Invitation to a Banquet: The Story of Chinese Food (Hardcover)
An NPR 2023 "Books We Love" Pick • A Food & Wine Best Food of 2023 • A Financial Times Best Food and Drink Book of 2023 • One of Smithsonian's Ten Best Books About Food of 2023
The world’s most sophisticated gastronomic culture, brilliantly presented through a banquet of thirty Chinese dishes.
Chinese was the earliest truly global cuisine. When the first Chinese laborers began to settle abroad, restaurants appeared in their wake. Yet Chinese has the curious distinction of being both one of the world’s best-loved culinary traditions and one of the least understood. For more than a century, the overwhelming dominance of a simplified form of Cantonese cooking ensured that few foreigners experienced anything of its richness and sophistication—but today that is beginning to change.
In Invitation to a Banquet, award-winning cook and writer Fuchsia Dunlop explores the history, philosophy, and techniques of Chinese culinary culture. In each chapter, she examines a classic dish, from mapo tofu to Dongpo pork, knife-scraped noodles to braised pomelo pith, to reveal a distinctive aspect of Chinese gastronomy, whether it’s the importance of the soybean, the lure of exotic ingredients, or the history of Buddhist vegetarian cuisine. Meeting food producers, chefs, gourmets, and home cooks as she tastes her way across the country, Fuchsia invites readers to join her on an unforgettable journey into Chinese food as it is cooked, eaten, and considered in its homeland.
Weaving together history, mouthwatering descriptions of food, and on-the-ground research conducted over the course of three decades, Invitation to a Banquet is a lively, landmark tribute to the pleasures and mysteries of Chinese cuisine.
— Dwight Garner - New York Times
Sweeping. . . . Chinese food has long been dismissed by outsiders as salty, unhealthy and made from creepy ingredients. In Invitation to a Banquet, Ms. Dunlop sets out to change those misguided views. The result is a joyously sensual, deeply researched and unabashedly chauvinistic read, a feast for anyone curious about how 1.4 billion people eat.
— Eugenia Bone - Wall Street Journal
Fuchsia Dunlop’s rapturous Invitation to a Banquet . . . reveals a universe of delights, innovation and versatility so deep and broad it will subdue even readers who believe they know all about the cuisine.
— Howard Chua-Eoan - Bloomberg
This book is an erudite joy that makes you yearn to taste the delights Dunlop describes. Her sensory writing is so vivid that I felt I was actually there with her in the food markets of China.
— Bee Wilson - Sunday Times (UK)
Dunlop has written a 400-plus-page book about a cuisine that, by her own estimation, doesn’t much interest westerners. It’s a decision born of the same confidence and originality that has made her such a successful recipe writer (including for the FT). She’s also a brilliantly effective describer of things, conjuring the 'wet crunchiness' of a chicken’s foot and the 'skiddy' texture of duck intestines in this exciting, non-linear history.
— Harriet Fitch Little - Financial Times
In 30 years of exploring and documenting the country, [Dunlop] has done for China what Elizabeth David did for Mediterranean food and Claudia Roden did for the Middle East. . . . Dunlop’s desire to educate and enlighten finds its fullest expression in Invitation to a Banquet.
— Tim Lewis - Observer
[Dunlop's] latest is one of her most ambitious works to date. . . . While the book brims with descriptions of delectable feasts, this is more of a historical deep-dive than it is a travelog. Above all, Dunlop wants her readers to approach Chinese food on its own terms and to challenge common misconceptions about it. She explores a time before rice’s dominance, when emperors offered sacrifices to “Lord Millet”; why the roots of Japanese sushi lie in Chinese zha; and why the wet markets unfairly maligned in Western press in 2020 are essential to communities.
— Diana Hubbell - Gastro Obscura
Dunlop makes a compelling case for the superiority of Chinese cuisine, but in a delighted and expansive rather than chauvinistic way. . . . She makes an equally compelling case that what Westerners think of as ‘Chinese food,’ meaning what most can find at their local takeaway, is neither inauthentic nor wrong. Instead, it is a diasporic offshoot that reflects local tastes but is about as representative of the cuisine’s diversity as a frozen pizza is of Italy’s. Immigration and adventurousness have made the real thing more accessible than ever outside China. Eaters should savour that.
