Fuchsia Dunlop’s account of wrangling with passel of stag pizzle in the latest Lucky Peach is alternately harrowing and humorous. It’s been five years since I took the acclaimed British cook and Chinese food expert to explore Flushing’s Golden Mall, so I thought I’d put my aside my castration anxiety aside and drop the author of Every Grain of Rice: Simple Chinese Home Cooking; Shark’s Fin and Sichuan Pepper: A Sweet-Sour Memoir of Eating in China, a line. Dunlop who is currently eating her way through Beijing was kind enough to answer Seven Questions. By the way if you want to get really hungry follow her adventures on Instagram.
Are there any misconceptions about Chinese food you’d like to dispel?
I’ve spent my entire food-writing career trying to dispel various misconceptions about Chinese food—most of all that it’s unhealthy! Of course if one were to eat deep-fried egg rolls and sweet-and-sour pork all the time it wouldn’t be a very healthy diet, but most Chinese home cooking is about rice or other grains with plenty of vegetables and a little meat, fish or poultry. I’ve always been impressed by Chinese knowledge of how to eat for health and happiness (and it’s sad to see how many younger people are now following in the unhealthy food footsteps of the West).
The other misconception is that ‘Chinese food’ is a single cuisine. China is a vast country with an incredible wealth of local and regional culinary traditions.
One other misconception is that the Chinese eat weird things because they were once poor and desperate: actually the Chinese elite have always eaten exotic ingredients. The staggering diversity of ingredients in Chinese cuisines is testament to a culture of refined palates, gastronomic adventurousness, and pleasure in the textural qualities of foods (which is why partly why Chinese people enjoy eating things like jellyfish, cartilage and sea cucumber, which Westerners tend to find baffling). Certainly the poor know how to eat wild plants when times are hard; but the rich like to thrill themselves and their guests with rare and unusual ingredients and sensations.
Where did you learn to use chopsticks?
My mother taught me when I was a small child.
What is your favorite way to eat bone marrow?
With toast and parsley salad at St John restaurant in London.
As someone who once organized a Chinese New Year Banquet where steer penis was the star attraction I was very amused and disturbed to read about your experience cooking stag penis. Was it the most challenging thing you’ve ever had to cook?
Probably. The early stages of preparation were fairly revolting.
What other cuisines do you like to cook/eat?
I love making pastry, and I’ve always had an affinity for Turkish cooking, because we had a Turkish lodger living in our home when I was small, and because I spent some time staying with a family in Anatolia when I was a university student. As to eating: I find human creativity when it comes to food preparation endlessly fascinating, and I like eating most things.
I don’t get stinky tofu. How do you feel about it?
I like it, but not as much as the rotted beancurd skin of Shaoxing, which is high as an old cheese and quite captivating.
What’s the last thing you ate, good, bad or otherwise?
For lunch today I had some stir-fried geda, a kind of Chinese spaetzle, with pork, cucumber and carrot, accompanied by millet congee, spiced peanuts and pickled cabbage. Hearty northern food, and very satisfying . I’d forgotten how wonderful millet congee is–utterly simple, nutty and comforting.