Dinner with Fuchsia Dunlop

by on February 8, 2013 at 7:26 am in Books, Food and Drink, History | Permalink

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.

prior_approval February 8, 2013 at 7:46 am

‘Why is there good Chinese food in Panama and Tanzania (my claim not hers), but not in most of Europe, least of all Italy?’

Because a certain Italian stole the best idea?

Or what is more common in the West, pasta in it various forms, or Peking duck? (And let me be honest – there was a time when true Peking duck was available in NoVa – but those neckless ducks hanging down for at least 3 days simply didn’t have the mass appeal of the Spaghetti Mill in the same strip mall vicinity.)

Virginia Postrel February 8, 2013 at 5:08 pm

I wonder whether you can find good Chinese food in Prato, which has a large Chinese population working in the textile industry.

prior_approval February 8, 2013 at 7:48 am

‘She was surprised that northern Virginia has restaurants which are exclusively or in significant part Peruvian-Chinese, Indo-Chinese, and Korean-Chinese.’

So, she had no interest in going to DC?

Luciom February 8, 2013 at 7:59 am

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?

I can answer that. Same as “why are there so few starbucks in Italy”.

It’s hard to enter the italian food & beverage market in general given the very high quality of the median family-owned provider.

Some niches can exists, and sometimes a foreign food becomes fashionable (like japanese). But chinese food in Italy has always been seen as a very cheap option, on par with pizza almost cost-wise.

Oh and btw, 90%+ of the “japanese” restaurants in italy are owned and managed by chinese people, chefs included. It seems it has been far easier to them to swap to japanese (or what in Italy people has become convinced is the only japanese food, mainly sushi and sashimi) rather than cook very good chinese food (which i guess many of them couldn’t do) and try to convince the market that it makes sense.

Affe February 8, 2013 at 9:23 am

My sister, dating a Milanese for 7 years and having lived and worked there for 2-3 years, claims that Italians simply aren’t very adventurous eaters, that the quality of the “ethnic” restaurants is generally low, and (my favorite) that many Italians, when abroad, will eat solely at local Italian restaurants and then complain about the awful food.

el February 8, 2013 at 11:18 am

It will surprise no one that every one of my Chinese relatives above a certain age does the same thing with Chinese restaurants!

mangiatore February 8, 2013 at 6:38 pm

Yes, I think you are right. Many Italians are extremely unadventurous and conservative about food (and day to day life in general). They have their habits and preferences which they prefer not to alter. I notice this when I visit Italy.

Adam February 8, 2013 at 9:25 am

This seems totally wrong to me. There is plenty of god-awful food served in Italy, although I grant that the median is higher than in the U.S. The median in Italy is far lower, however, than anywhere in, for example, Southeast Asia. Despite the ridiculously high quality of Vietnamese food, I’m willing to bet you can get a mind-blowing Chinese meal in Saigon.

The real reasons Chinese food is terrible in Italy likely has more to do with good old supply and demand. In this case, lack of supply of ingredients, and lack of local interest in good food, both because of the low density of ethnic Chinese in Italy and the provinciality of Italian food preferences.

Separately — Tyler, would love to hear some of the answers to these questions…

Millian February 8, 2013 at 10:58 am

This sounds dangerously like “de gustibus” territory. We should consult collective wisdom in such cases, and that would very strongly disagree with the claim that Italians are uninterested in good food. It may be more accurate to say that they already have a high-quality, low-cost option that outcompetes Chinese food, though foreigners may not enjoy it without an invitation to an Italian home.

Adam February 8, 2013 at 12:18 pm

My phrasing was a bit off here — I meant specifically lack of Italian interest in good Chinese food. Italians are extremely interested in good Italian food.

All such arguments are “de gustibus”. Your implicit argument seems to be: the appeal of Chinese food is its relative value. It may not be the best food, but its comparatively cheap for the quality, at least in the U.S. This cost-quality tradeoff doesn’t work in Italy, where locals already have access to great, cheap food.

