Highly acclaimed by Western media, this book is written by Fuchsia Dunlop, an Englishwoman who has studied Chinese culinary culture for 20 years and recorded her extraordinary adventure in learning about and enjoying Chinese food.
Dunlop grew up in Oxford and received a Bachelor of Arts degree from Cambridge University. Later, she went on to obtain a master’s degree in sinology from the School of Oriental and African Studies in London. In 1994, she came to Chengdu, the capital city of southwest China’s Sichuan Province, to study the history of ethnic minorities at Sichuan University. Dunlop’s works have appeared in publications including The Financial Times, The New Yorker, Gourmet, and Sichuan Cuisine. She has won four James Beard Awards in the United States, which is commonly known as the “Oscars of Food.” She is also a regular guest on radio and television, and has appeared on shows including BBC Radio 4’s The Food Programme.
Ever since her childhood, Dunlop has been interested in cooking. Like many other international students, she became crazy about Chinese food while studying in China. After a one-year exchange student’s life at Sichuan University, she spent three months at the Sichuan Higher Institute of Cuisine, which is now part of the Sichuan Tourism University, to learn professional cooking skills, and then she traveled around Chengdu visiting almost every restaurant or eatery, tasting various dishes and snacks, and learning from famous chefs and culinary experts.
After discovering that the magical Sichuanese cuisine is little known in the West, Dunlop decided to write books about it. For her, discovering the secret of Chinese food is not only a journey of flavors and condiments, but also an adventure of going deeper into the Chinese history and geographical environment which may have had an influence on local foods. And the Chinese culinary culture shows the fantastic way to keep a well-balanced diet and healthy body through its recipes.
The book’s title Shark’s Fin and Sichuan Pepper exhibits two uncommon ingredients for Westerners, making it sound exotic and intriguing. Unlike other documentary-style books, Dunlop’s work revolves mainly around food in all the 17 chapters. From the name of each chapter, readers can get a picture of the general content. For example, Dan Dan Noodles!, First Kill Your Fish, and Guilt and Pepper – these chapters all introduce distinctive Sichuanese dishes; The Cutting Edge, The Root of Tastes, The Rubber Factor, Feeding the Emperor, and A Dream of Red Mansions – these narrate the profundity and extensiveness of Chinese culinary culture; Only Barbarians Eat Salad, Chanel and Chicken’s Feet – these two chapters tell the major differences of culinary cultures between the East and the West.
The author, an English writer who has an insight of the foods of both Great Britain and China, shows the way that people define themselves through food. Changes that have happened during the process of Dunlop’s learning of the Sichuanese cuisine is also an epitome of the rapid development of Chinese cities in recent decades.
In her book, Dunlop talks about Chinese food with an unremitting passion, and she talks about the moving stories of people she met while searching for food. Dunlop also shows the cultural shock she experienced, for example, discussing the foreigners who think that “the Chinese eat everything,” and she discusses how climate change might have a far-reaching impact on diners’ eating habits.
Dunlop offers a brand-new perspective for re-examining Chinese cuisine and suggests that foods at different places may have a unique temperament: Sichuanese cuisine is spicy with a hint of sweetness, just like the leisure and considerate Sichuan locals; in Hunan, the fiery food is like the straightforward local people, which can be seen through the character of Chairman Mao; while Yangzhou cuisine is the delicacy for a prosperous world being gentle, delicate, and heart-soothing.
With a deep understanding of the Chinese culture, Dunlop cites from lots of ancient Chinese literature and anecdotes, and A Dream of Red Mansions, one of Chinese classical novels, has even become a chapter of her book. However, all these excellent narrations and charming words were created based on this Englishwoman’s down-to-earth field work and her professional training at the Sichuan Higher Institute of Cuisine. She once spent Spring Festival in the rural areas of northwest China’s Gansu Province, and shuttled through the corn fields in northern Sichuan. Her rich and first-hand experiences make the book very readable and thought-provoking. Whenever diners feel hungry, these lively descriptions of Chinese food and the dazzling cooking skills would make readers put aside their losing-weight plans. It is definitely not a wise choice for bedtime reading as well – that is if you want go to sleep without a growling stomach longing for Chinese food.