For Dunlop, the banquet in question is not only the sensory aspects of Chinese dishes that she covers in detail, describing the cooking techniques, ingredients, smells, sounds and tastes, but also the conversations that this cuisine can inspire. . . . Dunlop has once again shown her work as an ambassador of Chinese cooking, looking to explore it in a way that showcases the people and dishes that have intrigued her since she moved to China, and in turn encourage readers to explore the cuisine as well.
— Korsha Wilson - Food & Wine
This is not your traditional cookbook, but rather a series of stories that raises an interesting question—why is Chinese food among the world's favorites, yet one of the least understood? Well, in Dunlop's view, this is partly because there are few Chinese gastronomy critics who can both cook dishes and write prose. So in Invitation To A Banquet, Dunlop, who in the '90s became the first foreigner to study at the Sichuan Higher Institute of Cuisine, tries to take on that role. It is a personal journey filled with history of some of the best-known and occasionally exotic dishes, often toting lip-smacking detail. Even for me, a keen consumer of Chinese cuisine my entire life, it's an invitation hard to resist.
— Vincent Ni - NPR Weekend Edition
[Dunlop] is a legend in the world of Chinese cookery. . . . In one chapter, about a soup of wild catfish cheeks, she writes about the dozens of different food textures that the Chinese both admire and have highly specific words for. In another, she writes about a dish made by braising the cottony, seemingly inedible pith of a pomelo until it becomes ethereally delicious—a creation so ingenious that it flips the famous notion that Chinese people are willing to treat anything vaguely edible as an ingredient entirely on its head.
— Luke Tsai - KQED
A fascinating look into the history of Chinese food.
— Kathy Gunst - WBUR
[A] love letter. . . . Another food writer might be suspected of trying too hard, but such is the range and depth of Dunlop’s erudition, and so infectious is her enthusiasm, that she is above suspicion on that score. . . . Dunlop has developed a vocabulary equal to the daunting challenge of conveying the huge range of values, ambitions and experiences embedded in Chinese gastronomy.
— Isabel Hilton - Financial Times
Fuchsia Dunlop, who has lived in China, went to cooking school there, and writes Chinese cookbooks, does something different here. She writes about the history of Chinese food using traditional dishes (stir-fried broccoli with ginger, Shandong guofu tofu, etc.) as starting points for exploring the how and why of each of them. . . . I particularly enjoyed reading about Dunlop’s food adventures throughout China.
— Marion Nestle - Food Politics
The most fun and informative book about Chinese food I have ever read. . . . An exhilarating, engaging and oftentimes laugh-out-loud funny love letter to Chinese food. . . . This is a book that lives up to its title—an invitation to consider one of the great gastronomic traditions of the world and a most dizzyingly fabulous banquet indeed.
— Ong Sor Fern - The Straits Times
Dunlop is an astute and enthusiastic observer, with a fine sense of the intercultural differences and the thread of ignorance and animus that has persisted. . . . Dunlop’s observations are particularly timely in this era of environmental challenges, suggesting this traditional wisdom can be applied in a modern context.
— Kristen Yee - Asian Review of Books
Fascinating. . . . Impressive here is not just her evident mastery of her material, but also the skill with which [Dunlop] translates it to her audience.
— Andrew Irwin - Times Literary Supplement (UK)
Many of the translations in Fuchsia Dunlop’s new book, Invitation to a Banquet, are her own. For many, including the Chinese, it cements her reign as a Chinese culinary queen.
— Mei Chin - The Irish Times
Dunlop’s storytelling is superb. . . . Invitation to a Banquet captures China’s venerable tradition of mindful eating in vivid detail. As such, it will inspire readers to reflect on their own relationship to one of life’s greatest pleasures.
— Miranda Brown - Literary Review
The British food writer who has become the Western world's authority on spicy Sichuanese cooking is now back with Invitation to a Banquet, her most expansive look at the vast depth and diversity of Chinese cooking. Much more than a cookbook or a guide to Chinese cuisine, Invitation to a Banquet is an elaborate and multicourse read. Using 30 dishes, Dunlop sets an imaginary table to showcase various cooking styles, then dives deep into fermentation, flavors and technique.