My argument is: Italians have access to great, medium-priced food, but the cheap food in Italy is generally of the same low quality you find elsewhere (with some notable exceptions — e.g., the cheap pizza in Italy often sucks, but I’ve had a knock-out fresh pie in Naples for a euro or two). The reason Italians aren’t interested in the higher-quality cheap food available from ethnic restaurants is that their tastes are provincial, per el’s comment above.

These two arguments are actually fairly compatible; they are both value-weighted ways of saying Italians prefer Italian food to Chinese food. Whether this is because Chinese food is worse than Italian food or because Italians have unadventurous tastebuds is in the eye of the beholder. Speaking as someone who loves both Italian food and Chinese food, it seems totally nuts to me to regard Chinese as the cheap option that has been outcompeted by the shitty pasta with red sauce that you can get at whatever generic Italian bistro. But I would think that.

Anthony Bourdain, who has an Italian wife, had some quote about the hyper-provinciality of Italian tastes that I can’t quite remember, and wasn’t able to Google. It’s something along the lines of: “They think the only thing worse than non-Italian food is the food from one village over.”

Millian February 9, 2013 at 12:58 pm

“it seems totally nuts to me to regard Chinese as the cheap option that has been outcompeted by the shitty pasta with red sauce that you can get at whatever generic Italian bistro”

It is a good thing I did not make that argument, even implicitly.

Adam February 10, 2013 at 11:42 am

Fair enough, you seem to be suggesting that Italians can cook so well and cheaply at home that they have no need of good, cheap takeout options. This makes sense, and is probably less wrong, but likely outmoded. My guess is that Italians are susceptible to the same economic trends facing everyone, and do a lot less home cooking now. I’m also guessing that men don’t cook for themselves nearly as much as women do, and seeing as how the marriage rate in Italy has dropped enormously among the young, that also argues for a lot of cheap meals being eaten in restaurants.

Collective wisdom, personal observation, and the facts on the ground in Italy suggests that Italians don’t want to eat much that isn’t Italian food. You can argue all you want that this is because there own food is so wonderful that they have no need of other cuisines, but really this is just another way of saying that Italian tastes are narrow.

Alexander February 12, 2013 at 10:05 am

This is what I love about the Marginal Revolution commenting system – you get intelligent, well-informed conversations that carry a lot of insight!

Another observation that I might add is that Italy’s Chinese expat diaspora is very small relative to to other countries and highly concentrated in a few major urban areas: Milan, Rome, Turin and Prato (for some unknown reason). I would argue that supply of good Chinese food is very limited.

Where you do get concentrations of Chinese immigrants (somewhat obviously) the food greatly improves, (i.e. in Turin, where I’ve encountered a fair number of really good Zhejiang-region cuisine restaurants). The trouble is most of Italy has very low concentrations.

JCE February 8, 2013 at 9:06 am

tell us more about what you discussed in point 10

ben February 18, 2013 at 8:36 pm

Yes, please do.

londenio February 8, 2013 at 9:10 am

What is a “life of relative freedom”?

Ray Lopez February 8, 2013 at 9:28 am

Life in Communist China would qualify as “relative” freedom. As for Chinese cooking, the best is found in the USA: SF or DC/NY. Here in Greece they have Chinese restaurants, complete with red lantern hanging outside, but like in Italy nothing that special, and some of the worse food is found in Beijing IMO, unless you enjoy chicken feet with wheat noodles. Also: south beats north China by a country kilometer in savory cooking. But it’s all relative, one man’s pleasure is another’s poison.

kiwi dave February 8, 2013 at 10:42 am

Also: south beats north China by a country kilometer in savory cooking

Interested in this. Is it similar to the basic reason that southern European/Mediterranean food is so much better than northern European food, i.e. different climate leading to availability of different ingredients, or is it other factors? Also, interesting that you specify savory cooking, since baking is the one area where northern Europe is probably better than southern.

Millian February 8, 2013 at 11:02 am

Not quite sure about some of these claims. France isn’t in southern Europe and Paris is culturally closer to London than the Mediterranean. Undoubtedly, it is true in general that the ingredients in the south are better. It is hard to be so definitive about sweet traditions in Europe. It is hard to geographically categorise Austria.

Matt February 9, 2013 at 12:45 pm

it is true in general that the ingredients in the south are better

For anything other than variety of vegetables and aromatics, this is not clearly the case (but admittedly this is a large “but…!”).

