18/invitation-to-a-banquet-the-story-of-chinese-food
Oxford Literary Festival runs from March 16 – 24 2024. Go to https://oxfordliteraryfestival.org