I am pleased to have shared a meal at A&J Manchurian restaurant, in Rockville with the charming Fuchsia Dunlop. You may recall that Fuchsia has written what I consider to be the very best Chinese cookbooks in English and indeed some of my favorite books of all time. She was in town to speak at Georgetown University and to promote her new book Every Grain of Rice: Simple Chinese Home Cooking.
Here were a few topics of conversation and related points:
1. To what extent did excellent Chinese food, in China, go underground during the 1960s and 70s, or to what extent did those traditions need to be reconstructed?
2. Why is there good Chinese food in Panama and Tanzania (my claim not hers), but not in most of Europe, least of all Italy? Why does Latin America have so little good Chinese food?
3. Should the advanced state of Chinese food in the 18th century, relative to European food, cause economists — including Adam Smith– to revise upward their estimates of Chinese standards of living?
4. Her books are effectively written, in part, because the points are continually reduced to their simplest elements, yet those simple bits are woven together to construct and reveal multiple layers of complexity.
5. The Chinese servers seemed unsurprised by her effortless fluency in Mandarin.
6. When speaking in the United States she is often taken to some local’s idea of a good Chinese restaurant. A&J was her proposal. She was surprised that northern Virginia has restaurants which are exclusively or in significant part Peruvian-Chinese, Indo-Chinese, and Korean-Chinese.
7. To what extent do we live in an unusual temporary bubble of easy foreign access to China?
8. I consider her Hunan book to be her most significant and original achievement, but Every Grain of Rice is the most useful single all-purpose Chinese cookbook she has written. It is especially good on the vegetarian side.
9. Each of us wished to defer dictatorial ordering rights to the other.
10. At what age do people learn or discover the determination to carve out a life of (relative) freedom for themselves? To what extent is their ability to achieve such a life the result of luck or of skill?
11. The cucumber salad in hot garlic sauce was very good. No cookies.