In her seventh book, Fuchsia Dunlop recounts the historical and cultural significance of Chinese food through 30 unique recipes central to the fine cuisine

Esteemed food writer Fuchsia Dunlop began her three-decade-long love affair with Chinese cooking in Hong Kong in 1992, booking a momentary pit stop before entering the mainland on a backpacking holiday.

She was predictably nervous on her “big adventure in China”, entering the Middle Kingdom as it saw rapid economic development and international attention. 

Fuschia’s first voyage into China sparked a passion for Chinese flavours, begging for her return in 1994 as a student studying history in Chengdu, the gastronomical heart of Sichuan province.

Thirty-two years on, Fuchsia returns to Hong Kong to introduce her seventh book, Invitation to a Banquet, to audiences at the Hong Kong International Literary Festival on Mar. 4–10.

Fuchsia Dunlop Invitation to a Banquet

“I still have the energy,” Fuchsia explains of her lifelong journey to uncover the complexities of Chinese cooking, “because this project is endlessly fascinating and Chinese food is so rich and diverse.”

Invitation to a Banquet is a departure from Fuchsia’s familiar cookbook authorship, delving deep into the history and culture of Chinese cuisine through 28 chapters exploring treasured dishes central to the country’s diet. 

The British author examines the relationship of religion, identity, heritage, and culture within Chinese culinary history. She meets with China’s eminent foodies, producers, chefs, and restaurateurs to document the techniques and production of dishes that explain the often-mysterious cuisine – at least to the Western world.

“Chinese cuisine has been relatively unexplored in the English language,” Fuchsia bemoans. The large scale and complexity of the topic propelled a fixation to decode the often-stereotyped and misconceived cuisine. 

Oxford-born Fuchsia is reminiscent of her days in Chengdu during the 1990s, the inception of her critical study of Chinese cooking. Hooked on Sichuanese spice, she published her first book in 2003, the encyclopaedic Sichuan Cookery, later writing Shark’s Fin and Sichuan Pepper in 2008, a memoir tracing her experience with features of Chinese cooking then unknown to the West.

Her writings in Invitation to a Banquet do not follow the cookbook formula as Fuchsia wants to extend the authority of her book beyond the kitchen and explore culture and history. “For a long time, I have wanted to write another narrative book, following on from my memoir Shark’s Fin and Sichuan Pepper.”

Fuchsia Dunlop Invitation to a Banquet

Opening to the first page, she posits, “What really is Chinese food?” – a question that may confound Western readers unfamiliar with bona fide Chinese cuisine.

“How should we eat Chinese? How should we appreciate it? Chinese food has this very contradictory status that it’s globally recognised and popular. Everyone loves eating Chinese food, but it doesn’t get the appreciation it deserves for being thoughtful and complex and sophisticated.”

Chinese cuisine is philosophical and technical in nature, rooted in healthy diets for the Chinese people, yet this is not recognised by those outside the nation. Fuchsia’s book aims to dispel these clichés and perceptions of Chinese food through the 30 signature dishes she highlights. 

The first and last chapters of Invitation to a Banquet touch upon the familiar Chinese-British takeaway order of sweet-and-sour pork balls and the Chinese-American chop suey recipe, grounding the Western reader in the strength of Chinese food. 

The 28 other dishes focus on recipes founded within China; Fuchsia is intent on presenting dishes that reflect the country’s simple-yet-complex fare. Char siu, drunken crab, mapo tofu, raw sliced fish, stir-fried sweet potato leaves, mutton hotpot, and bamboo shoots all feature in the book.

Thirty years deep into her “life mission” of documenting Chinese food, Fuchsia positions her new book to break the fallacies found in the West and elevate the cuisine to the high standard she believes it deserves.

Fuchsia Dunlop Invitation to a Banquet

“The stereotype of Chinese food being really tasty, but not that good for you, is so unrepresentative of Chinese food. Chinese people, more than any other culture possibly, think about food as the foundation of health. You eat heating and cooling foods based on how you’re feeling, the weather, and climate.”

“Chinese food is often thought to be cheap, because so many people in the West order takeout [Chinese food]. This is ludicrous! Hong Kong is one of the best places to show what nonsense that is because Chinese food has plenty of inexpensive, cheap food, but also fantastically labour-intensive and very fastidious, meticulous banquet cooking.” 

“There is this perception in the West that it’s okay to spend a load of money on sushi, but people don’t think that Chinese food is worth the price.”

Another misconception Fuchsia aims to tackle is that “the Chinese eat everything because they’re a bit desperate or the country was very poor”. She finds this misleading and inflammatory to the country’s equitable dining habits.

“The Chinese are extremely open-minded when it comes to ingredients, and they eat many things that other people throw away, like fish maw, jellyfish, and chicken feet. At the highest echelons of Chinese society, emperors were eating fish tongue and duck feet, not out of desperation, but of appreciation for texture and mouthfeel.”

“This adventurous and joyful approach to cooking I find really inspiring. We should reframe Chinese omnivorousness as being something inspiring, not frightening.”

Fuchsia Dunlop Invitation to a Banquet

Fuchsia is delighted to come back to Hong Kong and present her literary work to audiences in early March. “Hong Kong has been a very important part of my culinary education because I think that the Cantonese are the most accomplished eaters in the world.” 

“Hong Kong has this unique status with its people who really understand good Western food and dine out at some of the best restaurants in the Western world. They totally get Chinese food, and that’s an unusual combination.”

A trip back to the city, her third in the 2020s after pop-up dinners held in 2022 and 2023 cooking with Grand Majestic Sichuan’s head chef Theign Phan, cannot be complete without dining at The Chairman and Luk Yu Tea House, she mentions.

Twenty-three years after publishing Sichuan Cookery, Fuchsia Dunlop is quick to confirm that her latest book will not be her last. “It’s a lifelong project. The Food of Sichuan is my favourite of my cookbooks, a book 20 to 30 years in the making and a tribute to the place I love.”

Invitation to a Banquet covers the thoughts and feelings I’ve had about Chinese food for a long time. [My 2008 book] Shark’s Fin and Sichuan Pepper was more about the experience of being a foreigner and getting to learn about Chinese food. This one is just about Chinese food.”

Fuchsia Dunlop Invitation to a Banquet

To hear Fuchsia Dunlop share her perspectives on Chinese cooking culture and history, buy your tickets now to the Hong Kong International Literary Festival. You can order a copy of Invitation to a Banquet at Bookazine here.

Rubin Verebes is the Managing Editor of Foodie, a culinary connoisseur, and guiding force behind the magazine's delectable stories. With a knack for cooking up mouthwatering profiles, crafting immersive restaurant reviews, and dishing out tasty features, Rubin tells the great stories of Hong Kong's dining scene.

Win tasty prizes in our Valentine’s Day giveaway!

Join our biggest giveaway yet and win prizes for you and your partner