Why You Need ‘The Food of Sichuan’: A Q&A With Fuchsia Dunlop
Published Oct 26, 2019, Updated Jun 01, 2023
New Edition Includes the Secrets to Tianshuimian
If you follow this blog or cook with products from The Mala Market, it’s a pretty safe bet that you are already a big fan of Fuchsia Dunlop, the British chef and author who pretty much single-handedly introduced the West to real Sichuan food. Her book Land of Plenty was published in the U.S. in 2001 and has reigned as the definitive English-language Sichuan cookbook ever since.
But China has changed at breakneck speed since Fuchsia became the first foreigner to study at the Sichuan Higher Institute of Cuisine in the mid-1990s, so the timing is right for a new edition that captures some of the changes in Sichuan food culture while documenting even more of the home cooking and artisan food skills that are fast disappearing there.
The new edition of her masterpiece has been rechristened simply The Food of Sichuan. It retains all the tried-and-true recipes, tweaked and perfected to reflect her own growing knowledge and the increasing availability of Sichuan ingredients outside China, as well as 70 new recipes, including enticing dishes such as spiced chicken hearts; stir-fried cabbage with pork cracklings; and sour-and-hot flower-tofu soup.
Though I am very careful not to borrow from her recipes on this blog (unless I absolutely get stumped by something), like almost everyone else who cooks this food I owe a big debt of gratitude to Fuchsia for a solid grounding in the basics that helped immeasurably as I traveled there annually to study the food and ingredients. She has helped me in other ways as well, starting with sharing her contacts for officials at the SHIC on my first trip there as a journalist, in 2007. We have only ever met in person one time, however—a serendipitous meeting that I chalk up to fate.
On a 2014 trip to Chengdu, our family returned to one of our favorite places near Wenshu Monastery that is famous for sweet water noodles (tianshuimian). As I gazed through the steamy front window, mesmerized as always by the ladies tossing innumerable ingredients in perfect proportions into each bowl on the fly, coating the small jumble of thick, hand-cut noodles in their crowning glory, I noticed Fuchsia Dunlop standing behind them in the small storefront kitchen taking notes. What were the chances?!
We went in and introduced ourselves, and I remember telling her that I couldn’t wait for her to publish the recipe for sweet water noodles. Five years later, my wait is over! You too are likely to find something you want or need in this new edition, even if it’s something you didn’t know you needed. Read on to see what that might be.
Q&A with Fuchsia Dunlop
Taylor: Why did you decide to release a new edition now, in 2019, instead of, say, on the book’s 20th anniversary? And what was your goal with the update? What did you feel was missing and what dishes were you most excited to add?
Fuchsia Dunlop: I wanted to give the book a new lease of life, particularly through illustrating the recipes and revamping the design, and also to update the recipes in light of the growing global interest in Sichuanese food and my own richer experience. The actual date was never a particular consideration! I ended up retesting all the recipes, revising most of them and adding about 70 new ones, so I think the whole book is much improved.
It wasn’t that I felt that anything particular was missing; more that the design really needed updating and I also felt I could do a better job of the recipes and text now that I’ve been researching Sichuanese cuisine for 25 years rather than 6! I’m so thrilled with Charlotte Heal’s clean and crisp design and the gorgeous photographs by Yuki Sugiura and Ian Cumming. Among the new recipes, my favourites include the liangfen, the sweet water noodles, spicy blood stew and Gong Bao prawns, as well as some of the recipes from southern Sichuan, including ‘rabbit eaten cold’ and Li Zhuang head bowl.
Taylor: How have changes in the country over the past couple of decades, the growing urbanization and wealth in particular, affected the food of Sichuan? Do people still cook when they can get any kind of food easily and cheaply delivered to their door?
Fuchsia: One of the things that makes me sad is the loss of traditional cooking skills among young people in Sichuan. So many of today’s grandparents’ generation—both men and women—are not only superb cooks, but can also make their own pickles and cure their own winter meats. These skills are disappearing.
Taylor: How has the exploding restaurant scene in Chengdu affected the recipes you chose to include and how you researched and collected recipes?
Fuchsia: I suppose I have tried to focus on what feels really local—although Sichuanese cuisine has always been some kind of fusion of both internal and external influences. And I have tried to put together a collection of recipes that express something of the diversity of the cuisine without trying to keep up with every culinary fashion, which would be impossible! In general, I’m more interested in domestic and artisanal cooking, rather than the highly commercial side of things.
