Tuesday, September 16, 2008

Book Review: Shark's Fin and Sichuan Pepper: A Sweet-Sour Memoir of Eating in China by Fuchsia Dunlop


Shark's Fin and Sichuan Pepper: A Sweet-Sour Memoir of Eating in China is so much more than a record of Fuchsia Dunlop's eating experience in China. It is a travel narrative, a coming-of-age story, a recipe collection, and a record of how China has changed within the past fifteen yearsDunlop, a British journalist who specializes in Chinese culture and food, first went to China in 1992 and returned on a research fellowship in 1994. It was at Sichuan University that she realized her true calling was cookery and food, not foreign policy, and she became the first Westerner to study at the Sichuan Institute of Higher Cuisine. She is the author of two well-received cookbooks, Land of Plenty (2002) and Revolutionary Chinese Cookbook , and she includes some of her favorite Chinese recipes in chapters of Shark's Fin and Sichuan Pepper.

The theme of Dunlop's book seems to be the omnivourous approach of the Chinese to eating. As she points out, Westerners are fascinated and repulsed by stories of Chinese recipes for dogs, animal penises, lizards and insects. Early in her travels, Dunlop vowed to herself that she would broaden her culinary horizons and try anything that her eager Chinese hosts would offer her, no matter how surprising or potentially disgusting it would seem to her upper-middle class British sensibilities. By the time, she has returned to England at her memoir's end, she can view a caterpillar in the same way as a native Chinese: not as a contaminant on her salad, but as a possibly tasty addition.

I can see where the "gross out" factor might turn prospective readers off to the book, or to the Chinese as a people, but Dunlop sees this as a trait of curiousity and resourcefulness, a willingness to take pleasure in certain aspects of food (its mouth feel, its preparation) that Western cuisines limit to the safe and obvious. Along the way, not only does Dunlop's palate change, but also China. The pet food scare of 2007 that had many Americans wondering about the safety of Chinese-made products is just the tip of the iceberg for "a professional omnivore" like Dunlop:

In the old days, in Sichuan, my hunger was a free and joyful thing.
The food before me was fresh, free-range, and wholesome, and I wanted to
devour it all. But in the last ten or fifteen years China has changed beyond all
recognition. I've seen the sewer-like rivers,the suppurating sores oflakes. I've read the newspaper reports;breathedthe toxic air and drunk the dirty water. And I've eaten far too much meat from endangered species. In China I have to throw all my principles to the wind if I am to continue in my vow of eating everything.

Fortunately, a trip to Hangzhou Province in eastern China revives Dunlop's love affair with China, as it points to a hopeful future of a more thoughtful approach to food production and consumption. Dunlop shows that China is far from monolithic; different provinces have different climates and histories that shape their cuisines. Sichuan cuisine is a playful, flirtatious "spice girl" who uses its famous pepper to charm, while Hunan is a fire-breathing peasant who piles on the chiles in its cooking. Coincidentally, Hunan Province is the birthplace of Mao Zedong.

Shark's Fin and Sichuan Pepper piqued my own latent interest in Chinese food and culture. While I only have access to Chinese-American buffets in my own neck of the woods, Dunlop's book has inspired me to check out her earlier cookbooks as well as some other favorites.


1 comment:

Book Bird Dog said...

I have a similar response to some exotic Chinese food when I visit Toronto, Canada. I am used to regular Chinese food, but drew the line at sea cucumbers, no matter how nice and plumb they were presented on a bed of sauteed greens.