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Shark's Fin and Sichuan Pepper

by: Fuschia Dunlop

New York NY: W.W. Norton & Company 2008, $24.95, Hardbound
ISBN: 978-0-393-06657-9

Reviewed by: Jacqueline M. Newman
Winter Volume: 2008 Issue: 15(4) page(s): 23

Subtitled: A Sweet-sour Memoir of Eating in China, English-born Fuschia Dunlop reports on her fifteen years studying the language and exploring this country's food. Most fascinating is the time she spent as a full-time student in a Sichuan Institute of Higher Cuisine in Chengdu. Even how she talked her way into the place is, like much in this book, a spectacular look at place and people rarely known. These are coupled with the fascination of her initial dislike for many Chinese honorific foods and her complete conversion to eating and adoring every last food she found in this country. The book ends, and I wish it did not, with a bit of a turn-back to selective eating of Chinese food.

We read through on two occasions, once before we met her, and a second time afterwards. On both occasions we went from concern about her dubious approach to the culture's culinary, to total adoration of same. And when we met over a Chinese cuisine she was delighted to learn about, we waltzed through her turn-around of disgust about things negative such as the rampant pollution, water contamination, eating excesses, and the like to her love affair with Chinese food.

She is as fascinating as is this book; which is, incidentally, a must read! Through all twists and turns one sees her deep attachment to country and cuisine and her appreciation of magical tastes, masterful cooking techniques, and curious though correct culinary connections. Dunlop's affection for the cuisine is palpable, purposeful, and perfect. Her expert travel discourses match her two previous cookery books, piled with energy, enthusiasm, and engaging discourse.

Throughout this book, one learns about streets and street foods, political perspectives and the politics of its history, misinformation perpetrated on westerners (that theirs is a single cuisine), even differences between what you have read and believe and what really is. Dunlop appreciates the charming culture of all folks there, intellectuals to those ineffective.

Read the book for intellectual sampling and basic understandings. Learn about texture in Chinese food, a frontier needed to be an insider. Think about the civet cat and the red-cooked pork. Become someone in-the-know who eats unflinchingly disturbing disguised dining bits, as she eventually did and does. Learn to love legendary delicacies and their mouth-feel while intellectually devouring sea cucumber, pig kidneys, squid balls, and caterpillar fungus. Get to understand Qu Yuan's poem intended to bring back the dead and live with Dunlop's passionate appreciation of the Chinese culinary. Grow to love it as she does, join the Chinese who know and believe in their gastronomy. Then you, too, will be part of one quarter of the world's population that recognizes the greatness that is Chinese food!

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