J.'s Reviews > Shark's Fin and Sichuan Pepper: A Sweet-Sour Memoir of Eating in China

Shark's Fin and Sichuan Pepper by Fuchsia Dunlop
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Feb 01, 09

bookshelves: cuisine, travelers, china, asia, east-west, memoir
Recommended for: ... omnivores with intent ...

This might have been called A Culinary Tour Of China Counterclockwise, as the author spirals her way out to the corners of the country. Starting in the heartland of Sichuan Province, Dunlop makes her way past thousands of soups, noodles, dumplings and hot chillies toward Hunan Province. From there east to Hong Kong, then north to Beijing and then west to Kashgar in Sinkiang --a real 'Great Game' city if ever there was one- and then a final counterclock swing, down to Fujian Province at the coast.

If you've read or better yet have used her Szechuan or Hunan cookbooks, this is the illuminating back-story of how she came to the cuisines in question, how she found teachers & mentors, and what sparked the interest. Here's a dinner in Chongqing.....

It had a filthy magnificence, that city, in the early nineties. It's buildings, tainted by the pollution from factory chimneys, were scattered on steep slopes that fell away to the broad sweep of the Yangtze and Jialing rivers where they met in a fork far below. It was a fierce, hard-working river port, where people spent their days trudging up and down hills and battling with a humidity so stifling that, in summer, it was known as one of China's "furnace" cities.
Even in Sichuan, Chongqing was infamous for the
ma la (numbing & hot) punchiness of its food. We took our seats around a wok in which an inconceivably large mass of dried red chillies, Sichuan peppercorns and other spices were stuck in a thick, pasty layer of fat. A waiter bent down and ignited a gas flame underneath the table. As the wok warmed up, the fat began to melt, and soon the chillies were bobbing around in it. The waiter brought plates of raw ingredients: beef, offal, mushrooms, beancurd and greens. We used our chopsticks to cook them in the fiery broth. Every morsel emerged from the pot in a slick of fiery oil, studded with spices; even a single beansprout came out embroiled with a mouthful of chilli.
By the end of the meal I was almost delerious with heat. My mouth burned and tingled, my body ran with sweat, I felt ragged and molten; pain and pleasure were undistinguishable.


Alright, so that's the travel-poster of the cuisine-- searingly hot and passionately addictive to the willing victim. Something diabolical like vampirism but, conveniently, just a dinner out.

That's far from the whole story, though. As noted elsewhere, the Sichuan chefs balance the heat as a kind of launching pad for other secondary flavors, the unique "manifold" flavor strategy of the province. Here's the author on that :

No one would decide to go and live in Chongqing after such a baptism of fire. But Chengdu is a gentle city. Life there is not a battle against the elements and the gradient of hills; it is a sweet, idle dream.
Chillies are used not in violence but to awaken and stimulate the palate, to make it alive to the possibilities of other tastes. They are melded with an undercurrent of sweetness, a robust beany savouriness, or a splash of mellow vinegar-sour, to seduce and delight. In Chengdu, Sichuanese cuisine is not the assault course of international stereotype, it is a teasing, meandering and entirely pleasurable journey.


So too is this memoir of Fuchshia Dunlop's chinese odyssey.
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Comments (showing 1-2 of 2) (2 new)

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message 1: by Daisy (new) - added it

Daisy Oooh, this looks good.


message 2: by J. (new) - rated it 4 stars

J. Very entertaining thus far. I use her Sz. cookbook all the time these days.
Cautionary note to vegetarians, though. Another name for this might be All Creatures Great & Small: Killing, Cooking & Eating Them. Much is made of the chinese cuisine's 'omnivore' characteristics ....
This isn't Thailand by a long shot.

Interestingly, she makes a definite point of addressing it, too. If we in the West will eat shrinkwrapped filets from airconditioned superstores, what's so very different about the lumps of offal and chicken's feet so prized in Szechuan Province... only a difference in kind, not in refinement. Or morality.

Both buddhism & charcuterie are examined in the light of east x west, and lots of lurid tales get retold. And so it goes.
J.


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