Why You Need ‘The Food of Sichuan’: A Q&A With Fuchsia Dunlop

The Food of Sichuan by Fuchsia Dunlop at The Mala Market

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.

Fuchsia Dunlop in Chengdu
An unintended selfie with Fuchsia Dunlop when I serendipitously spotted her collecting the recipe for tianshuimian (sweet water noodles) in Chengdu

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

tianshuimian in Chengdu
The famous sweet water noodles on top along with two versions of liangfen (jelly noodles) at Second Brother Zhang’s

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.

Ingredients for sweet water noodles
My first try at making sweet water noodles with Fuchsia Dunlop’s recipe in The Food of Sichuan, with homemade chili oil, sweet aromatic soy sauce and garlic water.
Sweet water noodles (tianshuimian) by The Mala Market
Hand-cut sweet water noodles: surprisingly easy to make and the taste is spot on

About Taylor Holliday

The Mala Market all began when Taylor, a former journalist, created this blog as a place to document her adventures learning to cook Sichuan food for Fongchong, her recently adopted 11-year-old daughter. They discovered through the years that the secret to making food that tastes like it would in China is using the same ingredients that are used in China. The mother-daughter team eventually began visiting Sichuan’s factories and farms together and, in 2016, opened The Mala Market, America’s source for Sichuan heritage brands and Chinese pantry essentials.

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  1. If I had known you were selling this I would have bought it from you. In a few weeks I’m trying the recipe I’m most excited about – cured winter bacon. I have some notes to make some a little more Hunan flavored, too. Great book and you’re doing great work, Taylor.

    1. Thank you, Erin! And thank you for your many orders from The Mala Market! We really appreciate it.

      I swear that this is the year I’m going to attempt bacon too. Let us know how yours goes!

  2. I just saw this newly revised book in a bookstore in Calgary, Canada. It is spectacular. I came immediately to Mala Market to see if it was on your radar, and was delighted (but maybe not surprised?) to find this excellent interview. It is great that you are selling copies. And sad that you still don’t ship products to Canada! Best wishes, Ian

    1. Thank you, Ian! I’m delighted the book made you think of us.

      We are shipping to Canada now, sort of in a test phase. If you add products to your cart, you will see that Canada is a shipping option. It will calculate the exact shipping cost via USPS. It’s not too bad on lower-weight items.

      1. Hi Taylor, thanks for the good news! I may be wrong, but I believe that the difficulty of shipping products to Canadian customers lies mostly on our side of the border, so many thanks for the extra effort. I have recently been able to find Pixian doubanjiang and both 6-year Zhenjiang and Baoning vinegars in local Asian supermarkets, so things could be much worse–but Sichuan peppercorn continues to be dusty, stale, and primarily composed of hard-to-remove black seeds. I will get organized to test your new Canadian shipping system. — Ian

        1. Yes, the main problem along with high shipping costs is the duties charged in Canada (and other countries). But I understand from customers that USPS and its counterpart in Canada do not collect duties like the private carriers do. Though I can’t guarantee that. The problem on our side is that we can’t track packages once they enter a foreign country, and therefore cannot file a claim for reimbursement from USPS should they go missing and we have to provide a refund to the customer. That’s a liability we can’t afford as a super small business, hence the reluctance to provide the international shipping option. I think we might be willing to provide shipping anywhere in the world where the customer wants to take on the risk of a missing package. Still trying to crack this nut! Thanks for your thoughts.

  3. Hi Taylor:

    First, even though I work in San Francisco, surrounded by Chinese supermarkets, there are several items I cannot find here and which I therefore order from your Ma-La Market—your 3-year aged chili bean sauce is superb! Thank you! I do hope you will follow up on Ms. Dunlop’s suggestion, that “It would be great if you could also source good Baoning vinegar.”

    I have cooked Sichuan food for 30 years and I have made MANY dishes from Ms. Dunlop’s “Land of Plenty”. I am therefore especially keen to study and make the 70 NEW dishes in “The Food of Sichuan”.

    However, there’s a problem: nowhere in the book, nor online, have I been able to find a simple LIST of these NEW dishes. Even when I do find a recipe in “The Food of Sichuan” that I KNOW is new to this edition, there is no indication in the book that it is new.

    So, do you know if such a list of the 70 NEW recipes exists? If not, could you possibly alert Ms. Dunlop that such a list would be extremely valuable to the many people (like me) who already own “Land of Plenty” and who have now purchased “The Food of Sichuan”?


    1. Tristan,
      As we discussed via email, I recalled that Fuchsia had at one point posted a list of the 70 new dishes to her Facebook page. I know you found the list and did everyone the service of including it in your Amazon review. So I will do the same here. Thank you for prompting me to do so!