— Ron Gluckman - Nikkei Asia
We've got to go with the book of the season because there's really no comparison to it. It's Fuchsia Dunlop's Invitation to a Banquet. It could go in food history, it could go in food writing. She is someone who has so much experience and mastery of not just Chinese cooking but the whole idea of Chinese food, and she translates it to people who are not familiar with that cuisine in a way that is so respectful and interesting, it just draws you in. This book doesn't have any recipes but she has written numerous cookbooks. The best, most renowned books on Sichuan food, on general Chinese cooking, on Hunan are all by her.
— Celia Sack, on KCRW
Any book by Fuchsia Dunlop is cause for celebration, but this one is very special. Heart-felt and beautifully researched, Invitation to a Banquet serves up an entirely new way to enjoy Chinese food. It is a gift to everyone who ever picked up chopsticks.
— Ruth Reichl
Fuchsia Dunlop's expertise in Chinese cuisine is both remarkable and enlightening. She has devoted her life to intricately intertwining China's rich history with its culinary traditions, making significant contributions in sharing this delicious knowledge. Invitation to a Banquet offers a captivating glimpse into Chinese culture, served as a mouthwatering feast. Indeed, there's no better way to understand a culture than through its food, and Fuchsia captures this notion with mastery.
— René Redzepi, co-owner and chef of noma
Passionate and thoughtful. This book highlights the intricate connections between China's people, food, and culture over time.
— Nik Sharma, James Beard Finalist, cookbook author, and photographer
As a young Chinese food writer, Fuchsia Dunlop's books were my Harry Potter. She introduced me to the vibrant, expansive, magical world of Chinese gastronomy beyond the four walls of my Cantonese home. Next to my parents, there's no person I've learned more about the cooking of my people than Fuchsia Dunlop. Invitation to a Banquet just might be her magnum opus: the richest English-language accounting of China's culinary history I've ever read. I'm grateful this magnificent book exists.
— Kevin Pang, James Beard Award-winning writer, author of A Very Chinese Cookbook
Fuchsia Dunlop is such a gifted writer that the reader cannot help being swept along by her masterful, yet intimate, account of a cuisine that is unmatched not only in its refinement and diversity, but also in the richness of its history of nutritional experimentation and speculation. Invitation to a Banquet is destined to become a classic of travel literature and ethnography as well as food writing.
— Amitav Ghosh, author, most recently, of Smoke and Ashes: A Writer's Journey Through Opium's Hidden Histories
Fuchsia Dunlop is one of the world's best writers on Chinese food. This book is ample proof of that. Each chapter becomes a course, written in her usual erudite manner but entertaining and informative at the same time. I found the book irresistible, addicting and mouth-watering. If you love Chinese food then you must accept the invitation to her banquet!
— Ken Hom CBE, author of Chinese Cookery
How the scales fall away from the eyes reading this masterpiece. Invitation to a Banquet enthrals as it enlightens as it delights. Fuchsia has a way with words and cooking quite unique and mesmerising. I have had to put the book down only out of necessity and wish only that instead of mounting a bicycle headed to work, I had boarded a train bound for China, book in hand, with a blanket, chopsticks and a hamper brimming with dishes prepared by Fuchsia.
— Jeremy Lee, author of Cooking
There are cooks who write and writers who cook, but very few succeed in blending both arts to perfection in the way Fuchsia Dunlop does. The flavours arising from these pages are sprinkled with insight and experience, its narrative is infused with anecdote and historical depth. This book is the perfect dish for anyone curious about the story of Chinese cuisine and a joy for those among us simply in need of food for thought.
— Roel Sterckx, author of Chinese Thought
This book is destined to be a culinary classic. Fuchsia Dunlop is a top-notch cook, a first-rate food writer, and a thoroughly grounded scholar of the history and culture of Chinese food. The book is a superb and intensive introduction to Chinese food . . . a delight to read. It will remain a landmark in food and culinary studies.
— E. N. Anderson, author of The Food of China
Dunlop delves into a complex, subtle cuisine with an insider’s expertise.
Dunlop is so good at evoking the sensual experience of eating food that it becomes almost food writing as a form of erotica.
— Jeffrey Wasserstrom, UC Irvine - fivebooks.com