Sharks Fin and Sichuan Pepper: A Sweet Sour Memoir Of Eating In China Hardcover – Mar 25 2008
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From Publishers Weekly
Food writer Dunlop is better known in the U.K., where her comprehensive volumes on Sichuanese and Hunanese cuisine carved out her niche and eventually became contemporary classics. Turning to personal narrative through the backstory and consequences of her fascination with China, she produces an autobiographical food-and-travel classic of a narrowly focused but rarefied order. Dunlop's initial 1992 trip to Sichuan proved so enthralling that she later obtained a year's residential study scholarship in the provincial capital, Chengdu. There, her enrollment in the local Institute of Higher Cuisine, a professional chef's program, created a cultural exchange program of a specialized kind. The research for and success of her resulting cookbooks permitted Dunlop to return to China in a more experienced role as chef and writer; that led to this reflective memoir, which probes into the author's search for kitchens in the Forbidden City as well as the people and places of remote West China. One key to this supple and affectionate book is its time frame: by arriving in China in the middle of vast economic upheavals, Dunlop explored and experienced the country and its culture as it was transforming into a postcommunist communism. (Apr.)
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An insightful, entertaining, scrupulously reported exploration of China’s foodways and a swashbuckling memoir. . . . What makes it a distinguished contribution to the literature of gastronomy is its demonstration . . . that food is not a mere reflection of culture but a potent shaper of cultural identity. — Dawn Drzal (New York Times)
I didn’t realize what a self-satisfied, Western-hemisphere food snob I was until I read Shark’s Fin and Sichuan Pepper. . . . This is not just a smart memoir about cross-cultural eating but one of the most engaging books of any kind I’ve read in years. — Celia Barbour (O, The Oprah Magazine)
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Top Customer Reviews
Well, it is excellent.... that's about all I can say.
In truth the book won't appeal to an audience much beyond fairly hard-core 'foodies' but that seems to be an increasing segment of the population these days so I hope Ms Dunlop reaps the financial benefits she deserves from this book. She, herself, only describes this book as a memoir of 'eating in China' but it is a lot more than that... It is a thoroughly informative and entertaining look at one chef's experiences interspersed with some insightful observations about the food culture in the east and west, and the interplay between them....
A great read!
C John Thompson
Cookbooks by the same author are also fantastic.
Most Helpful Customer Reviews on Amazon.com (beta)
Others have already reviewed the book in considerable detail, so I'll just add a few short tidbits that stood out for me in particular ...
* I absolutely adore Ms. Dunlop's adventerous spirit. Theodore Roosevelt's famous "man in the arena" speech somes readily to mind.
* I also admire, and heartily agree with, Ms. Dunlop's astute observations regarding certain silly and deeply ingrained western culinary biases ... such as a general dislike or aversion to rubbery textures, bone-in cuts, offal, bitter vegetables, etc. I also share her love for adventerous dining ... and her disapproval of those who conspicuously indulge in endangered species.
* I also deeply appreciate her efforts to not just share her culinary travels, but also her insights, immersive personal experiences, and the socio-political context of her travels ... it greatly helps to humanize the book for the reader. Disappointingly few authors succeed in that vein. Some successful examples (of fully immersive travel memoirs) are Peter Mayle's "A Year in Provence", and Joseph Campbell's "Sake and Satori". Both are highly recommended - the latter in particular, for those who enjoy high-brow reading.
My one minor nit with this book are Ms. Dunlop's recipes ... she does a wonderful job in leading up to the recipes themselves in order to give full weight and background to her personal experience and attachment to each (something too few cookbook authors do in their headnotes). However, the recipes themselves are somewhat imprecise in places ... such as omiting the recommended knife-cuts to use (ironic after having learned so many in her culinary schooling), or neglecting to explain some of the more esoteric or hard to find ingredients to her western readers. I also found myself occasionally pining for some of the photographs her memoir mentioned ... none were included.
Highly recommended !
I look forward to exploring Ms. Dunlop's other published works.
This easy reading book is more travel journal rather then cook book. You follow her step by step as she goes deeper and deeper into the culinary technique, aesthetic and philosophy that makes up Chinese cooking and eating. Besides her kitchen and dinner table encounters, the book also portrays the torrid pace of change that China has undergone this past decade. She covers the major differences between Occidental and Chinese ideas of good eats - freshness, texture/mouth-feel, the idea of what's edible. A very fun read - I finished this book in three nights.
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.