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.

Review: Dzur

DzurSomething that’s interesting about how Steven Brust’s Dzur tends to be received is that, while people tend not to have a lot to say about the book (the top-rated reviews on Goodreads are mostly only two to three paragraphs long), they do all mention the food. The tenth book in Brust’s fantasy series following the adventures of wisecracking assassin Vlad Taltos, Dzur has a fairly complicated and not all that memorable plot to do with Vlad’s ex-wife Cawti and the criminal gang (the Jhereg, in Brust’s nomenclature) attempting to move in on her turf, whom Vlad must placate, persuade and otherwise buy off so they’ll leave her alone. It’s framed, though, by a seven-course meal at Valabar’s, Vlad’s favourite restaurant: each chapter is preceded by a description of one of the courses, or of the wine Vlad and his dining companions are drinking, or of the petits-fours they’re served.

This series has always been interested in food: Vlad is never far from a good meal, or a glass of fine wine; and he’s a handy cook, too. There’s something very practical about this trait of his: while he enjoys good food, and recognises bad, he’s not a food snob – he’s just as happy eating sausages and flatbread from a street stall as he is at Valabar’s. He reads like someone who enjoys food because he’s known what it likes to be really hungry; his interest in food, in other words, is about survival.

And so Brust’s decision to pair the meal at Valabar’s with this complex, political plot about Jhereg infighting and organised crime is saying something very interesting about the world in which Vlad moves. The extortion and bribery that Vlad and his associates engage in – activities that Cawti eschews, which is partly why the Jhereg are threatening her position – are, like the simple elemental pleasures of eating, a matter of survival.

This ties in, I think, to the series’ examination of class: Vlad, as a human in a world of elf-like Dragaerans, is a member of a barely-tolerated underclass; as such, unlike the Dragaeran Cawti, he doesn’t have the luxury of choosing a less illegal approach to life, certainly if he wants to stay alive.

It’s these revelations about the way that Dragaeran society works, and the various ways its class structures are enforced, that makes these novels interesting: I’m not particularly grabbed by Brust’s twisty, concept-heavy plots, which often rely on the reader remembering conversations and details from a hundred pages ago that weren’t at the time flagged as being of particular import or interest. Vlad’s ambiguous social position, as a member of a disenfranchised minority who’s nevertheless achieved a measure of influence in Dragaeran society, makes him a fascinating protagonist, as does his failure to adhere to standard expectations for a lead character in a fantasy novel, even an amoral one. Ultimately, though, while I find the Vlad Taltos books conceptually energising, and I appreciate what Brust’s trying to do in them, the actual reading experience never quite seems to deliver; I’m not sure that Vlad’s living up to his full potential.

Review: One More Croissant for the Road

I read Felicity Cloake’s travel guide/food memoir One More Croissant for the Road back in April, about five weeks into lockdown, and reading about the sumptuous French delicacies she samples provoked in me so fierce a longing it was almost physical.

The book is an account of Cloake’s bicycle tour around France, sampling regional dishes as she goes – from galettes and sweet cider in Brittany to cassoulet in Toulouse. Each chapter ends with a recipe, and every time Cloake eats a croissant (which she does a lot) she rates it out of ten. There are tales of missed reservations, destination restaurants tragically closed for the season, heroic uphill cycles and impromptu road picnics, all of it liberally wine-soaked (Cloake liking alcohol as much as she likes croissants). In the Before Times, it would, I suspect, have been an enjoyable, light read, perhaps inspiring some light gluttony or an impromptu trip to Brasserie Blanc; five weeks into lockdown, with the very idea of going to a restaurant seeming impossibly reckless, it was a poignant tribute to eating delicious things you haven’t had to cook yourself (or even order off an app).

Review: The Angry Chef

Anthony Warner’s The Angry Chef has its origins in his science blog of the same name: a site dedicated to the sweary, rage-filled mythbusting of fad diets and food-related pseudoscience. This book, subtitled, clickbait-ily, “Bad Science and the Truth about Healthy Eating”, is more of the same: a look at some of the most harmful and ill-founded modern diets, from GAPS to paleo, an examination of a few of the most pervasive myths about food (“evil sugar” features prominently), a handy guide to spotting bullshit in the world of food and a hard-hitting conclusion discussing some of the abuses perpetrated in the name of food pseudoscience. Young autistic children being put on heavily restricted diets in the hope they’ll be “cured”; cancer patients turning away from Western medicine, only to die in agony having put their trust in unscientific diets; these, Warner argues, are the eventual end point of the detox salad you choose for lunch.