Taylor: Since the book was first published, the West has also seen tremendous changes in the food world, becoming much more aware of and savvy about non-Western cuisines and especially open to spicy cuisines. The U.S. has seen a surge in restaurants run by Mainland Chinese mainly for Mainland Chinese. How does this affect American cooks interested in Sichuan food?
Fuchsia: What’s striking is how Sichuanese food has gone from being little known (at least in its authentic forms) to being wildly popular in the West. When I first wrote the book, I was to some extent introducing a cuisine and classic dishes about which most Westerners, even culinary professionals, knew very little. Now people living in American and European cities can taste real Sichuanese food cooked by Sichuanese people in local restaurants, so some of the tastes are becoming familiar, and I think there’s a growing appetite for information about the cuisine. Also, the demand of Mainland Chinese people living in the West for Sichuanese seasonings has made them more available, so it’s much easier now to cook Sichuanese food at home.
Taylor: Perhaps my favorite new section of the book is the two pages toward the back devoted to Sauces and Dips (from numbing-and-hot sauce to chile bean paste and black bean sauce to strange flavor sauce and Chongqing sauce). For those who already cook Sichuan food, this is a great shortcut and handy guide to flavoring cold dishes and small plates. I suggest readers photocopy these pages and keep them in their kitchen for easy access and frequent use. Is this how a Sichuan home cook would think about cooking?
Fuchsia: Not necessarily! I just felt there were so many delicious sauces and dips in the book which potentially had much wider applications than just the recipes to which they were attached, so I thought they should be collected together for easy reference.
Taylor: Even in the first edition, you did not oversimplify the recipes or ingredients, calling for the same ingredients that would be used to make these recipes in Sichuan, without naming a lot of substitutions, even though some of the ingredients were hard to find outside China. What was your thinking on that front?
Fuchsia: My policy in all my cookbooks is to try to report accurately on food in China, while presenting recipes that are reasonably achievable in a Western kitchen. So I try to make the majority of recipes require ingredients that are fairly easy to source, while pushing the boundaries a little with a few of the recipes, in the hope that some more obscure ingredients become more available. So, for example, Yibin yacai is now much easier to find than it used to be, as is celtuce (one of my favourite vegetables), both of which I’ve been writing about for years.
Taylor: We have made it our goal at The Mala Market to stock the highest-quality version of all the main products you call for to stock a Sichuanese “larder”: 3 kinds of newly harvested, top-quality Sichuan pepper; 4 kinds of chilies plus Sichuan chili flakes; handmade Pixian chile bean paste and Zhongba soy sauce (both brands revered for hundreds of years in Sichuan); Sichuan fermented soybeans (douchi) and sweet wheat sauce; organic sesame paste; Sichuan rapeseed oil; Chinese spices and more. And we will now be carrying The Food of Sichuan, the ultimate guide to using these ingredients. Are there other products from Sichuan, or even other provinces, that you’d like to see us make available for U.S. cooks?
Fuchsia: I’m delighted you are carrying all these ingredients, and wish you would start selling them in the UK too! It would be great if you could also source good Baoning vinegar. In general, I’d like to see more high-quality, artisanal Chinese ingredients for sale in the West, not only because this is good for American and European cooks, but also because it will help to encourage Chinese producers to focus on traditional and premium products.
Taylor: What are you most proud of with this book? Could it be the incredible validation and honor of it being translated into Mandarin for the Chinese market?
Fuchsia: Yes, I am tremendously honoured, and surprised, that the book is being translated into Chinese, and really curious to see what people in China make of it!
Cooking from The Food of Sichuan
I think I’ve visited Second Brother Zhang’s, the small shop that is famous for its tianshuimian, on every trip I’ve made to Chengdu. And so have most other travelers, because there’s really nothing else like these chunky, chewy noodles with a super Sichuan sauce. They actually come in several different sauces, making it difficult to choose, and the shop also does a brisk business in liangfen, cold bean-starch noodles with various sauces.
Although I’ve eaten tianshuimian many times, I’ve actually never tried to make it. Noodles and dumplings are not my strong suit, and I figured there was some big secret to making this particularly dense and chewy wheat noodle, perhaps even a secret ingredient that I would never figure out. But no! As Fuchsia says in the headnote, “Because of the desired chunky shape of the noodles, no perfectionism is needed here: this is a forgiving recipe.”
That’s perfect for a recovering perfectionist like me. And she was right! Despite no noodle skills to speak of, I made these easily on my first go, and they took me right back to Second Brother Zhang’s. To make sweet water noodles or just about any other Sichuan dish, visit The Mala Market and pick up The Food of Sichuan and all the ingredients you’ll need to make them.