Somehow I imagined this book as a travelogue/memoir of Fuschia Dunlop’s travels around China, sampling all sorts of exotic foods. This turned out to be only part of a wonderful and engaging book with much larger themes.
The English author began in the Sichuan region, moving to Chengdu to research Chinese policy on ethnic minorities at Sichuan University. There she succumbs to the lure of street food, spending more and more time exploring the kitchens of Chengdu rather than actual studying. She spends a month taking formal cooking classes at the Sichuan Institute of Higher Cuisine, which shows her the most basic elements. And then, instead of returning to England, she joined a three month professional chef’s training course. As the only Western student and one of three women in the class, Dunlop has a lot to learn besides figuring out the Sichuan dialect.
Dunlop also spends a lot of time exploring the differences in attitude toward food. The Chinese prize a lot of food that Westerners find from repugnant to abhorrent. Some of it comes down to texture, as in the Sea Cucumber, described by the author herself as looking like “fossilised turds.” Preparing them is laborious. You must salt-roast them or char them first. Then soak them in hot water until they are soft enough to be scraped clean and then gutted. After this you need to summer them in stock to remove the fishiness. Finally, you can add seasonings and cook as you please. Of course, the cucumber still has its rubbery texture.
Why do we abhor eating certain things? And what does that say about us? According to Dunlop, many Chinese think dairy is disgusting. They say Westerners’ sweat smells like milk. It’s a fascinating divide. The author spends a lot of time wrestling with this question especially towards the end of the book. She feels lucky to have traveled as extensively as she has. Now that China’s doors are more open, many of the places she’s visited don’t exist anymore as old makes way for new. And her own tastes have changed. Before she would eat anything, particularly the exotic, just to try it. Meanwhile, more animals have become endangered and the Chinese, like Americans, grow to like eating meat on more than just holidays. Steroids and antibiotics are all introduced. Just this week, a report said that the Olympians traveling to Beijing this summer will bring their own food. Much of the food tested was so full of steroids that athletes would have failed the drug tests.
Overall, I found this book highly enjoyable. Dunlop’s enthusiastic writing makes you want to run out and get some Chinese. It prompted Mr. Bookdwarf and myself visiting Super 88 in Allston , where they have a large number of food stalls serving all sorts of yummy food. After reading passages out loud to him, Mr. Bookdwarf eagerly waited by my elbow as I finished the last five pages, so he could get his hands on the book. Now that’s a recommendation.