Here is the transcript and audio, and wonderful photos, over a Chinese meal at Mama Chang in Fairfax, run by the famous Peter Chang. I am not acting as lead interviewer, so this is more like a “Conversation with Tyler chiming in,” nonetheless numerous D.C. area food luminaries are present, as are other members of the Cowen family. Here is one brief excerpt:
T. COWEN: You learned Chinese food in China, of course, much of it in Sichuan province, Hunan province. As Chinese teach food, how is the method of education and training different from, say, Great Britain or the United States?
DUNLOP: Well, I haven’t been to culinary school in Great Britain or the United States, so I’m not sure.
T. COWEN: You’ve been to school in these countries.
DUNLOP: The first thing is that when you go to cooking school, you are learning the building blocks of a cuisine, which is like the grammar of a language. So the basic components, the basic processes and flavors, which you then put together to make a multitude of dishes.
Whereas, I guess, if you were studying French cuisine, you will learn some classic sauces, a bit of knife work, techniques of pastry making. In China, in Sichuan, absolutely fundamental was dao gong (刀工), the knife skills.
[Lydia] CHANG: I actually have a story to share about Dad’s cutting knife. He said when he first started learning, in school, there’s only limited time, but he wants to really excel at it. So he returned back to the dorm, started cutting, using cleaver to cut newspaper to practice.
Some of you will like this a lot, but don’t expect a normal CWT episode. And here is Fuchsia’s wonderful new book The Food of Sichuan, a significantly updated new edition of the old.
Here is the link to video, podcast, and transcript. The Q&A segment was led by guests Ezra Klein, Megan McArdle, Mark Miller (Coyote Cafe), and Eva Summer. Fuchsia speaks in perfect British sentences and she always had an answer ready, with charm and extreme intelligence. Here is one excerpt:
COWEN: Three dishes one absolutely has to try are what?
DUNLOP: In Shanghai?
COWEN: In Shanghai. The city, not the region.
DUNLOP: I think you should have hong shao rou, red braised pork. Real home cooking. Delicious combination of soy sauce, rice wine, and sugar, and one of the favorite dishes.
I would recommend some Shanghainese wontons in soup stuffed with shepherd’s purse, which is a wild variety of the brassicas, and pork, just to show you the lighter, gentler side of Shanghainese cooking.
Then, perhaps, if we’re talking Shanghai, you might one to have one of these dishes that says something about Shanghai as being a mixing pot of different cultures.
There’s a very nice crab meat and potato and tomato soup served in some of my favorite Shanghainese restaurants. Which seems a little bit of a fusion with some European influences, the way they use potato and tomato in that soup with local seafood.
COWEN: As you know, the Michelin Guide recently has covered Shanghai, given some restaurants three, two, one star. There’s cheap places you can go. Conceptually, do they understand the food of Shanghai? To the extent they don’t, what are they missing?
DUNLOP: If you look at the restaurants they’ve selected, there’s a bit of a Cantonese bias. They do have some Shanghainese restaurants, but one thing that’s very conspicuous, there are some notable, some of the best Shanghainese local restaurants, which are missing from that list, in my opinion.
The reason is, I think, the methodology of Western food inspectors, which is they tend to go as individuals or small groups. Of course in many Chinese restaurants where you eat family style, to make the most of the restaurant, you have to eat as we’re doing now with a large group and a table full of dishes.
We cover much more, including her favorite parts of China, whether offal is an inferior good, whether one can acquire a taste for sea cucumber, what she thinks of Leonard Cohen, Dream of the Red Chamber, how newbies should approach Chinese food, what top Sichuan chefs thought of their trip to French Laundry, whether milk is overrated, whether Americans have done anything worthwhile with Chinese food, and her favorite Chinese movie.
Here is a short video excerpt from the Sichuan peppercorn tasting segment, namely what makes the very best peppercorns so good compared to the lesser peppercorns.
Here you can order Fuchsia’s new and excellent book The Land of Fish and Rice.
In case you have been living under a quiche shop, she has written the very best Chinese cookbooks ever, and her memoir is excellent too.
