Book Seventeen: Shark's Fin and Sichuan Pepper

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

Oh, China! This is what my friends and I repeatedly sighed--or groaned--during our month of studying Chinese medicine in Chengdu. It is such a wonderful crazy place, and also a frustrating, and at times horrifying, place. Before I went to China, when I knew nearly nothing of the place, our friend Zev cooked us a multi-course Sichuan dinner, complete with yu xiang qie zi (fish-fragrant eggplant), ma po dou fu (pock-marked mother chen's tofu), and fan qie chao dan (fried eggs with tomatoes), among other things. His source for all these classic Sichuan recipes was Fuchsia Dunlop's Land of Plenty. Being in Chengdu I got to eat all these dishes over and over again and loved them all, however eating in China, especially as a vegetarian can be a frustrating experience. I was repeatedly irritated by biting into something I was assured was vegetarian only to find a meat surprise. I routinely picked around through dishes with my chopsticks separating the meat from the rest of the food, though, I must admit, by the end of the trip I got so lazy that a lot of that meat found its way into my belly. Oh, China!

Several months after I got back from Chengdu, with some good solid western food in my belly and a good dose of perspective, I realized how much I actually missed the food, so I bought myself a copy of Land of Plenty. Though I have yet to cook anything from its pages (mostly from laziness and a fear of not getting any of it right), I leaf through it from time to time and remember how much I loved some of this food (dan dan noodles, I'm looking at you). There's some wonderful commentary on Sichuan and Chengdu and the stories that go with some of the recipes are fun to just sit down and read. So, when I saw Fuchsia Dunlop's memoir was coming out, I knew I had to read it.

It's such a lovely memoir that starts with her spending a year in Chengdu, where she gets a taste for Sichuan cuisine, and ultimately comes back later to study at a culinary institute as its first official western student. The first part of the book is really my favorite. I mean, how often do you get to read a book by someone who has also been to a crazy place like Chengdu, who waxes nostalgic over its food and people, and then shows you parts of the city you didn't get a chance to know, making you wish you could go back? She goes on to travel through much of China, to Hunan where she writes her second cookbook, to Beijing where she discusses the imperial feasts of the Forbidden City, to Xinjian where she eats the food of the Uyghur (western China's muslim minority), and after a few more stops, to Yangzhou where she falls in love with its simple, pure cuisine. I love that she shows us how absolutely disparate Chinese cooking is, how different the people are, and ultimately how conflicted she ends up being about its food and ethics. She starts out eating everything with relish and then, in the wake of all the food contamination stories of 2007, realizes how not-so-idyllic Chinese cuisine can be. She shows how she falls in love with Chinese cooking and then how she teeters on the brink of falling horribly out of love with it. That's the China I know and love (and hate).

And, of course, in the midst of reading this, the horrible earthquake hit Sichuan province and Chengdu, so I've been spending a lot of time thinking about my time there and missing it even more and hoping that all will be okay.


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