Rise of status helps Chinese cuisine spread overseas

By Zhang Dan Source:Global Times Published: 2019/10/13 17:48:39

Fuchsia Dunlop cooks Mapo Tofu, a popular Chinese dish from Sichuan Province, in the Chinese countryside. Courtesy of Fuchsia Dunlop

Over the past decades, overseas concepts of Chinese food have undergone a great change: Once thought of as a delicious but cheap fast food, diners now see it as an original and sometimes high value cuisine.

British chef and food-writer Fuchsia Dunlop, an expert on Chinese cuisine, has introduced Chinese food to the English-speaking world through popular books such as Shark's Fin and Sichuan Pepper, the award-winning Land of Fish and Rice: Recipes from the Culinary Heart of China and The Food of Sichuan, which was published recently in the US. 

Dunlop told the Global Times in an exclusive interview that in the UK, for example, the food is becoming more original. "It used to be mainly Cantonese, with a few exceptions… Now we have dishes of Dongbei (Northeast China), Hunan, Xi'an snacks. That's the main change," Dunlop said. 

Another big change is the higher status enjoyed by Chinese food. She noted, "The idea of China as a powerful country with money has changed the image of Chinese culture in general…There are very glamorous and fashionable Chinese restaurants in the center of London that every glamorous person wants to go to."

Dunlop pointed out that the achievement is partly due to the improved presentation of Chinese food. 

Fish-fragrant eggplant, a signature Sichuan dish Courtesy of Fuchsia Dunlop

"China has always had a fantastic cuisine, but the main problems have been the communication - terribly translated menus mean Westerners don't know what to order. Now there are some restaurants with better menus and better PR. That just makes it easier for us to understand which cuisine to order."

Taste of history

These changes have not only taken place in the UK, but also in New York, the US, where a wide range of food cultures coexist. 

The owner of a popular Sichuanese restaurant in New York echoed Dunlop's views. Xu Haoran, manager of Szechuan Garden, told the Global Times the upgraded status of Chinese food on the world stage comes from Chinese people's endless pursuit of good food: "Chinese people love to dig into food and have ideas to invent new stuff."

What attracts foreigners about Chinese food is not only its many tastes, but also the stories behind them. 

Xu used one dish as an example, in which several roast shrimps are skewered on sticks, and placed on a model boat with dry ice below. The dish is called "Borrowing Your Enemy's Arrows", which is a story taken from one of China's Four Classical novels The Romance of the Three Kingdoms.

He noted that when he loved to eat pizza, he had them every day and always wanted to learn more about them. "I wanted to know why I love pizza. Is it leavened dough or unleavened dough? Is the cheese from the Netherlands or France? I want to know more about the culture behind other countries because of the food I love. Foreigners are the same about Chinese food," he said. 

Xu Haoran, manager of Szechuan Garden in New York, holds a Chinese national flag in front of his restaurant on China's National Day. Photo: Courtesy of Xu Haoran

Today, his restaurant has become one of the most popular in the area near Columbia University. At least 2,500 of his signature "Unbearable Numb Fish" dishes are sold each year. 

As Dunlop said, "Certainly, Chinese food is the way most foreigners first encounter Chinese culture…Chinese food is very popular so I suppose it's the best way for people to get to know China and to have a positive image of China."

She added that if people have positive views of Chinese food, they are going to be predisposed to have a more positive view of China and to be more curious about Chinese culture. "I certainly know people who have travelled to China for the food."

Almost working as an ambassador of Chinese food, Dunlop understands how her passion can convert people: "When people see me really enjoy eating chicken's feet, it has an impact. They'd say 'Well, if she can enjoy it and she is English, maybe I can too.' In a way, because I am a foreigner, it can make Chinese food seem less foreign and more accessible."

Notes on Sichuan cuisine taken by Fuchsia Dunlop Courtesy of Fuchsia Dunlop

The gourmet also tells Westerners that Chinese people appreciate the texture of food in different and more complex ways. 

"So lots of Westerners have read about the chapter on texture in my book, and have changed the way they approached the understanding of why Chinese people eat chicken's feet, why they like to eat meat with bones in, or why like to eat jellyfish," she said, adding that the most charming feature of Chinese food is the way Chinese people really take pleasure in them.

"I find Chinese food endlessly fascinating and delicious. I feel I can spend my whole life researching it, writing about it, eating it and will never get bored," Dunlop said.
Newspaper headline: Gourmet food going global


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