I vividly remember the day my father announced that we were going to move. I was six, and we were sitting round the dinner table in our house in Dublin. As we finished our food he calmly told us that we would be leaving Ireland, destined for Hong Kong. I was stunned. But despite my dire warnings of the typhoons, hurricanes, earthquakes, volcanoes, tidal waves, and famines that I felt sure at the time must continuously beset the poor suffering people of Hong Kong, it was clear I was fighting a losing battle. We were going, and that was that.
Of course, I had no idea where the real source of terror would lie. By the time we finally got to Hong Kong I had turned seven. At that innocent age I had not yet encountered the sheer bewilderment of Chinese food. The shock of seeing tubs and buckets seething with eels and crabs, odd-looking fish, and other even stranger, unrecognizable, unnameable creatures writhing in the wet markets of Wanchai and North Point proved a little too much for me. “My god, they’re still moving! You can’t eat that!” I screamed, as an old Chinese woman on a stool nearby nonchalantly picked up a chicken and plucked it in seconds flat, stretching its neck ready for the blade. Blood and water, wriggling “things” of dubious colour and origin, slime, feathers everywhere. Oh god!
In Shark’s Fin and Sichuan Pepper, Fuchsia Dunlop’s utterly wonderful elegy to China, we are treated to similar horrors. The description of her chef friend gutting a fish is as visceral as writing gets. And then there is this short note about the death of a rabbit:
Hit rabbit head over the head to stun it. Hang up by foot. Slit its throat. Immediately peel off skin. Chop brutally into small pieces with a cleaver…. From live rabbit to dish on table in less than ten minutes.
The foreigner can only gawp. But as horrific as this might sound to Western ears, there is, at its heart, a brutal honesty about it. With Chinese food there is no hiding from the blood and the butchery. If you want to eat meat, you cannot help but see exactly where it comes from. In the West there is a constant distance between source and stomach. For most, their meat comes in packages in supermarkets that bear virtually no connection, let alone resemblance, to the animal itself. The killing and slaughter of livestock is done far out of sight, and kept far out of mind. Call it a luxury if you will; after all, they say it’s best not to see how politics and sausages are made. But a Chinese person is fully au fait with the slaughter, because often enough it is done right in front of them. Dunlop explores the possibility that the Chinese have an understanding and concept of animal life that is sufficiently different to allow them not to have empathy for our fellow creatures. Perhaps she’s right. Either way, the Chinese have an approach to food that is a lot more honest. And I can vouch for one thing, when the food arrives, it’s a lot fresher, and a hence all that more delicious! Do not be shy about choosing your fish live from the aquarium – it will literally melt in your mouth!
Thankfully, I grew out of my squeamishness and learned to love Chinese food. Later, living in Taiwan, my food horizons expanded to include such exotic fare such as pigeons’ heads (instantly recognisable, and very crunchy, in case you’re interested), duck’s tongue, and octopus penis. Sometimes these were served to me by hosts half hoping for a stereotypical response of shock and disgust. But I didn’t oblige. And not from manners – everything offered to me was just so damn good! I couldn’t help but devour the lot.
As Fuchsia Dunlop says: “You take on the food of another country at your peril. Do it and you inevitably lose your moorings, and destabilise your fundamental sense of identity. It’s a risky business.” Her descriptions of China and its people seem much more real and much closer because she does exactly this. The book, about the girl who “ate everything,” is an absolute joy. From her description of dandan-noodle sellers on the streets of old Chengdu and expeditions to the Sichuan mountains in search of pepper trees, to expensive feasts and back-alley Hong Kong dive restaurants that serve the best food the territory has to offer, every word rings true. The story of her enrollment in the Sichuan chefs’ college is as priceless as it is enlightening. We often hear idle talk about the sights and sounds of travel and exotica, about travellers immersing themselves in authentic local “ethnic” culture, but most seem to result in somewhat shallow stories that might as well end up in magazines in a dentist’s waiting room – anodyne, pretentious, boring – never more than one step away from a plane journey home. Not so with this.
In the West we tend to have a rather limited and monochrome understanding of Chinese food. It is easy to forget how big China is; Sichuan alone is the size of France. And the scale and variety of Sichuan cuisine is vast and hugely varied in its own right. If there is a criticism to be made of this book, it is that Dunlop tries to cover too much ground. Perhaps, given that she originally went to China to study its hinterland minorities, she felt a need to include an element of this in the book. But then again, with Chinese food you can’t really blame someone for trying to bite off more than they can chew.
Dunlop’s willingness to explore and try new food is remarkable. One wonders if there is anything she hasn’t eaten. Her stout defence of sea cucumber and her account of her first abalone (an experience, it would seem, as exciting and daring as losing one’s virginity) is sensuous and even erotic. Each chapter in this book is punctuated by a recipe (including one for bear’s paw stew from the ancient imperial court) that grips the imagination. It’s not so much that you can taste the final product; you get a taste for every ingredient, and even a sense of how each dish should feel in your mouth, when you bite into it, when you roll it around your palate and on your tongue, how it feels when you swallow it. Texture is all important to Chinese cuisine, and this book explains it better than anywhere else I have seen.
Above all, hers is a great poem to China and its culture. It might well sound like a cliché to say that her love for all things Chinese leaps off every page, but it is genuinely true in this case. And while at times it reads almost like a litany of guilty pleasure after guilty pleasure, her willingness to experiment, explore, and try something new wherever she goes is at least inspiring, if not always enviable. She does not hesitate to criticise where she sees fit, whether it be the consumption of rare and endangered species, the treatment of ethnic minorities in Xinjiang or Tibet, or the growing pollution problem that China faces. She covers huge stretches of a vast country, in the most disarming, delightfully charming way. I am reminded of Joseph Needham’s quest to discover science and technology in ancient China – another great Sinophile, and a kindred spirit, who also began his love affair with China in Chengdu.
In one chapter, Dunlop quotes a piece by an ancient Chinese chef by the name of Yu Yi (the book is peppered throughout with quotations from Chinese literature, philosophy, and poetry). Writing in the sixteenth century BC, Yu Yi said: “The transformations that occur in the ding (cooking pot or cauldron) are so supremely wonderful and delicate that the mouth cannot express them in words, nor the mind comprehend them.” If he could read this book, I have no doubt that the old sage would stop, calmly turn around, and retire to his quarters. Arriving there he would reflect for a moment or two before changing for dinner. He would then reappear at table, where he would solemnly give thanks, before breaking into a smile, tapping the table with his index and middle fingers, and beaming rapturously as Dunlop served his words back up to him.
Shark’s Fin and Sichuan Pepper: A Sweet-Sour Memoir of Eating in China is published by Ebury Press (U.K.) and W.W. Norton & Company (U.S.).
For more information about Fuschia Dunlop and her books, visit fuchsiadunlop.com.
Reviewed by Conn O’Grady.