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 by Fuchsia Dunlop|
|Reviewer: Lesley Mason|
|Summary: 2006 Food-journalist of the Year Fuchsia Dunlop takes us back to the beginning of her voyage of discovery of Chinese cookery and in particular the cuisine of her beloved Sichuan. By turns delightful and disturbing, it is a homespun history of an English girl's discovery of China through its food. Flawless.|
|Buy? Yes||Borrow? Yes|
|Pages: 320||Date: March 2008|
|Publisher: Ebury Press|
On her first trip to the orient Fuchsia Dunlop is appalled at the preserved duck eggs served as hors d'oeuvre in Hong Kong. Her description of this first encounter with the Chinese delicacy is rich with words like filthy, revolting, nightmarish, translucent, oozy, mouldy, toxic, slime…
But Fuchsia had been brought up in a household where her mother's students brought their Turkish, Sudanese, Italian or Colombian traditions into the kitchen; one where a Spanish au pair made paella and the Japanese one served rice balls for breakfast; where an Austrian grandfather brought recipes from time served in Ceylon and Burma, whilst an unofficial Hindu godfather gifted them curries and her father did strange things with mashed potato. Eating what was put in front of you was a matter of pride; and of politeness.
A little revulsion couldn't be allowed to change that.
As she sets out on a Chinese escapade that is going to take over her life, Dunlop consciously commits herself to eating whatever she is offered. Her early exposure to so many culinary cultures almost certainly embedded in the author's mind the notion that food is not just about eating; it is about a deeper nourishment; it is particularly about sharing. This is something that she seems only to become conscious of in the latter years of her Chinese odyssey, but her earliest actions and reactions speak of it being innate.
For all her early experiences, which were far from those of most girls her age, she acknowledges that Chinese food was something different… there were many delightful surprises: exquisite roast goose, sparklingly fresh seafood…[but also] many new ingredients that I found disconcerting – or disgusting. Alongside the preserved eggs, there would be badgers, cats, tapirs and snake long before she reaches the realms of scorpions, rabbit heads and the ovarian fat of the snow frog. As the prologue subtitle sums up: The Chinese eat everything.
In her explorations of China and its cookery, Fuchsia Dunlop was to do the same.
Arriving on British Council scholarship to study Chinese policy on ethnic minorities, she soon abandoned her studies and started devoting herself whole-heartedly to food, firstly by eating it…then by asking about it…walking into kitchens and watching and taking notes… and eventually by talking her way into the Sichuan Institute of Higher Cuisine to be formally trained. All of this in a language she was only beginning to learn, with its frustrating script and in a dialect that bore no relation to the official version, where a quick-count reveals 9 variations on stir-fry, out of an encyclopaedic 56 cooking methods, and in a country where simply writing notes in English is enough to get you arrested as a potential spy.
The resultant cookery books Revolutionary Chinese Cookbook and Sichuan Cookery together with many magazine articles earned her the title of 'Food Journalist of the Year' in 2006, but Shark Fin & Sichuan Pepper goes beyond food writing. There are recipes included in the book but they are peripheral, mere illustrations of the theme, tailpieces to the story. The book itself is a memoir of her travels in China, as much her personal discovery of the people and history of this huge land as it is an exploration of its cuisine.
Writing with a passion for the country, the food and the people, Dunlop manages to tread the line between being an apologist for a China and an advocate. She does not shy away from those aspects which we in the west do find distasteful. Freely admitting to cruelty and brutality being part of the day-to-day aspects of food preparation, she contrasts this with the western sanitising of food where the stench of death hung in the background of a carnivorous meal like a guilty secret. As she says in China you saw what meat meant and if you chose to eat it, you did so with your eyes open.
Only in the final chapters with a growing maturity and, perhaps, the seasoned traveller's growing ennui, does she begin to question the gluttony, the over-indulgence and in particular the wasteful slaughter of endangered animals. To begin with she is full of youthful exuberance and reckless abandon.
However much she immerses herself in the culture, she never loses her foreigner's ability to be slightly shocked – or at least to understand that most of her readership will be. Having once been brought up short by a totally misjudged banquet offered to her parents, who tried to struggle manfully through it, Dunlop has recaptured the ability to taste food through a western mouth as well as an oriental one. This lends most of the book a light, joyful touch even in discussion of the most gruesome of practices. Slaughter techniques, live-cooking at the table, and such ideas that we would consider barbarian. Until, of course, Dunlop points out that it is we who are truly the barbarians – the bearded ones – and the Chinese are just as horrified at our mixture of the bland and horrific.
She may understand the mouth-feel subtleties of delicacies that, whatever we may think, are not the last resort of the starving poor, but the wasteful extravagance of the opulent, but equally she senses the alien-ness of the concept.
