The UK’s Chinese food revolution | Fuchsia Dunlop

Charting the 200-year journey from city docksides to Michelin stars as the UK finally explores new frontiers of Chinese cooking – from Hunan to Xinjiang

In 1996, I sent my first proposal for a Sichuan cookbook to six publishers. The rejection letters came in one by one. Each of them explained, in one way or another, that a regional Chinese cookbook was too niche for British readers. Crestfallen, I was also incredulous, having spent nearly two years in Sichuan, eating widely and being amazed by the local food. Sichuan was no backwater, but a province with a population of 80 million. Within China, it was famed for its thrilling and distinctive cuisine. Could these editors not let me persuade them of the incomparable charms of fish-fragrant aubergines and mapo tofu?

In retrospect, their hesitation was understandable. Although China had embarked on its “reform and opening up” in 1992, to most Britons it still seemed remote and irrelevant. In the UK, the Chinese food scene had mainly settled into a pattern of Cantonese dishes adapted to British tastes. “Chinese food” was both so familiar that it seemed passé and hardly known at all. Practically the only visible glimmers of China’s breathtaking regional cuisines were occasional references to “Szechwan” or “Peking” flavours on the menus of otherwise Cantonese restaurants. While the pioneering cookbooks of Ken Hom, Yan-kit So and Deh-ta Hsiung had introduced British readers to classic recipes from all over China, China’s decades of introversion had offered outsiders little chance to explore its regional food traditions in the way they had the cuisines of southern Europe.

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