Jing Theory from Chengdu, Sichuan province, China


Jenny Gao was born and lives in Chengdu, the Sichuan province town nominated by Unesco as a City of Gastronomy. She has created a mesmerising blog called Jing Theory where she writes about Chinese food and culture, illustrating it with her own professional photography. The Foodie Bugle caught up with her to find out just how the Blog came to be and what life is like in one of the most foodie places on earth.

The Foodie Bugle: Jenny, what is it really like to live in Chengdu on a day to day basis? Do you travel all over China for your Blog? It is such a vast country with such a complex history, it must be a lifetime’s work and more surely to understand all the layers of Chinese gastronomy?

Jenny: I was born in Chengdu and although I grew up in Canada I often spent summers in the city visiting my grandparents and cousins. Life in Chengdu is leisurely, easy going and relaxed. Spending languid afternoons at the city’s many teahouses is a favourite local pastime and the unmistakable clinking of mahjong tiles can be heard for miles. I love to explore the fascinatingly diverse regional cuisines in China, but it really would take a lifetime to uncover them all.

TFB: What is your day job, do you work in food, photography and writing full time?

Jenny: I work in the technology industry during the day, but devote a fair amount of spare time to my food writing, photography, and of course, eating. I am lucky that my job allows me to travel all over China and Asia Pacific, which gives me an excuse to eat the local cuisine everywhere I go.  I sometimes write and photograph for publications like Timeout and work on side projects like my Chengdu Snack App that is coming out soon.

TFB: When you started your Blog in 2010 did you have a clear idea of what you wanted to explore, create and discover or did it all evolve organically, through time, experience and connections?

Jenny: You have to do what you love, and I have always loved food. I just didn’t know what I wanted to do about it. I figured that sharing my knowledge and research on Chinese food culture on a website would be a good start on the road to discovering what that was, and be a good creative outlet for myself as well. I started by writing about what I knew, which was Sichuan food, as I’ve grown up around it and watched it evolve over the last couple decades, and in many ways also remain the same in families bound by tradition like mine. These posts of mine were always the best received, and I started focusing my content on Sichuan food. Since I started the website, I’ve had numerous, amazing opportunities and collaborations come my way, and I couldn’t have imagined them before I started this journey. The most important part, and the most difficult at times, is just to get started.

TFB: In the West the Chinese food experience is very much watered down for European palates, so to get the authentic taste of regional Chinese food depends on knowing an experienced cook from China. If someone from Europe was coming to China for the first time and wanted to travel around to find the best examples of regional cuisine, where would you point them?

Jenny: Bias aside, I would first point them to Sichuan- “the Land of Plenty”. It was named in this way because of the province’s abundant spices and fresh ingredients. Sichuan’s capital Chengdu was also recently named a UNESCO City of Gastronomy (the second in the world to be bestowed this honour). What better reason than that to visit and discover this incredibly complex and diverse cuisine? A truly comprehensive culinary trek of China, however, will take you all over the country. You don’t realise the sheer magnitude of its geography until you taste the sweet, light dishes of the eastern coastal cities, the fresh, pungent flavours of Yunan, the hearty, wheat-based North Eastern fare, and the Central Asia influenced dishes in Kashgar on the Northern Silk Road.

TFB: When you travel to different restaurants – markets – food shops do you tell them before hand when you are going to arrive and ask if you can interview them or do you just turn up? Does the average Chinese person understand the “food blogger” world and are food blogs part of the collective consciousness there? Are people suspicious when you whip out your camera?

Jenny: I don’t usually tell them unless I want to interview the owner or chef. There are quite a few prolific Chinese food writers and bloggers and millions of crowd sourced restaurant reviews and opinions on websites like www.dinanping.com so it’s not strange to see many people at a restaurant taking pictures of their food and instantly uploading it to Weibo (Chinese Twitter) or personal blogs.

TFB: In your own home what do you generally like to cook for yourself and your family? What are your top places to shop for meat, fish, fruit and vegetables, bakery products and delicatessen? Do supermarkets feature at all in the Chinese gastronomic landscape? {in Europe, sadly they have taken over the landscape}

Jenny: I tend to cook simple, healthy fare with few but fresh ingredients for myself. I eat a lot of vegetables, fish, and simple dishes like congee with millet, beans, and wild rice. For friends I like to whip up a family-style Chinese meal, with a variety of flavours, colours, ingredients, and always my favourite dish- mapo tofu.  In China the best places to shop for food are the wet markets, there’s one in every neighbourhood, and have just about everything you need at very cheap prices. They’re colourful, vibrant, and very photogenic. If you go regularly and develop a relationship with the vendors you can even convince them to save the best produce for you in the mornings. There are more and more large supermarkets like Carrefour, Walmart, and Tesco popping up in China, but wet market culture is still alive and well.

TFB: In China is it still commonplace for people to grow-source-prepare-cook their own food or is the modern world changing the old society, cultures and family life?

Jenny: In the countryside where there is ample space, it is common to see farm to table cooking. But in the cities, people are choosing the conveniences of restaurants and fast food more and more, and perhaps losing touch with the food cycle. There seems to be less focus on traditional culinary arts within China as people demand the new and exciting. On the other hand, there seems to be more interest from the outside looking in, as overseas Chinese and culinary enthusiasts from all over the world try to recover its incredible 5000 year history and glory by opening restaurants, studying and writing about it.

TFB: What common misconceptions and myths about Chinese food culture would you like to dispel?

Jenny: That it is unhealthy, most fried and oily. This tends to be the Western view attributed to the unfortunate examples of “Chinese food” brought to the West by early Chinese immigrants. Chinese food is so often location specific, due to its use of many local ingredients and spices, that it’s simply difficult to recreate it authentically anywhere else. After you try to adapt to Western tastes by battering and deep-frying, the food becomes even more unrecognizable.  Chinese cuisine is perhaps the most misunderstood of all the world cuisines, and it’s largely owing to its poor representation in the West. It is extremely diverse, influenced by China’s vast landscape, and boasts eight great traditions of cooking with many more regional styles.

TFB: You have recently created an App. What other hopes and ambitions do you have for your Blog? Are there any book publishers interested? (they should be!)

Jenny: I have recently created an iPhone app that allows you to discover some famous street snacks in Chengdu. It comes out in April 2012, so look for it in the App Store! I also wrapped up a shoot for a BBC documentary on Chinese food where I took celebrity chefs Ken Hom and Ching-He Huang through Chengdu and even invited them to my grandparents’ house to cook a family meal. The trip has inspired me to begin work on a book all about Sichuan cuisine and Chengdu in particular. More on that soon!

TFB: What helpful hints and tips would you give to any potential food bloggers out there who might be interested in creating their own website, developing their photographic skills and communicating their food heritage?

Jenny: The hardest part is to get started. Once you put your first thoughts on the screen and take the first snaps, the rest of what you need to do then tends to fall into place. If you have a passion for something, whether it is your food heritage, cooking, or appreciating fine food, share it with the rest of the world, because the chances are that others out there feel the same way. And who knows, you might even inspire someone else to pursue what they love.

Further Information

Jing Theory food Blog: www.jingtheory.com/blog

Follow Jenny on Twitter: @jennygao

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