“Invitation to a Banquet: The Story of Chinese Food” by Fuchsia Dunlop

Fuschia Dunlop (photo: Colin Bell) Fuschia Dunlop (photo: Colin Bell)

Anyone familiar with Fuchsia Dunlop’s work would surely take up any “Invitation to a Banquet” from her. For those unfamiliar with her oeuvre, she has previously written four cookbooks and a memoir covering her time apprenticing at a Sichuanese cooking school, where she was the only non-Chinese student and one of only a handful of women in training; several of these have been nominated for and won awards in the food and travel spheres. This most recent book is more of an exploration of the history and culture of food in China, with each chapter built around a particular ingredient or dish that reflects the principles she chooses to illuminate, tracing the development of Chinese cuisine through dynasties and regional distinctions, as well as through the diaspora in the West. Dunlop is an astute and enthusiastic observer, with a fine sense of the intercultural differences and the thread of ignorance and animus that has persisted:


These days, when the Danish chef Rene Redzepi puts ants or reindeer pizzle on the menu at his restaurant, Noma [since closed], he’s a culinary genius and people will fly in from all over the world to taste them.  When Londoner Fergus Henderson or Josh Niland in Sydney cook up a storm with beef tripe or fish maw, they are trailblazing artists with legions of fans worldwide. Yet if a Chinese chef works wonders with a duck’s tongue or an elk’s face, he’s a desperate peasant or a cruel barbarian. While English gentlemen eat “game”, the Chinese always eat “wild animals”. Even when it comes to environmentally destructive eating, the playing field is uneven, because the Chinese attract more opprobrium for eating fins than the Japanese do for whale or bluefin tuna or British chefs for serving eels. It’s little wonder that such double standards upset and infuriate people of Chinese descent, and that actual eaters of sharks’ fins want to stuff their fingers in their ears to block out the sounds of western moralizing.


As might be expected, one chapter is devoted to rice: its journey to the central part of the meal in many regions, the numerous types, as well as other grains. She dexterously places it within the context of the Chinese language as well, whose pictograms can be so evocative.


A Chinese meal normally consists of fan, usually rice in the south, plus cai (or song in Cantonese) which means dishes, which is to say ‘everything else.’ The Chinese character cai means both ‘dish’ and, literally, ‘vegetable’; it is built from the sign for ‘grass’ above the sign for ‘pick’ or ‘gather’, which itself is a pictogram of a hand over a plant… Yet however delicious and extravagant the dishes, their ultimate purpose is to accompany the staple grain, or as people say, to ‘send the rice down’ (xia fan)… A proper Chinese meal does not exist without fan.


Invitation to a Banquet: The Story of Chinese Food,  Fuchsia Dunlop (WW Norton, November 2023; Particular Books, August 2023)
Invitation to a Banquet: The Story of Chinese Food, Fuchsia Dunlop (WW Norton, November 2023; Particular Books, August 2023)

Dunlop’s observations are particularly timely in this era of environmental challenges, suggesting this traditional wisdom can be applied in a modern context:


This approach, of mixing and matching, of playing with complement and contrast, has been central to Chinese cooking for more than two millennia… One consequence of the tendency to combine ingredients is that meat goes further, which is why, if we’re not all to become vegan, Chinese eating may be one of the solutions to the world’s environmental problems. A pork chop that would feed one westerner is, in a Chinese kitchen, typically cut into slivers, stir-fried with a complementary vegetable and shared by a family. Even a tiny amount of meat, fat or stock can be used to add flavour to a wokful of vegetables. Until recently, only at festivals would most Chinese people eat large quantities of meat.  In a Chinese culinary context, meat stretches further, but, cooked with a variety of delicious vegetables, never feels mean. The minor role played by meat in the traditional Chinese diet is one reason why, in the era before chemical fertilizers, the Chinese were able to sustain such a large population with the limited arable land.


One hopes that with all the modern changes, that China will still have areas the retain their classical appeal, as she describes West Lake, in Hangzhou:


The water glitters on sunny days; when it rains, the scene dissolves into the mystery of a Chinese ink-and-water painting. At nightfall, when I gaze out over the darkening hills and fading water from the western shore of the lake, it feels as though the scene has changed little since Mrs. Song cooked aboard her boat nine hundred years ago. Despite dynastic upheavals, rebellions, wars and revolution.  The beauty of the lake settles my spirits, just as her gentle soup brings harmony to its ingredients and to the soul and stomach of anyone who eats it.

Kristen Yee is an American writer of Chinese and Portuguese-Jamaican descent.