Which seems a slight exaggeration, and indeed that’s the biggest flaw in the book. Warner isn’t a scientist – in fact he’s a development chef, which I’ll get to in a minute – but his whole schtick revolves around the Power of Science, and particularly of the scientific method. The pseudonymous Captain Science (who I believe is a real scientist who doesn’t want her name splashed all over the internet) is a regular visitor to his blog, supplying neat precis of scientific papers – an approach that’s carried over into the book, which is meticulously referenced. Warner also covers common psychological fallacies like regression to the mean, confirmation bias and mistaking correlation for causation – all things the scientific method can protect us from. In other words, a lot of the material in this book is valuable and well-sourced; it’s just a few eyebrow-raising arguments that let it down. Such as Warner’s assertion that looking down on convenience food is sexist, because convenience food has freed women in particular from hours of labour preparing meals from scratch.

There’s a good point in there somewhere. It’s true that, pre-convenience food, people spent A Lot of time preserving, baking, boiling, salting, chopping, pickling, churning and generally making sure their households had enough food throughout the year. And that those people were mostly women. It’s also true that convenience food has made many, many people’s lives easier and more viable: pre-chopped vegetables and ready meals are lifesavers for disabled people, people working three jobs so they can feed their families, carers, busy professionals and the like. But none of this addresses the actual problem at hand, which is that convenience food – by which I mean Dolmio’s sauces, ready meals, supermarket cakes and the like, not relatively innocuous things like tinned tomatoes and diced carrots – generally contains vast amounts of fat and salt and sugar, all of which have been shown to be bad for you in large quantities, and all of which are addictive when they’re present in large quantities, especially together. No, demonising convenience food is not the answer. But saying it’s specifically sexist to do so is a distraction.

A distraction from what? This is where Warner’s own biases come in. You’d think the answer to making convenience foods healthier and better for the people who rely on them would be to regulate the food industry. As a development chef working for a large food manufacturer (presumably looking at ways to make convenience foods more delicious and more addictive), this would, I suppose, make Warner’s life a bit more difficult. So: sexism!

I dwell on this example not because it’s a hugely important part of Warner’s argument (his general stance is that people should feel free to enjoy food without guilt or unnecessary restriction, which I am in wholehearted agreement with) but because it’s representative of the book’s overall pro-industry bias and the odd leaps of logic Warner tends to take when he’s straying outside the realms of scientific evidence. It is not by any means a bad book: I’d recommend it to anyone who likes food unashamedly, and anyone who’s thinking about dipping a toe in the dieting pool. If you’ve already a reader of the Angry Chef blog, though, I don’t think you’ll find anything new here.

Review: The Reading Cure

TW: eating disorder.

The Reading Cure is journalist Laura Freeman’s account of how reading helped her recover from anorexia. Although there are a couple of harrowing chapters, the book as a whole is far more positive than I think I expected, as Freeman finds the courage through reading to change her attitude to food, bit by bit.

She’s very clear that anorexia isn’t really a thing you “recover” from, that it’s taken her years to get as far as she has, and that she’ll probably never be comfortable with eating loads of food. It’s an honest, clear-eyed look not at anorexia itself, which has become sensationalised to some extent, but at what happens afterwards, the long and intensely less storyable process of eating healthily again.

There are setbacks: after Dickens’ cosy toast-and-tea suppers and treasured bars of chocolate with the war writers comes the clean eating movement, which sees Freeman restricting her flowering diet back down to “healthy”, “permitted” foods. There are delvings into darkness: her reading of Virginia Woolf, who similarly struggled with eating and with her mental health, leads Freeman to fear that she’ll meet the same lonely end as that writer; but, at the same time, she draws courage from Woolf’s determination.

One caveat: Freeman’s experience is very definitely middle-to-upper-class. Her parents are comfortably able to look after her for a year in their London townhouse; she’s able to afford books while early in her career as a freelance journalist; she goes on holiday to far-flung destinations. I’m not saying it’s, like, a jetsetting lifestyle, and she’s open about the privilege she has – but this is far from a universal account of recovery from anorexia.

As a book about food, food writing and our relationships with both – extreme or otherwise – it’s thoughtful and fascinating, and I found myself in tears more than once. I’m so glad I picked this up at the library.

The English Student Cooks: Souffle Cheese and Broccoli Pancakes

I’m currently cooking my way through Mary Berry’s Complete Cook Book, which the Pragmatist gave/lent to me when I moved out for my first full-time job. I wanted to document the experience as a kind of cooking diary, and so “The English Student Cooks” was born. This will be an irregular feature, as I only cook when I’m home on my days off, which is Not That Often.

Souffle Cheese and Broccoli Pancakes

Method: I started off by making the pancake batter in the usual way: making a well in 85g flour and adding one beaten egg and a bit of milk and mixing them together, and then adding 85ml milk and 85ml water and stirring. Then I put that aside to stand.