This is countered by the notion that Chinese can smell westerners by their dairy-scent – milk and cheese being a complete anathema to most Chinese. Is it any wonder that they cannot understand their Mongolian & Tibetan herders for whom these are staples?
Her efforts to provide an English feast founder not only on the alleged blandness of the food, but perhaps also on the cultural difference evidenced in our notion of separate courses. If presented with roast beef & gravy and apple crumble & custard, on the same plate…we might ourselves wonder about the taste of the people who produce such dishes.
In her travels Dunlop cannot fail to come up against the politics of China. I'd hate to suggest that she lies and bribes her way around the country, but clearly she soon figures out how the system works and uses her foreigner-status to her advantage and or hides it away under peasant garb, whichever will suit her purpose. Above all, she applies herself assiduously to assimilating the language and understanding the culture. This is her real passport into the kitchens which are her spiritual home. She may not like or approve of everything she finds there, especially in the latter years as her growing political awareness finally awakens the questions most of us have about this country, but the inescapable fact is that she does appreciate it. She relishes the scents and the smells and (yes) the mouth-feel. At times she becomes as bemused as the rest of us at the absurdities. At others she sees through them to the crux of all of our beliefs about food. Which, in the final analysis, are all absurd.
We all eat to survive. For the most part, we must kill to do so (either plant or animal). We do so with varying degrees of respect. One of Dunlop's friends explains this quite succinctly in that as civilisations develop people go through three stages in regard to food: we eat to live, we gorge upon excess, we revert to restraint and taste. For much of its recent history, the vast majority of the Chinese population has struggled in the survival stage, whilst her elite (be they Emperors or Communist hierarchy) have gorged on excess. Now with a burgeoning middle class, the excess is becoming the norm.
The wastefulness clearly saddens our author as much as does the degradation of the ancient architectural beauty of China, concreted over with communist modernity. Partly one feels this is simply her own intellectual development, but it is a development force-fed to her in the faux peasant restaurants and dirty waters of once pristine lakes and however hard she tries, Dunlop cannot escape the connections.
She accepts with alacrity invitations to a feast, only to lose friends in the process as its excess is paid for out official funds, as surely extracted from the locals as any of those of the hated landlords a century or so ago.
She struggles through the SARS epidemic and questions hygiene practices. Above all, she is faced with the commercialisation and industrialisation of China. It is like watching the European mistakes of the 19th century being made all over again, but with 20/20 hindsight: the clear knowledge of what is being lost, and how short-lived the gains will be.
As her journeys drew towards their end, and her dispiritedness grew, I almost wanted to put the book aside. I'd taken such pleasure in her early experiences, to the point of wanting to buy a cleaver and learn the umpteen ways to carve a spring onion, that watching her lose her patience and her connection made me fear that I would end up where I came in, with a prejudice against the cuisine of a quarter of the world's population, as the worst of its practices are lauded and the best falter under industrial degradation.
In the author's disclaimer, Dunlop speaks of playing fast and loose with the chronology for the sake of the narrative. I pray this doesn't mean that Hunan is where the memoir really finished. It should arrive (as in the book it does) with the renewed optimism of discovering Yangzhou. If despite more recent discoveries the author does follow the notion that she may end up a vegetarian, why not? There is much in the cooking methods and the artistry that she describes that suggests that the meat – usually eaten is very small quantities anyway – is almost incidental to the feast.
Of course we should deride the excess, but in doing so we shouldn't overlook our own history of birds stuffed inside each other like so many Russian dolls, and an equal tendency to hunt anything that moves.
I will never approach the extremes of enjoyment that Fuchsia Dunlop has, but there is much in the culinary tradition that we should hold on to: its artistry, contrariwise on occasion its simplicity, the richness of the varying tastes and traditions that echo the landscapes of a huge geographical area, its communality, its place at the heart of society.
If you are remotely interested in China and the social history of her people…you should read this book.
If you enjoy travellers' tales, you will be delighted.
And if you eat or cook for the sheer pleasure of doing so…lick your lips, and dive in.
The official blurb might speak of a literary food book, an erudite writer, and an encyclopaedic knowledge – none of which I'd dispute – but the ones who really get it are those who speak of it as being humourous and delicious. As the best meals always are.
I did cringe and squirm once or twice, but my abiding memory of my first reading is how much I smiled and laughed. Now…where is that cleaver?
I'd like to thank the publishers for sending a copy to The Bookbag.
Might also like: Given how much the Chinese rely on the cut Knife Skills Illustrated (although aimed at western cooks) might not be a bad place to start, or for a totally different taste of the orient try the Hindi Bindi Club. For Chinese history in fact & fiction try The Forbidden City, Blue China by Bamboo Hirst or Peony in Love.
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