A History of Chinese Food, and a Sensory Feast

INVITATION TO A BANQUET: The Story of Chinese Food, by Fuchsia Dunlop

“A really good cookbook,” Jan Morris wrote, “is intellectually more adventurous than the Kama Sutra.” Fuchsia Dunlop’s masterly new book, “Invitation to a Banquet: The Story of Chinese Food,” is not a cookbook per se. But it has an earthiness that calls to mind Morris’s comment.

It’s hard to write about food, for more than a page or two, without folding in comparisons and allusions to another form of carnal knowledge. Food and sex: their techniques and variety borrow from the same stock of language. What we eat is as revealing as what we do in bed, and as we grow older, food is sexual compensation.

Dunlop’s descriptions explore this intertwining. The dark leaves on a stalk of Chinese broccoli are as “sleek and languid as a mermaid’s hair.” Chefs in Shanxi are adept at “thumbing, extruding, pinching, dripping, tearing, pulling, rubbing” their noodles. Menus aimed at Western customers, with their too-obvious dishes, resemble “a row of cabaret girls showing off their legs.” Textural descriptions in Chinese cookbooks remind Dunlop of scenes from “Fanny Hill,” the classic erotic novel. A simple breakfast stew is “pimped with chile and pickles.” If I had a nickel for every time Dunlop used the words “smitten” or “besotted,” I would absolutely be able to buy 40 minutes of small-town parking.

This robustness adds a human dimension to what is a serious and intrepid work of culinary history. As a cultural, intellectual and political investigation, “Invitation to a Banquet” is on par with Waverley Root’s “The Food of France” (1958) and Jessica B. Harris’s “High on the Hog” (2011). It is a thesaurus of the senses. The book puts Dunlop, the Cambridge-educated English writer and cook, on a new level as a gastronomic commentator. Her prose is as rich and vivid as that of M.F.K. Fisher and Betty Fussell. She lacks Fisher’s froideur, thankfully, and has Fussell’s buoyancy.

If you have an interest in food, you have probably heard of Dunlop. She is a longtime student, and explicator to Western audiences, of Chinese gastronomy. She was the first Westerner to train at the Sichuan Higher Institute of Cuisine. She has won four James Beard awards. (Like all seasoned New Yorkers, Beard knew that roaming Chinatown for lunch is the best part of jury duty.) Her many books include “The Food of Sichuan,” “Every Grain of Rice” and the memoir “Shark’s Fin and Sichuan Pepper.” This new one is her chef d’oeuvre.

Dunlop approaches Chinese cuisine with a blend of curiosity, respect and zeal. “Gameness is a beautiful quality in a person,” Lorrie Moore wrote, and Dunlop has a lot of that. Crucially, she is not cowed by her topic. She calls out practices she deplores, such as China’s yen for illegally trafficked wildlife. And yet, she writes:

Dunlop divides her book into four sections: Hearth, Farm, Kitchen and Table. These sections are subdivided into 28 chapters, nearly all of which analyze a recipe or a technique: Chongqing Chicken in a Pile of Chiles, Knife-Scraped Noodles, Mapo Tofu, Pomelo Pith with Shrimp Eggs, Red-Braised Pork, Sliced Perch and Water Shield Soup, Steamed Soup Dumplings, and so on. Most chapters start with a meal, or with a visit to a farm or a wine factory, or to a revered chef. From there, she branches out into the history of what is on her plate.

She introduces you to people you are happy to meet, such as the chef in Yangzhou renowned for his ability to “transform a live chicken into a plated dish of stir-fried chicken breast in precisely three minutes and seven seconds.”

China is more of a continent than a country, she writes, and it is nearly impossible to generalize about its cuisine. She is alert to condescension toward Chinese food, invariably from those who have never tasted the real thing. She makes the interesting point that Chinese food would almost certainly be as revered now as the cuisines of Spain, France, Italy and California had not Mao, during the Cultural Revolution of the 1960s and ’70s, purged the best chefs and sent them to work in fields and factories.

We come across some unfamiliar meals. There is a chapter on bears’ paws, a delicacy — especially the front paws, which are daintier. Dunlop prepares a stag’s pizzle soup for friends in London, consumes a camel’s foot and fiddles happily with other items that have a “high grapple factor.” She has learned to “look at anything remotely edible with a cool, dispassionate eye.”

Consider caviar and foie gras, and how they are obtained. She detects a double standard at work in how many view Chinese cuisine:

She defends so-called wet markets, which get their name from the fact that fresh fish is sold there on dripping ice, and floors must be frequently hosed down. They are one of the great joys of living in China, she writes. They’re really farmer’s markets, communal hubs that mostly sell fresh produce. Wild meat is rarely to be found.

Many of the glories of Chinese cuisine are the simplest ones: vegetables, broths, congee and other rice dishes, tofu and noodles. There is more comfort food in “Invitation to a Banquet” than showstopping plates. “If you only eat the tasty and exciting dishes, you may be eating Chinese food — but you are not really eating Chinese cuisine,” she writes.

Dunlop has read everything. Her range of reference is vast, from the earliest Chinese cookbooks to the work of China’s poets, novelists and philosophers, to BBC shows and Christopher Isherwood and the food science writer Harold McGee. “A fitting caricature of the entire human race,” she writes, “would be of a glutton shoving the contents of Noah’s Ark into his gullet.” She has shoved a great deal of learning into her own.

“I have to confess that decades of privileged eating in China have turned me into a terrible Chinese food snob,” Dunlop writes. “Increasingly, I don’t believe any other cuisine can compare.” I live in New York City, where it is possible to become, in a modest way, a bit of a Chinese food snob, too. If you don’t live within 100 miles of a real Chinese restaurant, or an H Mart, this book will not only entertain and instruct you — it might make you go mad with longing.

INVITATION TO A BANQUET: The Story of Chinese Food | By Fuschsia Dunlop | Norton | 466 pp. | $32.50

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