Next, the broccoli: 30g of tiny broccoli florets got boiled for a minute and drained and put aside.

The next thing was cheese sauce, which went horribly wrong the only other time I’ve made it, so I was justifiably nervous. I melted 10g butter (I was quartering all the measurements, which proved challenging – I dare you to measure out 10g of anything on analogue scales) and stirred in 10g plain flour and cooked this roux for a minute, and then added 75ml milk, slowly, so it was smooth; and then brought the mixture to the boil until it went all thick and lovely. It was a good moment, realising that it had actually worked!

The sauce came off the heat and I added 20g Cheddar and some mustard, and then about 20g more Cheddar because, frankly, I like my cheese sauce cheesy and not bland.

At this point I made two pancakes with the pancake batter, frying them in hot oil for a minute each side.

I separated an egg (just about – I tend to start doing things and then realise I haven’t thought them through at all, which is not good when you are wandering around with an eggshell full of yolk), and beat the yolk into the cheese sauce before whisking up the whites (with a handheld electronic beater, having tried whisking egg whites by hand before and not being foolish enough to try that twice) until they formed soft peaks – or, in practice, until I got bored.

The egg whites got folded into the cheese sauce mixture along with the broccoli, and the mixture went in the middle of the pancakes, which I’d put on a buttered baking tray. The pancakes were folded up, Parmesan was grated over them, and they went in the oven at 200 degrees for 15 minutes.

Substitutions/alterations: As I’ve said, I quartered the recipe, not being in need of 8 pancakes.

Verdict: The pancakes came out of the oven all right, which was a miracle in itself, and they tasted approximately correct. I wanted them to be cheesier, though.

All in all, it was quite a satisfying recipe to cook – fiddly, but not overly so, and full of things that felt like little triumphs (white sauce, soufflé mixture). If I tried it again – which I won’t rule out – I’d cook them for more people than just me, and add more cheese.

Linkdump 21/11/16

I’m working hard on my novel for NaNoWriMo, as well as trying to complete my reading challenge for 2016 (I’ve got a good 10 books to go before the end of the year, which is…scary), so I’ve not had much time to watch or read new stuff.

So, today, just a linkdump of stuff that’s been distracting me on the Internet lately.

  • Queers in Love at the End of the World – a powerful piece of interactive fiction that I honestly and truly cannot get out of my head. It takes just ten seconds to play, but I’d recommend going around a few times at least. A story about love and affirmation and queerness that made me cry.
  • Angry Chef – “exposing lies, pretension and stupidity in the world of food”. Says it all, really. This is a great blog to read if, like me, you’re bored of endless tales of people around you going on pointless diets when what they really need to be doing is eating a healthy balanced diet.
  • Ferretbrain, one of my perennial sources of procrastination, has been running a very detailed and well-researched series on the works of H.P. Lovecraft, the first of which is here. I am in awe of how people with jobs have the time to do this sort of thing.
  • Strange Horizons has had a facelift! It now no longer looks like it was built in the 1990s. I do like the new look, but I miss the simplicity of the old one – it was much easier to tell with the simpler interface which things I hadn’t read yet. But then I am a grumpy person who does not like change that much.


  • Three Rows of Teeth – Tom Slatter. Described as Genesis meets Doctor Who, which seems pretty near the mark; it sounds like the idealised Doctor Who I have in my mind, the show that’s good at tragedy and adventure and epic stories of loss and time (as opposed to the real Doctor Who, which is frequently sexist and full of stupid ideas and wobbly sets). I particularly like “The Time Traveller Suite” – I am a sucker for prog-rock symphonies of its kind – especially the second song, “Rise Another Leaf”.
  • Crypts and Codes – Psyche Corporation. Gothic cyberpunk that’s full of machines and feminist revenge. Musically, it’s on the electronica side of rock (I think?? Musical terminology is not my thing), although “Lost My Love” almost sounds Tudor. My favourite track at the moment is “Oh”, which is as good an Angry Song as I can think of.
  • Counterpoint – Jason Webley. I have to be careful how much Jason Webley I listen to, because it has a tendency to make me cry. Anyway, Counterpoint, which features “twelve songs in twelve keys”, all sung in Webley’s husky dark-folk style, is catchy and heartbreaking all at once.

The English Student Cooks: Basil and Goat’s Cheese Pancakes

I’m currently cooking my way through Mary Berry’s Complete Cook Book, which the Pragmatist gave/lent to me when I moved out for my first full-time job. I wanted to document the experience as a kind of cooking diary, and so “The English Student Cooks” was born. This will be an irregular feature, as I only cook when I’m home on my days off, which is Not That Often.

