Fuchsia Dunlop is one of the world’s foremost authorities on Chinese cuisine. She made her name with Sichuan Cookery in 2001, following that book up with a slew of others, all on different aspects of Chinese cuisine, as well as a superb memoir, Shark’s Fin and Sichuan Pepper (2008), which came with recipes. One might expect that recipes would also lie at the core of Invitation to a Banquet. But they are conspicuous by their absence in Dunlop’s new book. Here, she concerns herself with matters of history and seeks to tackle big questions: what is Chinese food and how should we eat it?
Dunlop shows us the depth and range of Chinese cuisine through thirty highly varied dishes. Some of them will be familiar to readers, being popular in many restaurants in the West: steamed rice, mapo tofu and Shanghainese xiaolong bao, or soup dumplings. But others, like braised pomelo pith with shrimp eggs, are largely unknown outside China. Some, like bear’s paw, will sound off-putting to modern readers. Like shark’s fin and pangolin (suspected by many to be the source of the Covid-19 pandemic), bear’s paw is one of the Chinese delicacies that vex conservationists and epidemiologists alike. Dunlop points out that such foods, eaten for thousands of years, have always been marginal. Historically, bear’s paw was a game meat prized more for its rarity than its taste; prepared with the tiny tongues of crucian carps, it might be served to an emperor. The paw, a ‘tight mass of bone and sinew’, required hours of ‘soaking, blanching, and other processes of purification’ to transform it into something ‘remotely palatable’. Dunlop uses bear’s paw to discuss the consumption of exotic and illegal foodstuffs in China, pointing out that most Chinese lack the means to afford such delicacies. They have also been controversial within China. Ancient philosophers admonished rulers against squandering resources in service of their palates. In recent times, the government has tried to restrict the trade in rare animals, with mixed results. On my last trip to Beijing, in 2019, a giant billboard greeted me at the airport, warning travellers of the stiff penalties for those who trafficked pangolin and other endangered species. Yet bear’s paw and other illegal foods are still eaten, usually by unscrupulous businessmen and officials.
Each chapter treats the reader to a wealth of information about Chinese food and history. Dunlop’s storytelling is superb. Her chapter on xiaolong bao is particularly memorable. Through ingenious sleuthing, Dunlop sheds light on the foreign origins of the dumpling, which is today a staple of the northern Chinese diet. Hinging her argument on terminology, she proposes that some time before the third century the Chinese lifted the word for dumplings, and presumably the techniques for preparing them, from the Turkic peoples who lived in China’s north.
There are other gems. The chapter entitled ‘Tongue and Teeth: “Catfish Basking in Honours”’ clears up a common misconception about the Chinese love of ‘obscure parts’, such as pig’s ears and trotters. The Chinese don’t devour such parts out of poverty or desperation. On the contrary, at a good restaurant, pig’s trotters will cost you more money than other cuts of meat, as they are comparatively scarce. The cost reflects more than the simple workings of supply and demand, however. As Dunlop explains, in China, eaters value such foods for their mouthfeel as well as their flavour. They want chewy, bouncy, slippery and even crunchy ingredients which ‘feel beautiful’.
Collectively, the book’s chapters present Chinese cuisine as diverse and dynamic. Dunlop describes how, in the ninth century, the majority of the Chinese population switched from millet to rice, their present staple, after losing the millet-growing north of the country to nomads. She also explains the impact of the chilli pepper. Brought from the Americas in the late 16th century, it imparted a fiery character to the cooking of Sichuan and Hunan, further distinguishing these regional cuisines from the milder fare of coastal cities like Canton. We also hear about borscht, a legacy of the Russians who settled in Shanghai after the Bolshevik Revolution. Shanghainese cooks subsequently put their own spin on the dish, now known as luosongtang, replacing the beetroot with tomatoes to make a dense soup comprising ‘squares of cabbage, slices of carrot and potato and a few tiny fragments of beef’.
One of Dunlop’s chief interlocutors is A Dai, proprietor of Dragon Well Manor in Hangzhou, who offers ‘cooking rooted in the local terroir’. But as Dunlop suggests, one does not have to be a chef to be a gourmand. A gourmand could be a local farmer who has a knack for making excellent pickles, or someone who truly thinks about their meals – who has put the time into training their palate and appreciates not only the ‘exciting’ dishes such as mapo tofu but also the subtle freshness of a steamed fish presented with minimal seasoning. Dunlop is clear that not every Chinese person has an educated palate or is a particularly thoughtful eater. Plenty of people in China treat food as a commodity. They include the businessman who gifted her some ‘flashy boxes’ of mooncakes, which she later discovered to be ‘stale and mouldy’ (they ‘might have been circulating for years’), as well as the current generation of Chinese urbanites. ‘Like the rest of us,’ she laments, they ‘increasingly want to eat dramatic food, dishes that are umami bombs, laden with oil and chillies, photogenic, sexed up with chicken essence and MSG in a deranged escalation of flavour’.
Her observations ring true. In my travels, I have encountered many gourmands. To this day, I still fondly recall the hours spent on the road from Kunming to Dali in southwest China discussing food with my driver, a former soldier who knew everything about the local terroir, from the fresh foraged mushrooms to the way that the grass affected the fragrance of goat’s milk.
But I have also come across my share of philistines, even in Jiangnan, China’s traditional gastronomical centre. More than once, I have found myself an unwilling participant in a tortuous banquet. On one occasion, the menu read like a catalogue of every possible bling food known to the Chinese: matsutake mushrooms floating, like shipwreck survivors, in broth spiked with MSG; chewy abalone so rubbery they could have served as erasers; a colourful sashimi platter that competed with the table’s artificial floral arrangement. The high point of the evening? Soggy French fries with equally uninspiring slices of ham. But rest assured, the meal was expensive.
Dunlop is on a mission not only to rescue Chinese food from its reputation as ‘cheap, low-status and junky’ but also to demythologise it for Westerners. In recent years, this mission has acquired greater urgency, as the pandemic resulted in new and virulent expression being given to old stereotypes about the ‘filthy’ eating habits of the Chinese.
It’s hard to imagine any reader coming away from this book believing that Chinese food is ‘just’ stir-fry or cheap takeaways, or that the Chinese make a regular habit of devouring wild animals. But perhaps a more important impact will come from the unique perspective Dunlop provides on eating. This is not just a book that will appeal to lovers of Chinese food. The gourmand, we are led to understand, is someone who grasps the importance of balance and restraint and is mindful of the limited nature of the earth’s resources and the importance of preserving health through a balanced diet – someone, in other words, who pursues the traditional Chinese virtue of ‘harmony’. Invitation to a Banquet captures China’s venerable tradition of mindful eating in vivid detail. As such, it will inspire readers to reflect on their own relationship to one of life’s greatest pleasures.