No, the public chat with Steven Pinker has not been held yet, but I will be recording with Fuchsia soon due to schedule constraints, so I am asking now for question suggestions. There is no public event, as it will be centered around a restaurant meal, with myself and an illustrious panel of interlocutors, including Ezra Klein and Mark Miller, founder of Santa Fe’s Coyote Cafe.
Here is her FT piece on gastro-nihilists and gastro-sexual tension. Here are her scrapbook excerpts. Here is a recent interview.
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.
It was a very strong year for non-fiction, these were the best books, more or less in the order I read them:
Alain Bertaud, Order Without Design: How Markets Shape Cities.
James W. Cortada, IBM: The Fall and Reinvention of a Global Icon.
Joanna Lillis, Dark Shadows: Inside the Secret World of Kazakhstan.
Julia Lovell, Maoism: A Global History.
Charles Fishman, One Giant Leap: The Impossible Mission that Flew us to the Moon.
Bryan Caplan and Zach Weinersmith, Open Borders: The Science and Ethics of Immigration.
Bruce Cannon Gibney, The Nonsense Factory: The Making and Breaking of the American Legal System.
Ben Westhoff, Fentanyl, Inc.
Judith Grisel, Never Enough: the neuroscience and experience of addiction.
David Sorkin, Jewish Emancipation: A History of Five Centuries.
Matthew Gale and Natalia Sidlina, Natalia Goncharova.
Lydia Davis, Essays One.
Fuchsia Dunlop, The Food of Sichuan.
Frederic Martel, In the Closet of the Vatican: Power, Homosexuality, Hypocrisy.
Alan Galley, Walter Ralegh: Architect of Empire.
Robert Alter, translator, The Hebrew Bible: A Translation with Commentary (or should that go under “fiction”?).
And which book takes the very top prize for best of the year? You can’t compare the Alter to the others, so I will opt for Eric Kaufmann’s Whiteshift and also Pekka Hämäläinen’s Lakota America, with Julia Lovell on Maoism and Alain Bertaud on cities as the runner-ups. But again a strong year all around.
Of course the year is not over yet, this list is for your holiday shopping, I’ll post an update toward the very end of December.
In the meantime, apologies to those I missed or forgot…
1. Peter Doggett, CSNY: Crosby, Stills, Nash & Young. A good management study of a creative foursome doomed to split and splinter pretty much from the beginning. Oddly, their best work still sounds good to me, even though I never hear much new in it with repeated listenings. That is a rare combination.
2. David Brooks, The Second Mountain: The Quest for a Moral Life. David’s best book this century, it has many subtle points. It is a “wisdom book,” noting that not everyone likes wisdom books.
3. Harold Bloom, Possessed by Memory: The Inward Light of Criticism. Bloom is now 89 I believe, but unlike in some of his recent shorter books this one seems as thoughtful as much of his best later work. Yes, it is a bunch of largely separate, short, multi-page essays on topics of Bloom’s choosing, but at this point that is optimal. It won’t convince the skeptic, but if you are on the fence I say yes, though try The Western Canon first.
4. Fuchsia Dunlop, The Food of Sichuan. A much-expanded version of her earlier Land of Plenty. No, I haven’t touched this one yet, but if the word self-recommending ever applied, it is here. If you don’t already know it, here is my earlier CWT with Fuchsia Dunlop.
5. John Barton, A History of the Bible: The Book and its Faiths. Anglican, British, highly reasonable, full of useful information, I read it all the way through. Barton teaches you the Bible is not always easy to understand and why that is. Already out for ordering on UK Amazon.
Daniel S. Milo, Good Enough: The Tolerance for Mediocrity in Nature and Society, on a quick browse seemed to have interesting points.
Mark is the most brilliant food mind I have met, here is the opening summary:
Mark Miller is often called the founder of modern southwestern cuisine, but his unique anthropological approach to food has led him to explore cuisines in over 100 countries around the world. He joins Tyler for a conversation on all that he’s learned along the way, including his pick for the most underrated chili pepper, palate coaching, the best food cities in Asia, Mexico, and Europe, the problems with sous-vide, why the Michelin guide is overrated, mezcal versus tequila, the decline of food brands, how to do fast food well, and why the next hipster food trend should be about corn.
