Over the weekend, I finished reading Shark’s Fin and Sichuan Pepper, British food writer Fuchsia Dunlop’s delectable memoir of eating in China. The Guardian called this book a “cultural immersion,” which is apt, as the memoir entails much more than food.
Beginning in the early 1990s, Dunlop lived in China, off and on, for over a decade. As a student—and as a professional writer—she has traveled to remote corners of the country, engaging every person she could in conversation. That rich experience certainly imbues her writing with great depth. Between descriptions of food and meals, Dunlop dazzles with history, geography, modernization, growth, and more.
In the early 1990s, Dunlop lands in Chengdu in Sichuan province—the area recently devastated by earthquakes—where she researched Chinese policy on ethnic minorities. She falls for street food, as well as the incendiary food of Sichuan province and the snout to tail eating of China. When her visa expires, she enrolls in a professional training school for chefs, as the only Western student and one of three women.
As a student of Sichuan cookery, Dunlop learned about mastering the arts of flavor, starting with fu he wei, the complex flavors. Sichuan cuisine boasts twenty-three official complex flavors, one of which is “home-style”—salty, savory, and a little hot. In her travels, she had an opportunity to challenge her culinary comfort zone by eating a lot of truly exotic foods, including civet cats, goose intestines, and more. The chapter on food textures and mouth-feel—an integral part of Chinese cooking—is eye opening.
All is not delicious. Dunlop explores the SARS health crises, which temporarily put a damper on eating in restaurants, where the risk of disease transmittal was high, especially with such practices as “public” chopsticks. She also looks at other issues, such as food safety (use of toxic food additives is rampant) and the controversial consumption of endangered species (shark’s fin and bear paws, to name a few).
In addition to Shark's Fin, Dunlop has written two authoritative cookbooks, one of which—Revolutionary Chinese Cookbook—was nominated for a James Beard Award (Asian Cooking) this year.
If you’re interested in China, food, or travel—or if you simply appreciate sparkling prose—this book is for you.