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Shark's Fin and Sichuan Pepper: A sweetsour memoir of eating in China
Fuchsia Dunlop, 2008
As the title says, this is not a cookbook or precisely a book on or about food, but a memoir of Fuchsia Dunlop's time in China, with the emphasis on her culinary experiences and endeavors. It covers an eventful -- both for Dunlop and for China -- fifteen years, from her first visit in 1992 to one (hopefully not the last) in 2007. Originally a Chinese region specialist for the BBC, she applied for a fellowship to study in China, with an emphasis on minority cultures, was accepted, and in 1994 showed up at Sichuan University in Chengdu.
She rapidly became inebriated with the vital dining scene in Chengdu, and (to hear her tell it) largely abandoned the ostensible purpose of her studies. Fortunately for Dunlop and us, Sichuan had both a deserved reputation for being slow and casual (things were possible for a foreigner there that would not have been in more modern cities), and a rich and highly developed style of cookery. Far from being the simple blisteringly hot excess of chilis that it has the reputation for in the West, Sichuan cooking as practiced in Chengdu emphasizes a careful balance of flavors and ingredients, with hundreds of unique flavors and textures; no more a one-note anvil of chilis and the lip-numbing Sichuan peppercorn than Indian food is a single all purpose "curry powder" blend.
We have a few chapters devoted to her increasing love affair with Sichuan food and life, and her gradual accomodation to the variety of ingredients, from 'offal' to rabbit heads to insects. (I can't help but think her self-description of her state of blandness on arrival is a bit disingenuous -- somewhere near the end, she mentions the English standby of steak-and-kidney pie, which to an American stomach is up there on the grossness meter at least with tripe and liver and the other organ meat she claims to be initially put off by.) And though she does devote, off and on, a few sections to the "Chinese eat everything" theme, it does not seem to me central to her book, and she is clear that it is not universal and the North and West are more conservative in their cuisine. Much more emphasized is the complexity of the food, the many different flavors and cooking techniques, even the wide variety of shapes generated with the simple Chinese cleaver, each with it's distinctive name. Dunlop, her official studies over with, stayed on in Chengdu and enrolled in a full-time course at the Sichuan Institute of Higher Cuisine, the only Westerner in a class of aspiring Chinese chefs.
After the success of her first book on Sichuan cooking, Dunlop returned to China and spent time in Hunan, learning another distinct regional cuisine, the subject of her second book. Though overall chronological, and overall concerned with Chinese food, there are numerous digressions ... a chapter devoted largely to fears of the SARS epidemic; one to a trip to a friend's family in "a remote village not far from Inner Mongolia" where the "meals we ate were simple and monotonous;" her travels in Tibet and other dicey regions.
Equally as interesting as Dunlop's experiences are her reactions to them, the story arc of her becoming more and more imbued with Chinese culture and attitude until it is a wrench for her to fit in back in England. She not only experiences, but thinks about those experiences, seemingly with a notebook almost constantly at hand. And thus we feel her dismay when over the short span of a decade or so, the oddly paradisiacal corners of China that she had found, the sort of old-China crowded markets, street vendors and grubby diners shunned by tourists and New-Chinese alike, become overrun with rampant development -- favored markets, restaurants and whole districts vanishing beneath the bulldozer almost overnight, replaced by high-rises and anonymous blocks of flats. Near the end there is feeling of doom and depression, and her originally accommodating attitude is drowned out by a knell of development, pollution of the very foods she is eating (one chapter is devoted to an increasing fear of seemingly every ingredient), and the impact of increasing demand for exotic, wild and endangered ingredients. Then at the end there are two chapters which revive her attitude and our hope. She travels to the source of her treasured Sichuan peppercorns, the particular slopes that produce the best of the best. And she indeed finds another unspoiled (so far!) city that is far off the commercial or tourist tracks, redeveloping in its own middle-path way.
Dunlop may not be immediately likable .. I have the feeling that while she could be immensely charming, she could also be relentless in her goals .. but she is a wonderful guide, probably getting as much under the skin of China old and new as any Westerner is going to, and bringing us along for the ride in a thoughtful, yet personal and emotional, well told adventure.