      THE FOOD OF SICHUAN (2019)
      (70 plus 12 variations below main recipes)
      Cold dressed chicken (this replaces earlier recipes for cold dressed chicken)
      Broccoli with sesame oil
      Spinach in a sour-and-hot dressing
      Steamed aubergines with scorched green peppers
      Sour and hot wood ear salad (appeared in Every Grain of Rice)
      Cold fish in spicy sauce
      Three sliver salad (with 3 variations)
      Old Arabian cold beef
      Dry tossed beef
      Spiced chicken hearts
      Smacked cucumber in garlicky sauce (plus 1 variation)
      Tragically hot water spinach salad
      North Sichuan cool starch jelly (plus 1 variation)
      Firm tofu with celery and peanuts (appeared in Every Grain of Rice)
      Slivered pig’s ear in chilli oil sauce
      ‘Rabbit eaten cold’
      Bowl-steamed pork in ricemeal with peas (this appeared in Every Grain of Rice)
      Li Zhuang ‘head bowl’
      Sichanese stir fried bacon
      Stewed pork with carrots
      Spicy blood stew
      Scalded kidneys with fresh chilli
      Dry-braised beef tendons
      Zigong small-fried chicken
      Stir-fried chicken with preserved vegetable
      Braised chicken with baby taro
      Fish-fragrant fried chicken
      ‘One tender bite’
      Steamed egg custard with minced pork topping
      Boiled fish in a seething sea of chillies
      Dry-braised prawns
      Gong Bao prawns with cashew nuts
      Fish with fresh chilli and green Sichuan pepper
      Tofu with minced meat in fermented sauce
      Leshan ‘bear’s paw’ tofu
      Mount Emei spicy silken tofu
      Xiba tofu
      Stir-fried mashed broad beans with spring onion
      Stir fried lotus root with chillies and Sichuan pepper
      Tender boiled vegetables with a spicy dip (a version appeared in Every Grain of Rice)
      Dry fried ‘eels’
      Stir fried cabbage with chilli
      Stir fried cabbage with pork cracklings
      ‘Crossing the river’ choy sum
      Stewed baby taro with greens
      Stir-fried celery with minced pork
      Fried egg and tomato soup
      Thick split pea soup (also appeared in Every Grain of Rice; plus 1 variation)
      Boiled pumpkin soup
      Simple choy sum soup
      Meatball and vegetable soup
      Sour and hot flower tofu soup
      Chicken with ginkgo nuts
      ‘Rice broth’ with vegetables
      Smothered glutinous rice with peas and cured pork
      Thin rice porridge (plus 2 variations)
      Chongqing small noodles (plus 4 variations)
      Soup noodles with shredded pork and pickled greens
      Sichuan soup noodles with minced pork topping
      Hand-made sweet water noodles
      Copper Well Lane vegetarian noodles
      Cold buckwheat noodles
      Sour and hot sweet potato noodles
      Chengdu wontons with dried chilli sauce
      Juntun guokui pastries
      Stuffed eggy pancakes
      Spiced ‘oil tea’ with crunchy toppings
      A ‘small dish’ of radish slivers
      ‘Sweet cooked white’ rice pudding
      Iced mung bean soup

      Chongqing sauce for cold chicken
      Spicy dip for cold chicken 1
      Spicy dip for cold chicken 2
      ‘Lettuce captured alive’
      Spiced potato sliver salad

      ‘Strange flavour’ bang bang chicken
      Green soybeans in a simple stock sauce
      Man-and-wife offal slices
      Dry-fried beef
      Dry-fried chicken
      Chicken with chestnuts
      Chongqing chicken with chillies
      Home made nigari flower tofu (plus 4 dips)

  4. I’m a huge fan of LoP. My book is various parts. It’s my second Bible. My wife and kids got me Food of Sichuan. I love the new format and recipes. However, on the pages with the photos of pantry items, vegetables and chiles, the items are not marked with numbers to match the numbered key on the left. As a diligent student of LoP, I think I’ve figured out most of them, but is there a “patch” for this?

    1. Others have brought this to my attention as well, and it is apparently just an oversight, an omission that no one caught. There is no patch that I know of, though feel free to ask here about any specific ingredients that stump you and perhaps we can help.

  5. The timeline is pretty far off — there were already 3 Szechuan restaurants in Santa Cruz, California by the mid-to-late Seventies, all vegan as far as I know. And yet it’s still hard to get a cookbook that really covers vegan Western Chinese cooking…despite the fact that most people around there can financially ill-afford to put animals in with their food even if they thought that was somehow a good idea.

    Maybe Fuschia will get around to writing some books in this genre.

    1. Hi Mike, thanks for reading and sharing your thoughts. It appears “Western” in this interview is taken to mean the global West, not China’s west or the U.S.-centric west coast, but you’d be happy to know Hannah Che of The Plant-Based Wok has just released her vegan Chinese cookbook, aptly named The Vegan Chinese Kitchen. Looks like it’ll hit shelves in the U.S. this September! There are also many great vegan recipes in Dunlop’s cookbooks. Sichuan is known as the land of plenty after all, and the abundance of greens is unrivaled by any Western cuisines. It’s a shame the meat dishes get almost all the love outside China, as I’m sure you know!