Review: Shark’s Fin and Sichuan Pepper

Shark's Fin and Sichuan PepperOriginally a Cambridge English graduate raised in Oxford, food writer Fuschia Dunlop became interested in China during a stint working for the BBC Monitoring Unit in Caversham. Chasing this interest, she applied for, and won, a British Council scholarship to study at Sichuan University; but quickly lost interest in her official research into Chinese ethnic minorities, and instead enrolled on a course at the Sichuan Higher Institute of Cuisine, the first Westerner, and the first woman, to do so. She’s now recognised as one of the foremost Western experts on Chinese cooking; Shark’s Fin and Sichuan Pepper is the tale of how she got there.

There’s of course something a little awkward about reading a middle-class white woman speak with authority about a culture she hasn’t been raised in, although Dunlop has at least spent a significant amount of time – months, years – actually living in China. In Dunlop’s case, I’d already read her cookbooks The Food of Sichuan and Land of Fish and Rice, which the Bandersnatch has been cooking from, and which, for me, illuminated a number of things that can make Chinese cooking seem unpalatable by Western standards. In particular, texture is key in Chinese cuisine: it’s why you see things like jellyfish and chicken gizzards on the menu at good Chinese restaurants in the West. It’s this kind of context – supplemented by historical material about the origins of particular dishes and particular branches of Chinese cooking – that makes the writing in Dunlop’s cookbooks feel deeply informed, going beyond the exoticism and Orientalism that’s endemic in Western writing about Asian cuisine to become something that’s both accessible to Western readers and at least approaching “authentic”. I mean, it’s still uncomfortable that Dunlop is a leading expert on this subject, and not an actual Chinese person – even if this isn’t precisely Dunlop’s fault. But it does, at least, seem to be actual expertise.

I’d say Shark’s Fin and Sichuan Pepper veers a little more into exoticising territory, though, perhaps simply because of its nature as a personal memoir rather than reference-book writing. Dunlop has a tendency to make rather generalising statements about whole cities and regions:

No one would decide to go and live in Chongqing after such a baptism of fire [Dunlop is referring here to the chilli-heat of Chongqing cuisine]. But Chengdu is a gentle city. Life there is not a battle against the elements and the gradient of hills; it is a sweet, idle dream.

There’s a fair bit of this sort of thing, details that make it clear that Dunlop’s seeing China from the outside, and not as a full-time inhabitant would. As in her cookbooks, however, there’s also real, thought-provoking engagement with the history and context of Chinese cuisine and food culture. Dunlop traces the progression of her deepening love for Chinese food – and especially Sichuan food – and then, in later chapters, reveals her disillusionment with the country: with its rife corruption, the endemic pollution, the thriving trade in meat from endangered species. She visits Xinjiang and describes the discrimination that Uyghur Muslims were facing there even back in 2008, in a foreshadowing of the internment camps that exist across the region today. She describes how the increasing wealth of China’s middle class is pushing up demand for rare delicacies, decimating ecosystems around the world. Dunlop’s research background shines here: it’s all fascinating analysis about one of the world’s largest economic powers, although again her framing of China’s flaws as personal disappointments for her, a Westerner, gives the whole thing a slightly uncomfortable cast.

Even when she isn’t being critical, there are things Dunlop writes about that I would rather not have read, on the whole. The subject of eating puppies comes up several times. More seriously, Dunlop describes methods of animal butchery that are literally inhumane: she describes somebody skinning a rabbit without killing it first, for example, and goes on to praise the “honesty” of such a process, compared to the sanitised industrial meat production that goes on in the West. This, to me, is symptomatic of Dunlop’s romanticising of Chinese food culture: both processes, Chinese and Western, seem equally inhumane in different ways, and neither is particularly excusable.

There are problems with Shark’s Fin and Sichuan Pepper, then; its very nature, as an account of a Westerner’s relationship with China, means it’s never going to be entirely satisfactory as an authority on that country. But, on the whole, I did quite enjoy it. I like that it does engage with criticisms of China; that it illuminates aspects of Chinese food culture for Westerners; that it draws attention to regional differences in Chinese cuisine which are often blurred in the Western cultural consciousness. Fascinating and imperfect, it’s well worth a read if you’re at all interested in Chinese food.

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