How are you received now, given your professional success? Do you come across the attitude from Chinese people they know their cuisine best?
Generally speaking, people are incredibly welcoming because they're quite surprised by the seriousness with which I've studied it. So when they talk to me about food, I can talk at a professional culinary level about cooking techniques and the flavors of dishes, which is something they don't really expect. They've probably never met a foreigner who does this.
Quite often when I give talks, people are initially very skeptical and they think, "What on earth is this Englishwoman doing?" That's happened more abroad; for example, when I do events in Australia. Sometimes overseas Chinese people will come up to me afterward and say, "We couldn't imagine what on earth an Englishwoman would have to teach us about Chinese food, but actually we were impressed by your knowledge."
I also have really fantastic partnerships with Chinese chefs. There are amazingly talented Chinese chefs who have this very sophisticated culture, but they can't communicate it very well. It's difficult not only to translate it but to express it in a way that will make Westerners understand and appreciate it. So I do cooking shows with Chinese chefs in Europe and America, where they cook, and I translate and give the cultural context.
You've said that it's a "different thing to interpret Chinese cuisine for Westerners."
Of course there are disadvantages to being a foreigner, but there are advantages because you understand both sides. I know the kind of problems that Westerners have with grisly, slithery textures, for example, and I try to write about them in a way that would give people a new perspective and make them want to enjoy them.
For example, if you want a Westerner to appreciate fermented tofu, they might be revolted. If you try to get them to think about it like a blue cheese and imagine what it might be like for a Chinese person to see rotted cow's milk, then you get a new perspective.
Do you see yourself as a bridge between Chinese and Western foodies?
That's what I'm trying to do. I think Chinese cuisine is probably the most diverse and sophisticated in the world because there's so much to it. And it's very underrated and not very deeply understood in the West, so what I hope to do is to make some sort of contribution to open up this subject to people.
Is it possible to describe Chinese food in general terms?
You can come up with some generalizations, like the use of chopsticks; having grain foods, whether its rice, noodles, or breads served with cai side dishes; and the use of certain fermented seasonings like soy sauce.
A lot of Chinese people talk about Western food as one thing, and you sort of know what they mean. But that's obviously very limited, and it's the same talking about Chinese food. You can come up with some generalizations about how Chinese food is broadly different from American food. But then as soon as you look more closely...it's very diverse.
What about Sichuanese food? People often think of it as "hot and spicy." Does this describe the full extent of the cuisine?
It's much more subtle than that. If you're looking at China in general, one of the things that stand out about Sichuanese cuisine is that it uses a lot of Sichuan chilies and peppers. But if you're inside Sichuan, it's much more subtle and sophisticated.
A good Sichuanese meal is not all hot; it's balanced. There's a saying: Yicaiyige baicaibaiwei, meaning, "Each dish has its own style; a hundred dishes have a hundred different flavors."
A Sichuanese banquet should have constant stimulation and excitement. You have something hot and then something soothing, then you have a light soup, then something sweet...variety is the spice of life.
Recently, very fiery dishes, like the shuizhuyu (fish in a sea of sizzling chili oil) has become very fashionable, so people always associate it with Sichuanese cuisine. But that's just one aspect of it.
How does Chinese food figure into the London eating scene?
It used to be very underrated and was seen as being stuck in a rut. But now it's gotten more regional, and people are getting excited about it again. Until recently, it was all Cantonese. There were a few very good Cantonese places for good dimsum and lots of very cheap takeaways, not serving good food and doing a lot of sweet and sour pork and lemon chicken for the Westerners. A lot of middle-of-the-road places doing not very interesting food for non-Chinese people.
How about Hakka San?
Hakka San was hugely influential because it was the first dramatically, glamorously designed restaurant -- high-end, very expensive, trendy and glamorous. And so that made Chinese food seem very cool and glamorous and persuaded people that they might pay more money for it.
Does it appeal to Chinese eaters?
No, Chinese people are more into just the food. Westerners are more into the décor.
What's your favorite Chinese dish to eat?
Yuxiangqiezi (fish fragrant eggplants). It's Sichuanese. It has so many layers: ginger, garlic, spring onions, pickled chili, sweet and sour. It's delicious and shows how Sichuanese food can take a very ordinary ingredient and make it sublime. Yuxiangqiezi and a bowl of rice, and I'm happy.