Fuchsia Dunlop’s latest isn’t a cookbook, rather a fantastically accomplished deep-dive into the history of Chinese food and its place in today's culinary world. It’s difficult to think of anybody better placed to put such a book together: Dunlop has been ingrained in Chinese food and culture since the late 1990s and has already penned a string of universally-respected cookbooks including Sichuan Cookery and the more recently published Every Grain of Rice and Land of Fish and Rice (tellingly, her books do as well in China as they do in the west).
Each of the 30 or so chapters considers a different Chinese dish, ranging from the familiar - mapo tofu, chop suey - to the far less so, including rinsed mutton hotpot and sweet-and-sour river carp. It’s an extremely clever device to lend the book structure but, at the same time, it’s impossible to predict where Dunlop is going to go. For example the chapter on sweet-and-sour river carp ends up discussing the phenomena of sweet-and-sour dishes in the UK and the US, the principles of planning a Chinese meal and how urban people in China are following the lead of the west in wanting to eat ‘dishes that are like umami bombs, laden with oil and chillies, photogenic, sexed up with chicken essence and MSG in a deranged escalation of flavour’.
Another theme that runs through the book is that while Chinese food has spread across the world, the cuisine is almost universally misunderstood outside of its country of origin. The variety and sophistication of Chinese food is rarely appreciated, as is the fact that the country was hundreds, and in some cases thousands, of years ahead of the Western world on a great many things. These include, but are by no means limited to, pasta making, the creation of imitation meats, and even the running of restaurants themselves.
Invitation to a Banquet: The Story of Chinese Food
Author: Fuchsia Dunlop
Number of pages: 480
Publisher and price: Penguin, £25