the kitchen reader: shark's fin and sichuan pepper

by Stacy

The October selection for The Kitchen Reader was Shark’s Fin and Sichuan Pepper: A Sweet-Sour Memoir of Eating in China by Fuchsia Dunlop chosen by Jessica of Are You Hungary?.

So this is a book about the unexpected wonders of Chinese cuisine. It is also the tale of an English girl who went to China, ate everything, and was sometimes surprised at the consequences.

Fuchsia Dunlop first went to China in 1992 and this book was published in 2008. Fifteen years is a lot to cover in a single book, but she does it. Some of the qualities that I liked about the book were some of the same qualities that annoyed me a bit about it. Like her memoir, my reading experience of it was also sweet-sour.

That said, I did like the book. I went back and forth a few times, but by the end I came to appreciate the scope of her experiences and her expression of how they transformed her. She references “a historical progression from ‘eating to fill your belly’ (chi bao), through ‘eating plenty of rich food’ (chi hao), to ‘eating skillfully’ (chi qiao),” and so follows her story.

Her first visit to China is as a student, eating bowls of simple noodles purchased from street vendors. New to China with much to learn and explore, she eventually becomes the first foreigner to enroll in a Sichuanese cooking school. An expert in Chinese cooking, she published her first cookbook in 2002.

On return trips for researching future books she is eating more as the Chinese might, recounting a tale when her parents came to visit and she blithely ordered them goose intestine hot pot without a second thought, happily gobbling down her own portion. She travels to diverse provinces eating everything she is offered. In a section which I unfortunately managed to read while eating lunch one day, she delves into the textural differences between Chinese and Western cooking.

“Think, for a moment, of the words we use to describe some of the textures most adored by the Chinese gourmets: gristly, slithery, slimy, squelchy, crunchy, gloopy . . . Did you shudder slightly while reading this paragraph? Be honest.”

After eating insects and entrails, she eventually reaches a point where she is served the meat from protected species of animals. There begins a shift to discussing the rapid modernization of China and all the baggage which accompanies it, including near-extinction of certain prized animals, pollution of drinking water, and significant food safety problems. New wealth has lead to less-healthy eating habits and wasteful dining practices. “Eating skillfully” is much more important now than it used to be.

When I first started reading, I enjoyed the author’s somewhat lyrical writing style. Her descriptions of her first impressions of China were rich and detailed with fun word choices and complex sentence structure. Sometimes I read books with fairly pedestrian plots, but they’re still fun to read. I was looking forward to that in this book. In an interesting twist, she includes some excellent historical information, well-researched, which ties in to her adventures and adds insight and context to many topics in the book.

But after the first few chapters I started to feel bogged down in details, the book started to feel interminably long, and sections that were informative started to seem dense. I had trouble with the timeline, confused by interesting-but-tangential asides as to when things were happening. The historical interludes became distracting instead of illuminating.

By the end, like the author in her tumultuous relationship with China, I came around again. Perhaps pressure to finish the book in time for my book club post (I didn’t) and a library due date (I renewed it) made me want to rush through the text instead of savoring it a bit. The parts I slogged through weren’t the single chapters read before bed, but multiple chapters in a one sitting which made me feel impatient. It is a library book, but I think that it’s a book I could read again and appreciate the details more, skimming sections I didn’t find as interesting and relishing other pieces more.

Part of the problem is that she has so much material to cover. Fifteen years of travel, study, eating, and research yields a lot of information. It was even hard for me to summarize my thoughts because there was so much I wanted to address. Perhaps, like the author herself, I was thinking too much about the gristly bits and not enjoying the experience for what it was.

Have you read Shark’s Fin and Sichuan Pepper? What did you think? Check out The Kitchen Reader blogroll for more reviews!

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{ 2 comments… read them below or add one }

Jill November 7, 2010 at 6:54 am

Writing style makes all the difference! A somewhat uninteresting topic can be interesting and vice versa. I did want to read this one and had it from the library but never started it. Thanks for the write-up it does sound intriguing.


Jennifer November 16, 2010 at 4:05 pm

SO sorry I missed your post! I have been running around like a chicken without it’s head whilst preparing to move-the move is in the same town, but, my life is in boxes for the time being!

What a lovely review! Gristly bits can be hard to digest!


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