Basil and Goat’s Cheese Pancakes

Method: I made pancake batter – one beaten egg added to a well in 60g flour, mix up until smooth, add 4oml water and 40ml milk, as well as a bit of dried basil, and mix – and left it to rest for half an hour while I frantically tried to up my NaNo word count. (I am terrible at word counts.) Then I fried the batter up into mini pancakes, cooked over a lower heat than usual for two minutes on each side, and topped with goat’s cheese and sprinkles of paprika. (I honestly think paprika is one of my favourite things.)

Alterations/substitutions: I only used a third of Mary’s quantities because I did not want 20 mini pancakes. Also, I used dried basil instead of fresh because I have no chance of using fresh basil outside of a specific recipe.

Verdict: This is a huge faff and you should not try it at home. I couldn’t really taste the basil (although this is possibly because I didn’t use fresh) or, for that matter, the paprika. And I remain at a loss as to why you would serve pancakes as a canapé: they are greasy and impossible to eat sophisticatedly.

Excuse me, I have to go try to write a science fiction novel.

Top Ten Topics that Will Make Me Read a Book

  1. Books. If your novel is about books? Or libraries? I WILL BUY IT.
  2. Postmodernism. I wrote about some problems with postmodernism in my review of The End of Mr. Y on Monday. I hold by those problems. I know it’s gimmicky, and pretty much imaginatively bankrupt by now. But I will still lap up anything that plays with textual form.
  3. Academia. OK, yes, I am still homesick for my university days, and I’m just drawn to the idea of living a life where all you have to do is read and write and think and theorise.
  4. Steampunk. This is a fairly new one – I’m on a bit of a steampunk kick at the moment, so anything that handles the aesthetic well works for me.
  5. Gothickry. I love big, sprawling, hypnotic novels full of melodrama; imperfect, raggedy around the edges, and all the more wonderful for that.
  6. Cats. I am moderately likely to read any book which prominently features cats. I live in rented accommodation; I have feline withdrawal.
  7. Faerieland/fairy tales. But, like, fairy tales with teeth. Fairy tales which aren’t just retold but reimagined; fairy tales which rage against the world that created them.
  8. Food. Especially chocolate. Or baking. Mmmmm.
  9. London. Or versions of London: New Crobuzon, Ankh-Morpork, Mandelion. Anything that features the city as a character, rambling and craggy and alive.
  10. Transient lifestyles. I’m fascinated by tales of people who live on spaceships (The Long Way to a Small Angry Planet); trains become homes (Railsea); long sea voyages. How do you adapt to the small space you have? What’s it like seeing a different place every time you wake up?

(The theme for this post was suggested by the Broke and the Bookish’s weekly meme Top Ten Tuesday.)

The English Student Cooks: Mushroom Triangles

I’m currently cooking my way through Mary Berry’s Complete Cook Book, which the Pragmatist gave/lent to me when I moved out for my first full-time job. I wanted to document the experience as a kind of cooking diary, and so “The English Student Cooks” was born. This will be an irregular feature, as I only cook when I’m home on my days off, which is Not That Often.

Mushroom Triangles

I actually cooked this on Sunday but was too lazy to write it up. So, serendipitous midweek post!

Method: Easy peasy: I made pancake batter (85g plain flour, 85ml milk, one egg, a bit of water, whisk it all up, then add 85ml water) and left it to stand for half an hour, during which time I diced six mushrooms very very tiny indeed and grated down 125g (or so) mature Cheddar cheese. I mixed the mushrooms up with the cheese, added some dried tarragon, and then made pancakes!

Next came the tricky part: I cut the pancakes into quarters, put some mushroom mixture on each quarter and tried to wrap them up so they looked vaguely like triangles. (Very vaguely.) Then I put the sort-of triangles back in the pan to cook.

Substitutions/alterations: Mary’s pancake recipe uses oil in the batter, but I did that once and they were far too greasy, so I just left it out. It seemed to work OK nonetheless. Also, I know there’s no hope of my using up leftover fresh herbs, so I used dried tarragon instead.

Verdict: Too fiddly to be worth it. The ones that worked were quite nice (I did like the hint of tarragon at the back of the mushroom mixture), but the sum total of the ones that worked was about three out of twelve, which is not a fantastic ratio. Even as a canapé I don’t think they’re terrific: I would have thought pancakes are a bit greasy to serve as finger food, besides which all the filling wanted to fall out anyway.

Also, Mary’s recipe makes a vast amount of cheese and mushroom mixture. As well as filling twelve pancake quarters I had enough to make a very cheesy omelette indeed this evening and I still have some left over (which I will probably use for some very odd cheese on toast).