Recently I joined a book club that focuses on food-related books. For my first meeting I read Fuchsia Dunlop’s 2008 memoir Shark’s Fin and Sichuan Pepper: A Sweet-Sour Memoir of Eating in China.
Fuchsia Dunlop is somewhat the Julia Child of Chinese cuisine. English by birth, she first went to China on a university study abroad program in the early 1990s, fell in love with the country and its cuisine, and was determined to learn to speak fluent Mandarin. On a return trip as a research fellow, Fuchsia decided to abandon her scholarly pursuits and become the first Westerner to enroll in the Sichuan Institute of Higher Cuisine. She has previously published several cookbooks on Chinese regional cuisine, including Revolutionary Chinese Cookbook: Recipes from Hunan Province and Land of Plenty.
I was most impressed by the thoroughness of Dunlop’s writing. Prior to reading this book, I hadn’t given much thought to Chinese cuisine beyond the westernized dishes that are found on the menus of most Chinatowns around the world. Dunlop started out in Sichuan Province — home to the spicy pepper of the same name — but from there explored many other regional cuisines and customs of China, including Hunan Province, ethnic minorities in Xinjiang, Mao Zedong’s Hunan homeland, Yangzhou, Hong Kong and Tibet.
Throughout the course of her travels, Fuchsia vowed to eat everything that she was offered, and the Chinese do pretty much eat everything you can imagine — including stinking offal, civet cat, bear paw, the ovarian fat of a snow frog, and even a live caterpillar. Most of the chapters conclude with recipes, and this is the first food memoir I have read in a long time that I haven’t tried at least one of the recipes. Many contain obscure Chinese ingredients that would likely be hard to find, although I was intrigued to try the Chicken and Papaya Soup, which was hailed as a preventative concoction for SARS.
Dunlop also delves a bit into the ethics of Chinese eating, such as their widespread use of MSG, the eating of endangered species, and recent food safety issues. In doing so, she explains the implications from both a Chinese and a Western perspective, and I appreciated her balanced views. The only downside of the book is the less than stellar editing, with frequent typos and duplicate words in each chapter.
For our book club meeting, we met at Shandong Restaurant in northeast Portland. While their menu wasn’t quite as adventurous as what Fuchsia Dunlop ate in China, I was excited to try a cocktail made with Sichuan pepper-infused vodka and pineapple juice, and garnished with a whole Sichuan pepper (of course I had to eat it for dramatic effect). They also had delicious Chilean Rock Crab and Shiitake Shao Loong Bao.
After discussing the book, we went around the table and each said the weirdest thing we’ve ever eaten. I was proclaimed the most adventurous eater, having nibbled on Mopani Worms in South Africa.
Post in Comments: What’s the weirdest thing you have ever eaten?
Thanks for this book recommendation, Becky! I really enjoyed it. I second your appreciation of Dunlop’s balanced perspective on Chinese culinary habits, but I have disagree and say I think you could find most of the ingredients at a store specializing in Asian food.
I have actually tried fried chicken feet and birds’ nest soup. I liked Dunlop’s description of chicken feet as resembling the human hand. That’s was exactly what I said when I tried them. I didn’t know what birds’ nest soup was when I ate it. I thought it was pretty good, but it goes to show that what we like to eat is somewhat determined by what we think we’d like to eat.