Friday, January 14, 2011

Shark Fins and Sichuan Peppercorns

I just finished Fuchsia Dunlop's Shark's Fin and Sichuan Pepper:  A Sweet-Sour Memoir of Eating in China.  Fascinating book, which doesn't really say much about it.  Let me try again.

Ms. Dunlop writes eloquently about her experiences taking in Chinese culture(s) as food.  It's a book both humorous and elegiac as she describes her experiences in the shifting landscape of Chinese culture in over the last fifteen or so years.  She arrives as a student who was determined to eat everything served to her.  She ends up making a career out of writing about Chinese food.  She begins with the thing that Westerners "know" about Chinese food -- namely that the Chinese will eat anything, much of it disgusting.  Dog, chicken feet, sea cucumber, bird's nests, shark fins, insects, and bear paws all show up in the typical Western list of the horrors of Chinese cuisine, and they all show up in the book.  Ms. Dunlop does, in fact, succeed in eating everything, and thinking critically about it.

She holds up these exempla of the cultural divide between East and West, and succeeds in explaining some of their cultural significance.  That was what I hoped for, and expected since my friend JVW had handed me the book.*  I did not expect that I would spend most of the book ravenously hungry.  Discussion of deep fried rabbit heads do not usually do this too me, but Ms. Dunlop's descriptions of her enjoyment and her growing understanding of a culture that sees them as a delicacy left me staring into my fridge in the middle of the night.  I settled for a quesadilla, but found it vaguely unsatisfying as a solution.

Owing to a soy allergy, Chinese food is largely a closed book for me, so the author's achievement was even more notable.  Food that would make me very sick if I were to eat it filled me with longing.  It was this glimpse of something so alien that gave Shark Fins and Sichuan Pepper its power over my imagination.  Something so alien made comprehensible.

*JVW's understanding of my taste in books is exemplary.

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