2008/05/14

Fuchsia Dunlop: Shark's Fin and Sichuan Pepper

By JULIETTE ROSSANT

Shark's Fin and Sichuan Pepper Perhaps it is pure coincidence that Fuchsia Dunlop's Shark's Fin and Sichuan Pepper: A Sweet-Sour Memoir of Eating in China (Norton 2008) should arrive now, just as Sichuan is reeling from a devastating earthquake. How much of Chengdu has been destroyed? How many noodle shops, restaurants, and hole-in-the-walls are left in the old city? How many people have died? Time itself could have wiped away so many of the places Fuchsia so lovingly describes – but an earthquake kills many of the people who cooked and ate the food with her- thus her memoir is even more prescient.

As the book opens, Fuchsia finds herself studying in Chengdu, drawn there after a short visit to the city earlier when she is seduced by the fiery cuisine of Sichuan:
The cold chicken tossed in a piquant dressing of soy sauce, chilli oil, and Sichuan pepper; a whole carp braised in chilli-bean paste laced with ginger, garlic, and spring onions; pig's kidneys cut into frilly dainty morsels and stir-fired fast with celery and pickled chilies. And so-called "fish-fragrant" aubergines, one of the most scrumptious dishes I'd ever tasted: the golden, buttery fried aubergines cooked in a deep-red spicy sauce, with no actual fish but seductive hints of sweet and sour. This was Chinese food as I had never known it before. It was a revelation. (p/ 17)
The recipe for the aubergines luckily follows the chapter.

Fuchsia Dunlop It turns out that the spicy food is helpful in combating the constant damp climate, but chillis only arrived in the 16th century when Portuguese traders brought it to China (p. 25) where it was quickly taken up in Sichuan.

Fuchsia quickly gives up her regular university courses, hires a tutor and gets to work eating her way through the restaurants, cafes, and food stalls of Chengdu, and writing about every dish. Here is her description of Dan Dan Noodles:
They looked quite plain: a small bowlful of noodles topped with a spoonful of dark crisp minced beef. But as soon as you stirred them with your chopsticks, you awakened the flavours in the slick of spicy seasonings at the base of the bowl, and coated each strand of pasta in a mix of soy sauce, chilli oil, sesame paste, and Sichuan pepper. The effect was electrifying. Within seconds, your mouth was on fire, your lips quivering under the onslaught of the pepper, and your whole body radiant with heat. (p. 35)
Fuchsia's book is brimming with exuberance for life and food in China, just like her earlier book, Revolutionary Chinese Cookbook (See Super Chef review. Let us hope that none of this is permanently lost and that the citizen of Sichuan will soon be eating Dan Dan Noodles in the humid heat of the coming summer.


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