‘Shark’s Fin & Sichuan Pepper’ by Fuchsia Dunlop – Book Review

‘Shark’s Fin & Sichuan Pepper’ by Fuchsia Dunlop – Book Review, Lay The Table

My first encounter with food writer Fuchsia Dunlop was at a British Museum talk on Chinese food last year. I didn’t stay behind to chat with her, but was impressed with her opinions on the importance of food in Chinese culture. We were briefly introduced at a Ferran Adrià talk last November, and more recently we exchanged emails when I needed a photo of Ba Shan‘s interior, where she is a consultant. We met again at the recent Guild of Food Writers awards party, as we were both shortlisted for different awards. Her book Shark’s Fin & Sichuan Pepper: a sweet-sour memoir of eating in China, an account of her food experiences in China over a period of years, won the Kate Whiteman award for work on Food and Travel. And that’s how it landed on my doorstep, after I expressed an interest to publisher Ebury in reviewing it.

It made fascinating reading, because I would never have had the courage to study at a professional cookery institute in Sichuan, hang out by myself in Hunan or be quite so open-minded with my eating habits. I spent the best part of two years in 1996-1997 at the Beijing Language and Culture University, learning Mandarin. I arrived knowing only how to pronounce my name and left top of my class, having written essays on obscure topics and almost able to read a newspaper. In between those two stages, I had to look for an apartment on my own, find a part-time job, learn to speak, read and write and assimilate into a culture that was quite foreign to me, despite being of Chinese origin. That was my attempt at being brave and adventurous!

‘Shark’s Fin & Sichuan Pepper’ by Fuchsia Dunlop – Book Review, Lay The Table

As for enjoying food in Beijing, well, I drew the line at eating deep-fried scorpions. I did, however, help to make jiaozi at a friend’s house, and was invited to some simple but mouth-watering home-cooked meals at other homes. I regularly enjoyed Beijing duck at Quanjude, Cantonese dim sum on Sundays at the Kunlun Hotel, Mongolian hot pot, Xinjiang lamb and cumin kebabs, all manner of Sichuan dishes and simple street snacks like steamed buns and fried spring onion pancakes (jian bing). My diet was supplemented by home cooking from my Swiss neighbour, plenty of Korean food (courtesy of my Korean boyfriend at the time) and sushi when I could afford it.

I didn’t immerse myself as deeply into Chinese culture to quite the extent that Fuchsia did. While I dipped a toe or perhaps a foot in it, she dived into it headfirst. I have to confess that when I first heard of her a couple of years ago, I was a bit skeptical of her skills as a writer of Chinese food, and I’m sure I wasn’t the only one. Having now read her memoir, as well as leafed through Revolutionary Chinese Cookbook, I can say that I was very wrong. Anyone who is as dedicated as she is to Chinese food has my undying respect.

‘Shark’s Fin & Sichuan Pepper’ by Fuchsia Dunlop – Book Review, Lay The Table

I read about classic Sichuan street snacks, such as Zhong shui jiao, a steamed pork dumpling ‘bathed in spiced, sweetened soy sauce and chilli oil, finished off with a smattering of garlic paste’. And dan dan noodles, the name of which is derived from the bamboo shoulderpole used by vendors to carry their equipment (the verb ‘dan’ means to carry on a shoulderpole). But fried rabbit heads anyone? Apparently they’re delicious tossed in a wok with chilli and spring onion…

The chapters on the Sichuan Institute of Higher Cuisine, where Fuchsia trained as a professional chef, were of particular interest to me, as she describes in detail the different types of stir-frying in Chinese cooking (‘slippery’, ‘explode’, ‘small & simple’, ‘raw’, ‘cooked’, ‘stir-fry til fragrant’, ‘salt’, ‘sand’), intricate cutting techniques all performed with just a cleaver and the various flavours in Sichuan cooking. Rather than just ‘hot and spicy’, the flavours include home-style, fish-fragrant, strange, hot and numbing, red-oil, garlic-paste and scorched chilli. This was all fascinating to me.

She also writes about her research trips to find Sichuan pepper, sample ‘Mao family cuisine’ in Mao’s village of Shaoshan, Hunan, enjoy the best crabs in China (near Suzhou) and learn about Xinjiang food and culture. I doubt I’ll ever get a chance to go to these areas, although I’ve always dreamed of visiting Xinjiang, so reading about them was a good substitute for the real thing.

‘Shark’s Fin & Sichuan Pepper’ by Fuchsia Dunlop – Book Review, Lay The Table

The ethics of eating endangered species such as pangolin, bear and shark (to be had at exorbitant prices), and the practice of skinning creatures while still alive (this deeply disturbed me) are discussed in depth, as is the traditional role of food as medicine. Another topic she covers is that of contaminated and polluted food products, whether  meat, fish, crabs or vegetables. Fuchsia also debates the importance of MSG, which she avoids using. My mother never uses it when she cooks and my father will always ask for it not to be added to dishes when we eat in Chinese restaurants. I personally don’t think it’s necessary and have never cooked with it.

There are various recipes following each chapter for classics such as fish-fragrant aubergine (one of the first Sichuan dishes I tried in Beijing), dan dan mian, twice-cooked pork, Chairman Mao’s red-braised pork, and Kashgar kebabs. There’ll certainly be some attempts by me to recreate a few of these dishes in the not too distant future, using Revolutionary Chinese Cookbook and also her first cookery book Sichuan Cookery, which I plan to buy soon.

Shark’s Fin and Sichuan Pepper covers far too many subjects for me to even touch upon, so I can only recommend you read it if you’re interested in food and the role it plays in Chinese life and culture. I hope you’ll enjoy it as much as I did. As for me, I’ll be planning a future traveleating trip to Yangzhou, ‘the ancient gastronomic capital of the east’…

‘Shark’s Fin & Sichuan Pepper’ by Fuchsia Dunlop – Book Review, Lay The Table

You may like to read my other Book Reviews on Lay The Table. The photos used to illustrate the review were taken during last year’s ‘traveleating‘ trip to Beijing.

@ Lay The Table

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