Here is the text, audio, and video. Mark is a blizzard of information density, and I don’t know anyone else who has his experience with the food world, most of all with Asia, Mexico, and the American Southwest. (You may recall he was an interlocutor in my dialogue with Fuchsia Dunlop, and so we recorded this session with Mark afterwards.)
I thought the highlight was Mark’s six-minute riff on tasting chiles, it really shows Mark in his glory — this is one of those cases where I definitely recommend the video over the text:
Elsewhere in the conversation, see why he picks Seoul, Tokyo, and Bangkok as the three best world cities for food tours. And:
COWEN: You don’t need brands, right?
MILLER: You don’t need brands anymore. The consumer used to have brands as guide and trust. Today there are other ways of developing that. We’re in consumer level 3. Consumers are defining brands, and how brands get used. I think that the idea of brand is probably — you’re an economist — dated. [laughs]
There is this:
MILLER: You go to a bus station in Monterrey: you can see a hundred of the best tacos in the world.
The questioner was Megan McArdle. I enjoyed the entire exchange immensely, and hope you do too.
That will be the new Fuchsia Dunlop book, due out in October, July in the UK, self-recommending. Her work is far more than recipes, but rather an extended meditation on food, history, culture and many other things. She is one of my favorite authors on any subject. Here is previous MR coverage of Fuchsia Dunlop.
That is a question from a very smart person, over thirty years of age, who claims not to have read very much (I don’t know how much).
So which book should I recommend?
Conditional on the person knowing me, the idea of simply introducing economics is not going to win, even if that would be the correct recommendation for many others. And “Collected Works” are not allowed.
How about a broadly philosophical novel, such as Don Quixote or Homer’s Odyssey or In Search of Lost Time? Moby-Dick? A play of Shakespeare? A current favorite, such as Ferrante or Knausgaard?
How about a perfectly constructed travel book, touting the virtues of a new and magical place? But most travel books I find dull, unsatisfying, and too scattered with wasteful, overly subjective sentences about sunsets and train trips.
A didactic, moralizing book, perhaps on charity or Effective Altruism?
For many people music may be more powerful than the written word, so perhaps the recent Jan Swafford biography of Beethoven, or John Eliot Gardiner’s book on Bach, or any number of good books on Mozart. A critical guidebook to some of the best movies available? Almost everyone can glean new ideas for their Netflix queue, even if they already have seen lots of films.
I don’t know of a biography which is inspirational for everyone or even most people, and I figure an intelligent person older than thirty already has been exposed to the world’s major religions.
How about a book which is a compendium for a hobby, such as a bird watcher’s guide, a Sotheby’s auction catalog, or a Fuchsia Dunlop cookbook?
I keep finding myself drawn to recommend a book which leads the advice recipient away from books, rather than toward them. Is that a strength or weakness of the book medium?
Let’s stick with the living, here are a few who come to mind:
Charles C. Mann
Laura Miller (formerly of Salon.com, now of Slate)
Ted and Dana Gioia
Chow Yun Fat
To be clear, I am not suggesting these people are deficient or lacking in status, rather that it should be higher yet. Or maybe it is the list of people who should decline in status which interests you more…
That is the new book by Fuchsia Dunlop and the subtitle is Simple Chinese Home Cooking. The first recipe I tried (tonight), the vegetarian tofu, was an absolute knockout.
Two of Fuchsia’s previous books Revolutionary Chinese Cooking: Recipes from Hunan Province and Land of Plenty: A Treasury of Authentic Sichuan Cooking, are two of my favorite books of all time. Not just two of my favorite cookbooks, but two of my favorite books period. They offer much more than just a series of recipes.
I will buy everything she writes, forever.
3. There is no great stagnation (moisturizing jeans).
7. Error, retraction, second thoughts, translation mistake or what, George Church issues a further statement.
4. Peter Leeson on the economics of human sacrifice, a rational choice approach.