Brian Donohue February 8, 2013 at 11:15 am
el February 8, 2013 at 1:10 pm

The Peach section! A sudden wave of nostalgia for my old local newspaper.

Hazel Meade February 8, 2013 at 9:56 am

I think Chinese food has gotten a bad name, in many places, because of the proliferation of low-quality cheap chinese places, which vastly outnumber the good ones.
Its almost impossible to know whether any given hole-in-the-wall is going to be good or not. And 9 times out of 10 it is not good.

Also, because of the high risk of getting BAD Chinese, many Americans (I imagine this is true elsewhere as well), are reluctant to try dishes beyond the standard Kung Pao, General Tso’s Chicken Moo Goo Gai Pan lineup. So a good Chinese restauraunt has a hard time getting customers to eat anything authentic. I imagine any Chinese person setting out to open a really good Chinese restauraunt is quickly discouraged by the fact that in order to get anyone in the door they have to serve the same boring Americanized dishes that customers expect. And hardly anyone will try anything on the menu they aren’t familiar with.

IVV February 8, 2013 at 10:09 am

I, for one, know of no good Chinese restaurant–there’s the standard fast food wok fare which works and I regularly consume, but I don’t call that high quality food in the slightest.

I knew of a few good places in California (San Francisco, of course, and inland). I don’t know of any in northern New Jersey. Then again, I also don’t know of what “authentic Chinese cuisine” entails. Finally, my wife is allergic to soy, so she steers clear of just about anything Asian–so I don’t have a dinner date, either. (Originally from Europe, she never thought that a soy allergy mattered at all, growing up…)

Sbard February 8, 2013 at 2:16 pm

It is possible to find adequate Chinese food in northern NJ, but you really need an actual Chinese person to help you find it and you need to navigate the menu very carefully. By and large though, you can’t find decent food outside of areas with a large concentration of Chinese people.

Matt February 9, 2013 at 12:47 pm

Contrasted against most Asian foods (let alone French or Italian food) I do feel people in West have the impression that the most distinctive elements of the Chinese food tradition (beyond eating unusual animal parts) are in an innovative use of cheap shelf stable sauces (based on fermented soybeans, sugar, salt, vingear) and the fast food innovation of quick stir frying.

Those seem like the most distinctive elements of the Chinese food traditions, vis-a-vis Southeast Asia, the Indian subcontinent, Japan and Korea (more fuel expensive slower cooking / grilling and more important fresh and dried aromatics).

Anon. February 8, 2013 at 10:22 am

“9. Each of us wished to defer dictatorial ordering rights to the other.”

Model this!

anon February 8, 2013 at 11:10 am

prisoner’s dilemma

Millian February 8, 2013 at 10:54 am

1. Probably a lot, since it would have been dangerous to look rich. 2. Chinese food substitutes for low quality home/low-cost dining traditions. 3. It depends on who enjoyed it: how much do we know about peasant food? 7. Stop seeing bubbles everywhere, they’re a particularly poor metaphor in this case. Hegemons are normally eager to let visitors in. When one is tired of London, and all that. Unless this question concerns the cost of international transport more generally. 10. Hopelessly vague question. The best measure I can think of is wilful childlessness, and that must surely be decided at an early stage of adulthood.

Brock February 8, 2013 at 10:57 am

I would love to know more about points #1 and #7. Especially #7. Consider this a bleg!

I’ve ordered the book, but I have modest expectations. I’ve been to “good” Chinese restaurants with my in-laws a number of times, and rarely enjoyed the food to any great degree. In particular, I HATE meat dishes where the bones are just chopped in with the meat. Either serve the whole bone (like a spare rib or pork chop), or no bones at all, please.

Federico February 8, 2013 at 8:55 pm

Marginal Revolution controls Amazon, clearly:

http://i.imgur.com/oXBPOhT.png

Check out the ‘also viewed’ section of this listing.

Matt February 9, 2013 at 12:37 pm

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?

Interesting whether this question means, by standards of living, “General level of wealth and availability of varied goods” or “Hedonic experience”.

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