Tuesday, October 14, 2008

Mmmm... fooooooooooood

I do love to eat. And cook. Mainly eat. This is a book about eating. And cooking. Mainly eating.

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

In 1992, Dunlop went to study in Chengdu. There, she fell in looooooove with the food, especially Sichuan Pepper--that's the pink kind that kinda numbs your lips. After she finished her study, she decided to abandon the path that had been laid for her and follow her dreams. She enrolled in cooking school. In China.

Starting with her experiences as a foreigner in 1992, when there weren't that many foreign people in China, especially in the interior, and going up through today, this is a fascinating look at a changing culture.

More than that, this is a love letter to food. A justification and explanation of some of the odder Chinese eating habits--although not mentioned, Ducks Blood Soup, a Nanjing specialty comes to mind. Chairman Mao's favorite dish is discussed, and a recipe provided. It was braised pork fat. The sauce is really yummy, but it takes a different mindset to eat chunks of fat.

Still, man, I was HUNGRY when reading this. Luckily, she includes recipes at the end of every chapter (now, if I only knew of a good Chinese grocery by my house. Hmmmm.)

I love her descriptions of mouth-feel, different flavors, and the art of cutting (ooooo the art of cutting. I wish I had such knife skills). Also, the art of the wok. Seriously cool stuff.

My one complaint is the end. Dunlop gets burned out on China, which I certainly can understand. When it comes to food, she has some very valid complaints about how nasty the water is and the amount of hormones pumped into the meat and the pollution. (And this was published before we found out that there was melamine in the baby formula!) Also, the amount of endangered species that's get eaten. Her guilt over all of it is a little tiresome, especially when compared to the eager vibrancy of the earlier chapters. But... when she gets to the changing face of China, she seems to be longing for the quaint poverty of 15-20 years ago. We all mourn cities and communities we used to know and love. But, these things change. All over the world, they change. They change or they stagnate and die, it's how things work. The problem is that China's doing it on fast-forward. Dunlop doesn't seem to grasp this, or at least it doesn't come across in her writing.

There are a lot of concerns that I have with how fast China is modernizing, least of which is environmental, and also those getting left behind and pushed further down but, I have very little patience with people who want things to stay the same, especially when that thing is poverty. It's very imperialistic--they went to China looking for an exotic backwater and are pissed off when it stops being one sort of thing. Not that I'm saying Dunlop goes as far as all that. Now I'm just ranting.

Anyway, overall, I really liked this book. The second to last chapter just left a very bad taste in my mouth. One that is even worse than stinky tofu. But the rest of the book? Like a perfect bao zi steaming fresh and full of surprises. Or snake. Mmmmm... snake. Sweet and tender.

I got this one from the library, but I'm considering purchasing it because I do want those recipes...


cessie said...

This so sounds like a must read for me! All about food (I'm a real foodie) *and* about foreign cultures (and China is high on my priority list these days).
Thanks for sharing, I will try to find this book and read it soon!

Unknown said...

I agree with you completely about modernization and its discontents. It really bugs me when people who have refrigerators complain about how people who don't are losing their way of life.

Did you know that Isaak Dineson wrote Babette's Feast because someone told her Americans like to read about food and she wanted to break in to the American market?